Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Quality assurance in Vietnam

3.1. Perceptions of quality in Vietnam’s higher education in its different phases of development
3.1.1. Prior to 1985: Quality = high selectivity
Vietnam’s Higher Education prior to 1985 was primarily an elite system, with merely 120,000 students in all Higher Education institutions of a country of over 70 million people. Quality was not an issue, as the key players in the educational scene – students themselves – were regarded as people of outstanding calibre, carefully chosen from the start with a very high level of selectivity. It can be said that for a long time in Vietnam’s Higher Education, quality management was thought to be synonymous to the control of student intake through highly competitive university entrance examinations.
During this time, the method used in quality management was ‘quality control’. The quality of input was controlled by applying stringent selection standards, and the quality of output was also controlled through examinations, as well as approval of graduation status, and certifications and credentialing. Besides, quality control also existed in the form of the inspectorate system which monitored the key operations in the educational process. However, this inspectorate system did not seem to work with high efficiency; nor did it have much impact on the system, as the focus was only on uncovering and punishing deviations from fixed norms and ready-made regulations, but not on total and continuous improvement to better meet the ever-changing demands of reality.
Such a closed and inwardly-looking system, even with outstanding students as input, could not have fully met all the demands of society. However, in the context of relative social and political stability due to Vietnam’s isolated position from the rest of the world at the time, the need for changing university governance was not urgently felt. It was only after the beginning of the ‘doi moi’ (renovation) policy in the mid 1980s when everything in Vietnam began to change quickly, including tertiary education.
3.1.2. From 1986-2003: Quality = Adequate resources
The year 1986 marked the beginning of the start of Vietnam’s Higher Education , with one important goals being to increase the ability for educational provision of Vietnam’s Higher Education institutions, thereby improving educational access for all students. To achieve this, the last two decades since the beginning of the renovation of Vietnam’s Higher Education have seen the implementation of various measures which resulted in the exponential growth of the numbers of students as well as Higher Education institutions in Vietnam. Those measures include (1) a sharp increase in government spending on education, (eg, from 10.8% of the national budget in 1996 to 17% in 2002); (2) the relaxation of rules restricting the role of the private sector in education and training, which led to birth of several people-founded (a euphemistic way to refer to ‘private’ which was then still seen as politically incorrect) higher education institutions, the first ever after 1975; and (3) the introduction of (limited) tuition fees in public institutions, also the first time in the history of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s education(4) The growth in both scope and scale of Vietnam’s Higher Education was considered successful planning , but this was without a thorough understanding about the potential problems this might cause. As Vietnam’s Higher Education grows, so does the demand for two foundational conditions: (1) the proportional increase in resources (in terms of personnel, infrastructures, and finance), and (2) a new governance mechanism equipped with appropriate leadership and management competencies for this new size and volume, just to maintain – not to mention the need to improve – the quality of Higher Education . However, in the past two decades of renovation, Vietnam’s Higher Education seems to focus solely on the provision of resources (through the two main sources: tuition fees from students and families, and state funding), and not much attention has been paid to the decisively important role of the governance mechanism as well as the competencies of the new system. This clearly reflects a new view of quality as adequate resources, which in turn reflects a lack of understanding of the country’s leaders and administrators of the importance of governance in successfully reforming the country’s higher education sector.
The view of quality as adequate resources revealed itself through the increase of funding for national universities and those universities selected to be in the “investment foci” list, even in the absence of a complete set of mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of resource exploitation and utilisation in those universities to achieve their goals. Because of this inadequate view, the result of the two decades of renovation in Vietnam’s Higher Education with steady increase in investment for education from state funding is NOT an improvement(5) but, on the contrary, there seems to be a serious deterioration of Higher Education quality, as is constantly mentioned in the heated debate concerning the status of Vietnam’s higher education at present. This situation shows that a new method of governance is urgently needed in this new phase of development to assure and improve the quality of Vietnam’s Higher Education.
3.1.3. From 2004 till present: Quality = Meeting standards
If a milestone is needed to mark the turning point in the development of quality management in Vietnam, then it is the year 2004. In this year, a series of important government’s documents at the national level were issued, clearly stating the plan to introduce accreditation as a new mechanism in the management of Higher Education. Accreditation is a way to manage quality of Higher Education which originated in the United States but its use has been spread all over the world since the 1990s:
Resolution 37-2004/QH11 of the National Assembly Session XI approved on December 3, 2004 pointed out that "quality management should be the focus; accreditation activities are to be conducted yearly”.
On August 2, 2004, the Minister of Education and Training issued Directive 25/2004/CT-BGD&ĐT outlining the tasks for the whole education system in the academic year 2004-2005, demanding the administration at all levels (to “urgently establish and perfect the structure and mechanism of the testing and accreditation system, and start putting this system to work”.

