Private universities seek better treatment

VietNamNet Bridge – The private sector, tertiary education system is under threat. There are currently 83 private colleges and universities in Viet Nam, at which 17 per cent of the country's undergraduate and postgraduate students attend. Few of the institutions have achieved their enrolment quotas this year, however, with most achieving only 30-60 per cent of their targets. Many face the risk of closure.

In light of this, the Viet Nam Private Universities Association has submitted a petition to the Prime Minister seeking intervention from the Government to alleviate the situation.

What does this development indicate about the country's efforts to widen access to higher education and meet the demands of an increasing number of students and the diverse requirements of the labour market?

Viet Nam News reporters Thu Huong and Thu Trang spoke to stakeholders in the field.

* Bui Van Ga, Deputy Minister of Education and Training

It is true that some private universities have not been able to enrol enough students this year and may be forced to close. When officials from our ministry met with representatives from the Viet Nam Private Universities Association, we discussed how the Government could help the private universities to raise their student numbers and assist with policies in regards to land and tax issues.

The association's delegates suggested that the high school graduation exam could be merged with the university entrance exam, private universities and colleges could set their own admission procedures, and the Government regulation on the minimum score students must achieve to enter university – the ‘floor mark' – should be abolished. This would allow a private institution free choice over the minimum score it sets for entrance onto its courses.

We agreed that private universities could research and draft their own student admission plans and submit them to the ministry for approval. However, the quality of students cannot be compromised in order to increase the quantity.

At a national level, we feel that this is not the right time to merge the high school graduation and university entrance exams and allow universities to admit students solely based on applications. If we did do that, people in society might have less faith in the abilities of students at or having graduated from university. We will consider allowing some universities to do so from 2015, when improvements have been made in the quality of pre-university education and textbooks.

Our policies do not differentiate between public and private universities. We are revising the procedure to set the floor mark for the coming exam season, so that more students will be able to enter university without diluting the quality of students in tertiary education.

In the past, some public universities lowered their minimum admission scores close to the floor mark to admit more students. Viet Nam does not have a university ranking system, which could be used to ensure top tier universities only accept the highest achieving students. However, the ministry is currently working on a draft regulation to rank universities for submission to the Government.

We have proposed to the Finance Ministry that private universities be subject to a tax rate of 10 per cent, instead of the current 25 per cent, even if they do not meet the requirement of 55 students per square metre.

We are also revising the national university development plan, so that new universities will only be permitted to open in areas such as the Central Highlands, the northwest or the southwest and will be prohibited from doing so in the country's major cities.

* Professor Tran Hong Quan, Chairman of the Viet Nam Private Universities Association, Education Minister from 1990 to 1997

Over the last three years, private universities and colleges, including the well-equipped ones, have struggled to get enough students. The number of candidates achieving at least the national floor mark was much lower than the schools' planned enrolment figures.

Private universities and colleges are facing many difficulties. Students in State universities benefit from low tuition fees as they are subsidised by the Government. Students at private universities have to pay much higher tuition fees and even their universities' taxation. This has made competition unfair. Non-public universities often have to pay a tax rate as high as 25 per cent, which forces them to raise tuition fees.

For the new exam season, we suggest that the ministry abolish the regulation requiring use of the floor mark. If that is impossible, the ministry should set different floor marks according to the type of university and its location. Accordingly, the most prestigious universities will only accept students with scores much higher than the current floor mark.

The floor mark system has created a lot of problems for private universities and schools. Other countries do not use such a system for both public and private institutions.

For instance, the US State of California regulates that the nine universities in the University of California system, which teaches to doctorate level, can only admit candidates in the top 12.5 per cent at high school.

At the same time, 23 schools in the California State University system, which goes up to master's level, can admit candidates in the top 33 per cent. More than 100 remaining public and private schools can admit any high school graduates.

The floor mark also works against national policies to give priority in educational development to students in remote and poor areas. The risk of going bankrupt for private schools has a number of consequences and directly affects teachers in the private sector.

Every year, half a million students graduating from high school cannot continue their schooling as they do not surpass the floor mark and the rapid development of private universities and colleges in the last 20 years has created thousands of opportunities to study and work.

* Dr. Vu Thi Phuong Anh, Director of Educational Testing and Quality Assurance, University of Economics and Finance, HCM City

Education is considered paramount because it benefits not only students, but also the country as a whole. We must not adopt the mindset that private universities can't recruit students because all of them are of low quality.

Many students obviously choose the cheaper universities due to financial constraints. We need to note that private universities opened much later than their State counterparts and they need time to develop facilities and prestige. Also, some State-owned universities are not up to standard.

It is quite unfair that students only receive State subsidises if they attend public universities. It would make more sense if the State subsidises went directly to the students, not the schools, as in the US.

We can also learn from Malaysia, which has had a clear development plan for state and private universities since 1996. For example, state universities must use the national language and support the Government's goal of promoting and developing culture, language and national identity. Private universities, however, can teach in English to meet global needs.

Government funds are limited and student demand is increasing in this country, so we should encourage the role of private sector in education. There must be a clear development plan for both private and public universities.

The number of universities has constantly increased over the last few years, but we don't have a clear plan for developing required human resources or giving priority to certain regions. Universities compete for students despite demand from society, and in this mess, private universities, especially those that have just opened, lose out.

* Bui Tran Phuong, President of Hoa Sen University, HCM City

In higher education, I think both private and public universities are struggling to improve. We do not strive to become an internationally renowned university. Our goal, rather, is to operate fairly. That means fulfilling our missions to teach, research and serve the community. We want to provide students with an environment to learn effectively and continue their studies internationally, if they want.

We believe that whether a university is State-owned or not, quality of teaching is important. The criticism that private universities are expensive does not mean you can get enough students only with low tuition fees. Recruitment relies on many factors. Going abroad to study is not cheap, but the number of Vietnamese students in foreign universities continues to grow.

If the Government can give money directly to students, I believe that many would consider attending private universities. We also need a system to rank and assess educational quality.

* Bui Minh Tran, third-year student at Ha Noi University of Business and Technology

I'm happy with the quality of teaching here because some of our faculty members come from major public institutions and well-known private ones. I'm doing this school because my score wasn't high enough in the university entrance examination to study something else. But, it's not a bad choice as many graduates from my school have already found good jobs. I believe it's a matter of what you do after you graduate. It's also quite common that graduates of the top universities struggle to find jobs.

Source: VNS

Private universities, labour market, public universities, foreign universities