Vietnam’s myth of school autonomy

Markets – yes. Freedom – no.

Minh Vo

Economics and finance, Government and governance, Education | Asia, Southeast Asia

4 May 2018

How should we understand the apparently growing autonomy of tertiary education institutions in Vietnam, asks Minh Thi Hai Vo.

The Vietnamese Communist Party no doubt regards New Zealand as a capitalist country. But when it comes to the public provision of tertiary education, even capitalist New Zealand is putting Vietnam’s socialist principles to shame.

New Zealand’s Labour Government recently announced all domestic students can qualify for a year of free provider-based tertiary education or industry training from 1 January 2018.

As an international student studying in New Zealand, this is a far cry from the Vietnamese situation, where students are suffering from increasingly high tuition fees to access the country’s public tertiary education system.

Despite continuing to label itself a socialist state, the Government of Vietnam is going against its core principles by shifting the cost burden of public services from the state to society. Since it issued Decree 10 in 2002, it has been expanding the autonomy of public service providers, primarily by providing these organisations with various incentives to generate alternative revenue to supplement official salaries and to recover costs in the face of diminishing state subsidies.

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The two most recent government decisions regarding the autonomy of public tertiary education institutions, Government Resolution 77 (2014) and Government Decree 86 (2015), clearly represent this broader policy approach.

Resolution 77 launched a pilot policy that relaxes the stringent caps on tuition fees for some universities; so far, 14 institutions have been involved in this pilot. Moreover, Decree 86 provides a new tuition fees scheme through which universities can progressively determine their own fees based on economic and technical standards.

As intended, this policy gives tertiary education institutions both the opportunity and the incentive to commercialise their services on a market basis. The autonomy policy explicitly states that public service providers are allowed to retain net revenues: 25 per cent is to be used for capital expenditure and the rest can be used for staff bonuses.

In the course of my research with Vietnamese university staff, I discovered that this policy has resulted in crowded public university classrooms and various revenue-generating, part-time training programs in a number of institutions. Also, there has been an expansion of student enrolment in employer-based and on-site training, as well as in high-demand fields of study.

By commercialising and monetising public services, Vietnam’s socialist state has signalled its withdrawal from the principle of guaranteeing universal access to public services.

Ironically, while stepping onto the path of commercialisation by providing greater market autonomy to public tertiary education institutions, the Government of Vietnam still upholds its socialist philosophy in governing and controlling those institutions.

As a consequence, political intervention in tertiary education institutions is pervasive. Each institution has its own party committee which can impose control on matters likely to affect the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) power and legitimacy.

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For instance, the party can exercise control through personnel management, as it has the ultimate say over the appointment, dismissal and performance appraisal of the dean of a university. When it comes to internal resource allocation, the socialist principle of democratic centralism diminishes the power of the dean.

In academic curricula, compulsory courses on ideology and political thought are imposed on staff and students alike. And in research, topics of inquiry are controlled to limit challenges to political authority.

In this light, the establishment of a governing council within each tertiary education institution, which has recently been encouraged by the government to increase their autonomy and accountability, is no more than window dressing.

Ultimately, the growing autonomy of public institutions does not, by any means, reflect a true transfer of political power from the party to the state and then onto public service delivery organisations.

Instead, it presents a new form of interventionism that allows the dual party-state structure to harness resources to shore up its overburdened and corrupt system. The aim is to form an unofficial patronage network in which the CPV can exist and thrive.

The new autonomy of Vietnam’s public service organisations, including tertiary education services, is a myth. It is a reform adopted superficially by the communists, but in practice, it is tailored to their own preferences – preferences that are highly self-interested and anti-reformist.

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