Feb 25, 2013

Vietnam - Lack of funds undercuts university quality

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VietNamNet Bridge – Viet Nam has set a goal to have one Vietnamese university in the world top 200 by 2020.

Vietnamese universities are under pressure to change, especially in terms of raising the quality of scientific research as an important part in reforming higher education. This task is also critical to the country's transition into an efficiency driven industrialised economy by 2020. Viet Nam's total research output is still smaller than that of a single university in Thailand, such as Chulalongkorn or Mahidol University.

Viet Nam News reporters Thu Trang and Thu Huong spoke to experts on the issue.

How important is scientific research to the quality and ranking of our universities and to the country's development as a whole?

* Ta Duc Thinh, director of the Ministry of Education and Training's Department of Science, Technology and Environment:

Viet Nam targets becoming an industrial nation by 2020, so obviously improving the quality of our human resources is critical. The training quality of a university depends a lot on its level of scientific and technology research.

If we cannot improve the quality of our university research, obviously that means a lack of skilled human resources would not be available to propel us to reach the goal by 2020.

* Professor Philip Hallinger, Hong Kong Institute of Education, consultant to various universities in Asia:

World university rankings are creating pressure for change in higher education throughout the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in East Asia.

All of the region's universities must respond to the world university rankings since they are taken as a ‘matter of face' by East Asia's government leaders. As ASEAN continues the process of economic integration, social integration will follow naturally.

Among the most important factors in world university ranking is research publication in international journals.

Recently, in Viet Nam, the Ministry of Education and Training set a goal to have one university in the top 200 by 2020. However, currently none of the nation's universities are ranked in the top 2,000. Achieving this ambitious goal will require a clear strategy and persistent effort at all levels of the country's higher education system.

It is inevitable that regional and global standards will gradually replace Viet Nam's traditional standards for assessing quality in higher education.

What do you think are the major obstacles to raising the quality of research in Vietnamese universities?

Thinh: The biggest obstacle is our financial mechanism. The legal documents and regulations with regards to financing scientific research are out of date. The financial resources in this area are not distributed properly and there's also the burdensome paperwork involved. This does not motivate scientists to do research.

The Party and the Government fully understand the importance of scientific and technological research, considering that 2 per cent of the annual State budget is spent on this area. However, while the financial resources are limited, there are problems in funding allocation.

Universities are where knowledge and new technology can be created and where most scientists concentrate. However, they do not receive enough funding. Annual funding for a university lecturer to conduct his/her scientific research is only about VND10 million (US$470).

With such a low investment, we cannot expect great contributions in scientific research.

* Professor Nguyen Van Tuan, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, University of New South Wales:

It is now clear that scientific research in Viet Nam needs major reform. At present, we have many institutes and research groups scattered around the country, and their scientific productivity is generally low; there is little collaboration among them.

From my perspective, reorganisation of research units is the most important priority for Viet Nam. Modern research is a collaborative effort which requires specialists from various disciplines to work on a specific problem. This is true because scientists from different disciplines work best when they interact in a good environment. Therefore, we need few world-class multidisciplinary institutes, and a number of specialised key laboratories. These institutes and laboratories should be granted academic autonomy to pursue research areas deemed to have the greatest relevance to society.

I think it is fair to say that policymakers in Viet Nam have been busy in the building of infrastructure for research and, as a result, they have paid little attention to scientific output and research quality.
For a long time, scientists and professors in Viet Nam have been neither under pressure nor encouraged to publish their research in international peer-reviewed journals. That partly explains why the Vietnamese presence in the international scientific arena is very modest.

Hallinger: In regional countries, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, a standard requirement is emerging in which each university faculty member is expected to publish at least one paper in an international journal per year.

Vietnamese universities are lagging behind other regional countries in research productivity to an extent that this standard could not be applied here. This is a major problem in the natural sciences where international publications from Viet Nam are infrequent and an even bigger problem in the social sciences where international publications from Viet Nam are "rare events".

Clearly, unless that changes dramatically, the national goal to have one university in the top 200 in the world university ranking will not be achieved.

Some of the obstacles that other regional higher education systems have had to overcome, and which seem relevant in Viet Nam, include: low salaries, heavy teaching load, lack of funding structures to support research, lack of transparency in reward and promotion with respect to research output.

* Associate professor Pham Dinh Nghiem, former head of the scientific projects management department at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities-HCM City:

Limited financial resources and low salaries are the biggest obstacles to improving the quality of scientific research. Many research projects at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities have been rejected because of limited funding. Some people could say that faculty members could still write papers to get published in international journals. However, these papers cannot appear out of nowhere, only after a long and rigorous process of research and analysis.

Without enough salary and funding, university researchers can't even live. We're obviously falling behind other universities in the region, evident by the number of articles published in international journals in recent years.

What kind of specific policies are needed to boost scientific research at universities?

Thinh: We need to set up policies to encourage lecturers to do research.

These policies include renewing the financial mechanism, which means having clear priorities on funding distribution and simplifying administrative procedures. Other tasks include creating good environments and working conditions for lecturers and providing them with opportunities to attend international conferences.

We need to set up proper salary and allowance policies for outstanding scientists in their disciplines and potential young scientists, and better award policies for good scientific research and research being announced in international prestigious magazines.

It is expected that the ministry will soon put out a new circular on managing international bilateral co-operation in universities and colleges nationwide. This is also an important change in how the ministry manages bilateral co-operation in scientific and technological research.

Universities will be more active and can exploit their international partners' potential and strong points, closely link research with training programmes for masters and doctors, increase the number of articles in international journals, thus improving universities' potential in scientific research.

Hallinger: There must be a clear funding structure to support research across all basic and applied disciplines in Vietnamese universities. Viet Nam's universities have Memoranda of Understanding with many international universities but what is the result? How many of these have resulted in collaborative research? These should be built around key research projects that enable local faculties to gain experience and develop their capacities to conduct research capable of international publication through collaboration.

There's also the need to change the incentive structure in Vietnamese universities. This may mean reducing the teaching load in faculties, paying for research output, making research output an important factor in promotion, and making the standards very clear. In most universities internationally, where faculties have an expectation for conducting research, the typical teaching load does not exceed three courses per semester.

Tuan: Viet Nam now has about 9,500 professors and more than 25,000 PhDs. However, the number of international peer-reviewed publications is only around 1,300, suggesting a very low productivity.
During the past five years, the State budget for scientific research has continuously increased but the scientific productivity has not changed. Therefore, spending more money on science has not necessarily translated into improved scientific output.

Indeed, while money is critically important, people are even more important in scientific research. We can pour a lot of money into research but if we don't have high quality researchers, the money could potentially be misspent and there would be no improvement.  

I strongly believe that at present (and in the near future) we need to build a critical mass of high quality scientists to ensure successful investment in science and technology.

Nghiem: Reducing the teaching load for faculty members would allow them to have more time for research. Currently, our faculty members are teaching too many hours. We need to understand that most of them have to teach many hours because of salaries.

Steps must also be taken to find output markets for results of scientific research. That means providing opportunities for successful scientific research to be applied. The scientist cannot make this happen by himself. The relevant agencies, foremost the Ministry of Science and Technology, need to get involved.

We need to implement strictly the law on intellectual property rights because only that way will new innovations be protected and the works of scientists be paid for accordingly.

Source: VNS

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