On December 2, 2004, the Minister of Education and Training signed Decision 38/2004/QĐ-BGD&ĐT to issue the Provisional Regulation for Accreditation of Universities’ Quality.
(Training Document for Conducting Self-Assessment for Accreditation, MOET 2006)
The provisional regulation for university accreditation was promulgated by MOET after 2 years of drafting and revisions based on input provided by universities and experts, both local and international. The process by which MOET received input from institutions, as always, an administrative one in which the heads of institutions were sent the draft regulation and requested to give comments in a given period of time, after which some changes might be made in the regulations before it was signed by MOET leaders. It was not clear, however, whether all comments sent were taken into consideration or not, and if not, then how they were selected. The same process applies to comments made by local and international experts, the only difference is that experts were selected by invitation, even though the criteria for their selection were not known either.
Notwithstanding the inadequacy of the process by which input from institutions and experts was obtained to improve the regulation, with the promulgation of this provisional regulation, for the first time in Vietnam’s education history, a transparent and coherent set of quality standards for universities came into existence. Being part of the provisional regulation, the 2004 set of standards was not considered a perfect final product; the adequacy and appropriateness of the standards and criteria remained a debate. However, on the whole this first set of quality standards was able to define the main requirements in terms of mission, goals, structure, conditions and resources, and most of the activities carried out in a Vietnamese Higher Education institutions.
Following the appearance of the regulation, in almost 3 years after that – from 2005 to mid 2007 – 20 universities in Vietnam, 18 of which public and 2 private, all of which represented the best of its kind in a particular geographical location of the country, were chosen for the first (pilot) round of accreditation. After be trialed out with 20 Higher Education institutions, the set of standards was corrected, adjusted and supplemented, the result of which was the live regulation issued by MOET in November, 2007.
According to the 2007 regulation, the quality standards for Vietnamese Higher Education institutions comprise the following 10 aspects:
1. Mission and Goals (Standard 1)
2. Organization and Governance (Standard 2)
3. Curriculum (Standard 3)
4. Educational Processes (Standard 4)
5. Managerial, Teaching, and Support Staff (Standard 5)
6. Students (Standard 6)
7. Research and Development, Innovation, and Technology Transfer (Standard 7)
8. International Relations (Standard 8)
9. Library, Learning Equipment, and Other Facilities (Standard 9)
10. Finance and Financial Management (Standard 10)
Each standard is further broken down into what is called ‘criteria’. The 10 standards altogether comprise 53 criteria which clearly state the conditions required for a university to be assessed as ‘meeting standards’. A quick look at the criteria will show that they just follow international norms and conventions, but for Vietnam they are seen as really revolutionary because they refer to a reality that is radically different from that of Vietnamese higher education. For example, Criterion 1 of Standard 1 (mission and goals) requires universities to have clearly stated mission statements which are widely publicized to all stakeholders – a requirement that had been unheard-of and unthinkable before the Accreditation Standards came into existence. Also, Criterion 2 of Standard 4 requires all universities to organize their curriculum and instructional activities around a credit-based system, another improbability for most of Vietnam’s higher education institutions whose leaders were educated in the former Soviet bloc where a very different system was in operation. A rough translation of the 53 criterion of the Accreditation Standards is included in the Appendix.
It can be said that the above-mentioned 10 standards with the 53 accompanying criteria have covered almost all aspects relating to the governance and operations of a modern university, with not too much difference from regional or international standards. The existence of a transparent set of standards to manage the quality of a university can be celebrated as a breakthrough in the educational administration mentality of the country’s leaders, showing a strong determination for global integration by the Higher Education sector, and promising to bring about positive changes in terms of quality improvement in the time to come.

