Surviving the free market

June 11, 1999

Vietnam's universities are seizing the opportunities autonomy is giving them. Do Thui Thinh and John Morgan report on a recent workshop

Higher education reform is crucial to the economic and social development of Vietnam, as a recent World Bank loan of $80 million to the Vietnamese government for this purpose underlines.

Since Vietnam introduced doi moi - its version of perestroika - more than ten years ago, it has begun transforming from a centrally planned economy to a market economy. This has resulted in important changes to its internal structures and to its external relations, in the midst of which, the educational system - especially higher education - has found itself at a crossroads. The prevailing Soviet educational model is inappropriate for a market economy, and to the democratisation of society. The question is: how can the educational system adjust from a subsidised system to a market economy, with its social and labour force consequences?

This was the question posed at a national workshop on university autonomy and accountability held in Hanoi, and organised by the ministry of education and training, in co-operation with the Unesco principal regional office for Asia and the Pacific (PROAP). Educators and administrators from universities and research institutes attended, to prepare for this month's implementation of the law on education. The law refers to autonomy and accountability in academic, administrative and financial areas, co-ordination among institutions and their links with external bodies.

In the past, the ministry was the highest authority in setting the quotas for all university activities. Since Vietnam adopted the reform policy in 1987, some power has been devolved to universities. However, there is no clear distinction between their responsibilities and those of the ministry. The most serious hindrances are, first, that the majority of staff in higher education does not understand the concepts, and thus implementation; second, that the managerial competence at all levels of administration is weak; and third, that, instead of focusing on strategic policy, the ministry interferes directly in university activities. It is, therefore, important to distinguish their respective areas of responsibility.

There was a consensus at the workshop that universities should be autonomous in selection and job assignment. Decisions on other areas, such as training and retraining, transfer between institutions and establishing an incentive and reward system, should be a joint responsibility. Solutions for staff improvement include open announcement of institutional regulations; upgrading of managerial competence; strengthening of ministry monitoring of institutional activities, though not direct control; the establishment of quality assurance committees, and a reduction in non-teaching staff (in many institutions, the ratio of teaching to non-teaching staff is as high as 4:6).

It was argued that the universities should determine the modes, forms and fields of the curriculum. The ministry should set up the framework for the curriculum, while the university should decide its content. Universities should also have autonomy in awarding academic qualifications at all educational levels, and be free to set up a system of quality self-evaluation. Through international co-operation, the ministry should learn, from different models, how to develop an accreditation system.

Autonomy in finance is especially important. Most of Vietnam's higher education institutions are state-funded, and it was suggested that allocation and control of institutional expenditures be put in universities' hands. Financial diversification also becomes an urgent task, in order to expand university development. Suggestions were made on how to upgrade financial autonomy and accountability: the adoption of package, not item-by-item, funding, and the establishment of a council, to fund each university directly and provide finance each fiscal year, based on the results of the previous year's audit.

Finally, the workshop recommended autonomy over co-operation among different units in the same institution, and between different universities in and outside Vietnam. In co-operative ventures, determining the responsibilities of each party was considered fundamentally important. Links between the university and business and industry, as well as between local, regional and international academic institutions, not only develops various sources of development finance, but also keeps a balance in co-operation. It was stressed that universities should not become too dependent upon a specific source and thus lose autonomy. Co-operation among different disciplines and institutions nationally and internationally is vital, as a result of scientific and technological development in a fast-changing world.

However, many other issues were not addressed in detail. How the national and regional universities should devolve power to member universities remains in question. The role of private universities also needs to be explored further: their autonomy should be encouraged, especially in finance. It is also necessary to know more about entrepreneurship and its implications for university development, especially for the understanding of the university as a non-profit institution. Finally, the development of postgraduate education needs to be considered seriously - something senior government policy-makers have stressed in recent interviews. The Unesco-PROAP intends to fund another workshop next year.

Do Thui Thinh is director of the centre for foreign studies at the National University of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, and John Morgan is director of the centre for comparative educational policy at the University of Nottingham.

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