Education reform requires bold insight

Inner Sanctum: Could you share a bit about the establishment and goals of the Education Dialogue Group?

Viet Nam Education Dialogue (VED) aims to offer original insights on how to reform higher education in Viet Nam.

We think that such insights have to be built on experiences with both Vietnamese and western universities. Our group gathers people who grew up in Viet Nam and still maintain strong ties with Vietnamese institutions of higher learning but also have first-hand knowledge of the best universities in the West.

At first, we were more focused on the K-to-9 schooling system, but gradually, we realised that the more urgent problem was in higher education. We asked ourselves what the reality was in Vietnamese universities and what can be reformed.

We run a bi-weekly seminar in our group where we have tried to address each of the specific questions, including those on faculty staffing, governance, autonomy and academic freedom. Two weeks ago, we held a conference with other people who have experience in higher education governance. We are now working on editing a document containing an analysis of Viet Nam's higher education system, as well as a list of recommendations.

Inner Sanctum: Can you briefly tell our readers about the main proposals that you and your associates made in the recent conference in Ha Noi on higher education reform?

There have been proposals about many aspects of university reform, including governance, autonomy, finance and democratic institutions, as well as faculty staffing, research and development. There will not be enough room to discuss all of these in this interview, but let me just mention some examples. The current hiring process in Vietnamese universities, for instance, does not follow international standards and, in particular, encourages local hiring and promotion. We also think it will be useful to have an index measuring how happy employers are about students who have graduated from certain universities. There will be other suggestions.

Inner Sanctum: Are you pleased with the outcomes of the seminar?

The seminar attracted the participation not only of leaders of the education sector and mass media but also of policy makers. It has been quite successful in raising public awareness, although we have yet to know its impact on policy makers.

Our goal is simply to discuss the reality of universities in Viet Nam in an attempt to find solutions for current shortcomings. However, the experience is quite new, so some journals described the conference as a confrontation where weaknesses of the Vietnamese higher education system were criticised. That's not the intended spirit of the seminar.

Inner Sanctum: The country's leaders, as well as the leaders of the education sector, might know what we should do to reform our higher education. However, it might be difficult to actually realise some of the proposals you've made because of certain hindrances in our society or the mindset of leaders themselves. What is your opinion?

Everybody agrees that reforms are necessary. It is less clear what we should do first. The "what" question remains unanswered, or rather, there are various answers but no consensus. The "how" question seems easier to answer even if it might be harder to implement. Policy makers should prioritise higher education reforms and create incentives for universities to reform themselves.

We don't hope to find the answers to all the pending questions. I don't believe all the shortcomings lie within the policy making process. We really need comprehensive efforts. It is true that we want more open policies, but we also want to awaken educators and leaders of universities themselves to the need for change. They are the ones who hold in their hands the life and future of their own universities.

Inner Sanctum: You've often mentioned the public's apparent lack of trust in Viet Nam's education sector. Can you elaborate on this viewpoint?

In a society where people lack trust for one another, the transaction cost is usually unforgiving and is not seen only in education reform. For instance, during the conference session on research and development (R&D), the panelists pointed out the lack of trust between corporations and research institutions as one of the main obstacles to any R&D projects.

Inner Sanctum: Recently, people have been talking a lot about non-profit universities. But it seems as if that model might not come to Viet Nam in the near future. What do you think?

Non-profit education is not a new notion in Viet Nam. "Nghia thuc" or not-for-profit schools, have been existing alongside "tu thuc" or private schools.

People don't seem to believe that individuals will ever invest their money in education without caring about profits. There may be such Samaritans but probably not that many.

What we know for sure is that most of the prestigious universities around the world are non-profit institutions.

There are also good for-profit education entities, a good many of them focused on narrow professional training which, by nature, is opposed to what a university is. Many of the general purpose for-profit universities are not great. Some of them are essentially diploma mills.

For-profit education organisations with emphasis on professional skills such as software, web design and tourist services obviously need to be encouraged.

Non-profit general purpose universities need even more encouragement and, in particular, should be given a comprehensive and applicable legal framework.

Inner Sanctum: You once said that most countries are not satisfied with certain things regarding their respective educational systems, yet most of them also have their own strengths. What, in your opinion, are the strengths of our country's education sector?

Viet Nam's primary and secondary education sectors actually are not as terrible as some people think. The quality of training in basic skills such as reading, writing and using a computer is satisfying. I think that Viet Nam's good PISA score is meaningful, since the PISA test is accurately measuring these skills. In contrast, Vietnamese students are not as well-equipped in complex skills such as critical thinking, analysis and synthesis. — VNS


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