Vietnam’s German university struggles to loosen government grip

Battle over who should have final say over professorship appointments demonstrates difficulty in reconciling starkly different academic cultures

July 26, 2023
Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu, tug of war game to illustrate Vietnam frustrating German transplant
Source: Getty Images

Not many academics will have heard of Vietnam’s German university, but the growing pains of the 15-year-old institution demonstrate the difficulty of reconciling starkly different academic cultures.

Set up with support from the German state of Hesse and Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training, the Vietnamese-German University (VGU) near Ho Chi Minh City is modelled on German institutions and offers bachelor’s and master’s for local students.

VGU’s Teutonic influences include its appointment process for professors, which draws on a faculty search and nominations from student and industry representatives. After trial lectures, a committee puts candidates forward for approval by the faculty council and senate, but in Vietnam it is a national professorship committee that awards the title.

VGU president Tomas Benz told Times Higher Education that German representatives – the institution is also backed by the federal government – “always bring this up” at meetings of the university’s oversight council, but their Vietnamese counterparts remain reluctant to delegate the right.

Professor Benz said he hoped that the right to name professors would come in the next few years, but noted that the political climate in Vietnam seemed to have shifted since the university was founded in 2008.

Growing concerns about dependence on China have led more foreign companies to invest in backup manufacturing in Vietnam. That had increased outside influences through business practices, which had in turn been met with concern by the country’s party-state, he said.

“You always have the party structure that is in parallel and tries to control and influence everything on all levels,” he added, referring to VGU. “This manifests in regular party cell meetings of the university where the different leaders or deputies have to report what they are doing in their daily work and have to defend themselves.

“We have a significant change in the political behaviour of the government. I am not sure if the Vietnamese government is following the Chinese government with a time gap of five to eight years, so I’m not sure if they still want such a project in the long term,” he said, referring to its backing for the university.

While there are rival foreign-backed universities in Vietnam – the French-backed University of Science and Technology of Hanoi and the Vietnam Japan University, part of Vietnam National University – VGU is the only one tasked with implementing a foreign governance model.

The different reception of VGU graduates at foreign-run versus local companies illustrates some of the difficulties bridging the cultural gap. “We teach them critical thinking and how to defend their opinion, and they are highly esteemed in the international companies in Vietnam, but in the local companies they leave the company after one year in most cases,” admitted Professor Benz.

Cultural differences ran through the staff at VGU and up to the Education Ministry, he said. “In Vietnam, you don’t have a planned schedule; everything is quite spontaneous. It’s very difficult to get reliable schedules for longer than a week.”

Among those trying to bridge the gap is the World Bank, which contributed $165 million (£127 million) to build VGU’s new campus, which opened in November 2022, in return for a stronger governance system, including an academic senate. Professor Benz said the 10-member body had sped up decision-making.

“People do not yet have the culture of talking just to give their opinion. They only talk if they really have some concerns, if they have a strong opinion to support something or to be against something, so the meetings are quite efficient,” he said, contrasting it with the presidential board.

All VGU’s lecturers have a PhD from outside Vietnam. Professor Benz said the larger campus closer to the city centre had helped recruitment, with the number of full-time teaching staff rising to 38 this year, a 30 per cent increase.

But he said there were noticeable differences between the Western- and Asian-educated staff. “Those who did their PhDs in Europe are much more able to make their own decisions, to plan and work on their own when it comes to their academic work,” he said.

“What we need at research-oriented universities are people who are able to plan and run their research projects totally independently.”

VGU has financial and political backing from its supporting governments for the next three years at least. As it waits for officials and politicians to clear the impasse over professorships, the university will focus on developing its study programmes, research and internationalisation.

Its European curricula and recognised course credits make it an easy entry point for Vietnamese students wanting to study there. After July, Professor Benz will end his 13 years at VGU and return to Heilbronn University of Applied Sciences, where he will work on internationalisation.

Many German universities are seeking foreign partners as demographic pressures shrink their pool of domestic students, an issue that “can only be solved” by attracting more from abroad, he said.


Print headline: Vietnam frustrating German transplant

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