3. 2. Quality assurance system and mechanism in Vietnam at present
3.2.1. Quality assurance (QA) system: Internal QA and external QA
The promulgation of the quality standards for Higher Education in Vietnam, together with the plan for accreditation base on these standards, inevitably requires an accompanying organizational structure and governance mechanism in order to put these standards into life. During the past few years, a complete national QA system has been emerging in Vietnam. At the top of this system is the General Department for Educational Testing and Accreditation (GDETA) of MOET, whose role is to act as a national governmental agent to oversee all QA activities for the whole education system, while at the institutional level QA cells are being established within stronger and more long-standing Higher Education institutions. Unlike the American system of accreditation which Vietnam is trying to learn from, this national agent does not involve representative from universities, but is very similar to other functional departments MOET whose main function is to provide national QA goals, approve QA implementation plans, and monitor QA activities of individual universities under its supervision.
In spite of the lack of direct involvement and participation from universities, the establishment of the national agent for quality assurance can be said to be a revolutionary change in the organizational and governance structure of Vietnam’s education system. The establishment of this agent resulted from a gradual separation of the administration of assessment function from that of the training function. First, an accreditation unit was established inside the Department for Undergraduate Education (now the Department for Higher Education) of MOET in January 2002. After that, in July 2003, this unit was separated from the Department of Undergraduate Education to become the GDETA directly under the supervision of MOET according to Decree 85/2003/NĐ-CP. GDETA is granted governmental administration function to oversee all QA activities in the whole education system (GDETA, Training Materials 2006). Presently, GDETA is the highest advisory body which can participate in the decision-making process at policy level such as establishing quality standards and regulate the operational mechanism for QA processes of the national education system.
At institutional level, the two national universities (one in Ha Noi and one in Ho Chi Minh City) with a higher degree of autonomy are the two first institutions which pioneered in establishing their own QA centers in the late 1990s. These centers play double roles in carrying out QA activities within their own institutions: on one hand, they perform internal quality assurance function by assisting the member universities in carrying self-assessment activities, and on the other, they act as external agents to conduct site visits and evaluation of the member universities. However, before the establishment of GDETA, without a national regulatory framework for QA activities, the efforts made by the two national universities were seen as only experimental in nature, to test whether a QA mechanism could really work in Vietnam or not. Other universities, mainly regional universities whose organizational structures are similar to national universities (with two levels of administration, the macro level responsible for policy making, monitoring and evaluation, and the implementation level responsible for carrying out all operational and support activities for education and research), using loan money from the World Bank, have also established their own QA units in the early 2000’s. However, not counting the two QA centers under the two national universities which are staffed by people with professional training in QA and have been in operation since their establishment, the other QA units only started to actually operate in the beginning of 2005, at the same time with the start of the first accreditation round for 20 universities in Vietnam.
It is important to note that presently the existence of a QA unit in the organizational structure of a university has become a compulsory requirement written down in the new University Quality Standards promulgated by MOET in late 2007 (the first University Quality Standards did not have this requirement). With this requirement, the QA system in Vietnam can be seen as rather complete (at least in principle if not in reality), with internal QA units within all Higher Education institutions, and the national external QA agent being GDETA which operates directly under MOET. This is also the model that has been in use by the two national universities.
3.2.2. Quality assurance mechanism: the relationship between the QA system and other governmental bodies
Speaking of QA mechanism, one of the most important factor to consider is the relationship between IQA (the responsibility taken by Higher Education institutions themselves), EQA (the task taken by an agent outside Higher Education institutions), and other governmental bodies which oversee the activities of educational institutions. Depending on the specific circumstances and purposes, different countries will select different QA mechanisms for their education system. Ideally, the two components of the QA system should be independent from each other, and as a whole they should also be independent from any governmental body (in this case, MOET), in order to separate the three different stages in the accreditation process: self-assessment, peer evaluation (also known as external evaluation), and recognition of the evaluation result. However, in the majority of cases in developing countries, the governmental body in charge of education administration is also the one which administer external evaluation, a practice which is not to be encouraged because the lack of independence may be the source of bias in evaluation results. Unfortunately, this practice is currently in operation in Vietnam and in the not too far future there seems to be no solution for this situation. In her paper written for the World Bank in 2004, Lenn has pointed out the four distinguishing factors in the QA mechanisms of different countries, namely: (1) the founding and governance of national QA agents (governmental or non-governmental); (2) mode or type of EQA activities (accreditation, audit, or assessment); (3) funding (government or Higher Education institutions), and (4) the presence or absence of international participation.
Table 2 (6) gives a summary of the characteristics of Vietnam’s QA system in comparison with those of other countries in Asia Pacific region, based on Lenn’s four distinguishing factors.
It can be seen from the summary that Vietnam’s Higher Education QA system as it is now is still lacking in diversity and independence from the government, in particular MOET: the national QA agent was founded and governed by MOET, with no independent status from MOET because it is under MOET’s direct supervision, its funding comes from the state through MOET, and there is no international participation in both critical stages in the accreditation process, namely the conduct of external evaluation and the final result of the accreditation itself (*). This lack of diversity and independence shows that Vietnam’s QA system still leaves a lot to be perfected, so that positive impacts can be brought which will change the face of Vietnam’s Higher Education, as outlined in the Higher Education reform plan by the country’s education leaders.
3.3. QA activities in Vietnam’s higher education: achievements, issues and future directions
3.3.1. Achievements so far
Looking back at the QA activities that have been conducted in the past years, one can say that the still very young QA system of Vietnam’s education has made a number of significant achievements. Indeed, at the start of the new millennium, the whole of Vietnam’s education system was completely unfamiliar with terms like quality, standards, fitness for purpose, self-assessment, external review, audit, accreditation, or recognition. However, only a few years after that, compulsory accreditation of all Higher Education institutions in Vietnam has become institutionalised, and the implementation of QA activities is carried out with great rigour. Some of the achievements made in the field of QA in Vietnam’s Higher Education during the past years include:

Tab. 2: Lenn’s four distinguishing factors in the QA mechanisms

Source: Lenn (2004), page 17 (4)

1. Establishment of the national QA agent (GDETA);
2. Development of regulations concerning accreditation activities for Vietnam’s Higher Education institutions;
3. Initiation and perfection of the horizontal structure of the QA system in Vietnam’s Higher Education (GDETA, the QA centers of the national and regional universities, and QA units within all Higher Education institutions);
4. Development and implementation of the National Accreditation Plan for Vietnam’s Higher Education to the 2010;
5. Capacity development for QA specialists and key personnels, including administrative staff working in the field of QA for the whole country;
6. Participation in regional and international QA networks (e.g., AUN, APQN, and INQAAHE)at national and institutional levels (mainly the two national universities)
3.3.2. Issues and future direction for Vietnam’s higher education QA movement
In spite of the above-mentioned achievements, it would be mistaken to think that Vietnam currently has a sufficiently strong QA system and a proper mechanism to act as an important catalyst in bringing about important changes in the assurance and enhancement of the quality of the country’s Higher Education. This is the view shared by QA experts both within and from outside of the country, which has been voiced several times in Quality Conferences which abounded in Vietnam during the years 2005-2007. Drawing from the various discussions nationwide, the authors of this article believe that that the progress of Vietnam’s Higher Education QA movement could be halted if the following issues remain unresolved:
1. The national QA system is far from being perfect; the national QA agent is still under MOET’s direct supervision and governance; the (independent) National Council for Accreditation has not been established;
2. The implementation of IQA within Higher Education institutions has resulted from the need to meet the requirement by GDETA and MOET, not from an inner drive for quality, nor a need for continuous improvement to stay competitive;
3. The current QA mechanism has not allowed the separation and independence of the three stages in the accreditation process: self-assessment (conducted by Higher Education institutions themselves), external review (conducted by a professional QA body), and recognition of accreditation results (conducted by a governmental body or a non-governmental association of Higher Education institutions);
4. The use of only one set quality standards promulgated by MOET has not allowed for the stratification and diversification very much needed for the development of Vietnam’s Higher Education in its present stage;
5. There remains a serious lack of human resources working in the field of QA in Higher Education, in both quantitative and qualitative terms (ADB2008: 50)
6. The use of an effective management information system for efficient and useful assessment of Higher Education inbstritutions performance is still largely unheard of in the whole system; and there is very low transparency of management information in Higher Education institutions.
In order for the QA movement in Higher Education in Vietnam to further develop, based on the experience gained from the work carried out at VNU-HCM and learning from international QA models, the authors of this article propose that the following recommendations to be immediately acted upon:
1. Develop and adjust policies at the macro level in such a way that the implementation of QA activities should come from Higher Education institutions themselves for their own benefits;
2. Establish a QA agent independent from MOET to conduct external review for accreditation, which is responsible for setting up quality standards, conducting quality reviews, selecting and training of external reviewers, and issuing accreditation certificates;
3. Establish the National Council for Accreditation outside of and independent from MOET to provide professional recognition of accreditation results and the legal status of these QA agents referred to in 2 above;
4. Increase the number and develop the competence of people working in the national QA system, focusing on internal quality assurance and enhancement;
5. Develop and put into use an effective management information system for Higher Education, construct key quality indicators for Higher Education, and put forward regulations concerning the administration and use of management information aiming at universal access and transparency;
6. Introduce programmatic accreditation together with the current institutional accreditation in order to encourage cooperation as well as competition between different Higher Education institutions for the purpose of quality enhancement.

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