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University autonomy is inevitable for the fundamental and comprehensive innovation of education in Vietnam

(LLCT) -  The concept of university autonomy globally reflects the transformation of the state-to-university relationship in the spirit of upholding the academic freedom of the university and less direct interference of public administratives into university governance on organization, finance, and personnel. In Vietnam, the concept that university autonomy means self-responsibility is experimentally implemented by more than 20 pilot universities in six areas: organization and personnel, finance - property, training, science - technology, international cooperation, and quality assurance education. In spite of many difficulties, the initial positive results have proved the correct policy of university autonomy. 

Key words: university autonomy, education innovation.

1. “University autonomy” concept in Vietnam

In the world, the concept of “university autonomy” refers to the changing relationships between state and universities (N.V. Varghese, Michael Martin, Thomas Estermann). The fundamental changing tendency is to promote the tradition of academic freedom and to reduce the direct control of public authorities to universities. From this perspective, university autonomy is the freedom of the university institution in decision making and implementation on internal university activities, however any control or intervention of government agencies must comply with the law. University autonomy is institutionalized by the law of the State.

Based on the primary field of activity of the university, it is possible to distinguish four types of university autonomy: organizational autonomy, financial autonomy, human resources autonomy, and academic autonomy(1). (In Vietnam, there are 2 additional types of autonomy, namely international cooperation and education quality. The degree and autonomy mechanism of university autonomy vary greatly compared to when it is not autonomous, for example, regarding organizational autonomy, universities tend to be more liberal in deciding their organizational structure of institutions, at the same time, it attracts more and more off-campus representatives to participate in its leadership and management system. As a result, the model of university governance has become a model of “dual” organization which is both scientific and economic, both increasing academic freedom and accountability and ensuring the quality of education to meet social requirements. In case the State struggles to provide funding to universities while the budget demands increase, the State increases university autonomy in mobilizing, managing, and utilizing non-state resources. At the same time, as a result of the influence of the market mechanism, it is difficult for the State to directly intervene in the efficient management of the state budget at universities, so the State tends to increase autonomy for universities for more efficient management of State budget.

There are two types of autonomy. Absolute autonomy is autonomous in decision making and implementation of decisions in accordance with the law. Procedure autonomy is autonomous in the implementation of decisions without the freedom to make decisions.

In Vietnam, the concept of “university autonomy” has just been introduced, emerged and gradually developed in the process of reforming state management of universities in the spirit of socialization to ensure uniformity and discipline in management, increasing the autonomy and self-responsibility of universities, and attracting the involvement of stakeholders.

2. University autonomy in education policies and directions, 1979-2005

The term “university autonomy”, though widely used in the mass media, had not been officially used in Vietnam education policy in the period 1979-2005. Resolution No. 14/1979/NQ-TW on Education Reform does not mention “education reform”, “autonomy”, “self-responsibility” in education. However, this resolution uses the term “educational reform” 33 times, stating three objectives of educational reform: (i) caring for and educating the young­­­ generation from childhood to adulthood (ii) universal access to education, (iii) training and cultivating new labourers. The main points of educational reform are defined as (i) structural reform of the education system, (ii) reform of educational content, and (iii) reform of educational methods. The resolution refers to the need to combine collective mastery with “true freedom of individuals” in all areas such as political, economic and social fields and point out that “universities and colleges are responsible to actively participate in scientific research”.

Resolution No. 04/1993/NQ-TW on continuing the renovation of education and training has used the words “reform education” and “reform” 3 times and 12 times respectively, but such words as “self-responsibility”, “ accountability” and “freedom” in education have not yet used.

In the Resolution No. 02/1996/NQ-TW on strategic orientation for development of education and training in the period of industrialization, modernization and mission up to 2000, the word “reform” is not used, but the word “innovation” is used 16 times.

The Resolution No. 05/2005/NQ-CP on promoting and improving the quality of socialization in the fields of education, health, culture and physical training and sports to 2010 does not once use the word “reform”, however, the term “innovation” is used 11 times to emphasize that the State continues to innovate policies and mechanisms in these fields. The resolution does not use the word “self-responsibility”, but the word “responsibility” is repeated 15 times in which this word is used 3 times to be linked with autonomy, namely “autonomy and responsibility”, “autonomy right and responsibility”, and “autonomy mechanism and responsibility” when referring to public institutions operating in these areas. On evaluating the seven-year implementation of Resolution No. 90/1997/NQ-CP and the five-year implementation of Decree No. 73/1999/ND-CP on the socialization of education, health care, culture and physical training and sport activities, the Resolution No. 05/2005/NQ-CP has clearly stated the face that public establishments have still applied such management mechanism as administrative agencies makes them unable to promote their activeness, autonomy and responsibility. Facing this situation, the Resolution No. 05/2005/NQ-CP sets out the general viewpoint and orientation that: “To transform the state-run public units operating under the non-business administrative mechanism into self-governed ones which are able to self-provide non-profit services to meet their demand (which is referred to as service supply mechanism): they have full autonomy in organization and management. This means that “autonomy” and “autonomy mechanism” are defined as the “public service supply mechanism” which has properties of a product of the process of reforming the subsidized administrative management mechanism into market mechanism and public service supply mechanism.  The content and object of “autonomy” of public facilities operating under the mechanism of public service delivery mechanism is stated as “autonomy in organization and management”. Therefore, the question that needs to be clarified and answered in time is the relationship of autonomy in state management and state ownership of public facilities. In 2005, this resolution proposed a number of solutions and policies to renovate the state management mechanism to separate state management from the management of daily and regular work of the establishments.

3. University Autonomy under the Higher Education Law (2012)

Higher Education Law (2012) does not use any words “reform” and “innovation”, but it mentions the term “self-responsibility” 8 times and the term “autonomy” is used 16 times.

Conceptually, autonomy is different from duty and authority: Similar to the Education Law (2005), the Higher Education Law (2012) distinguishes tasks and powers with autonomy with respectively differential regulations. Specifically, in the Higher Education Law (2012), Article 28 stipulates the “Tasks and powers of colleges, universities and academies”, Article 29 defines the “Tasks and powers of higher education” and Article 32 regulates “Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions”

The six areas of activities are autonomous with different degrees: Under Article 32, Paragraph 1, higher education institutions shall be entitled to “autonomy” rights without “self-responsibility” in their principal activities, but not all, in six areas as following (i) organizational and personnel resources, (ii) finance and property, (iii) training, (iv) science and technology, (v) international cooperation, (vi) quality of higher education. The special point here is that the implementation extent of university autonomy is linked to corresponding capacity, ranking results, test results and, if it fails to practice autonomy, it is also subject to regulations of the Law (Article 32, Paragraph 2).

Organizational and personnel autonomy: The Higher Education Law, Article 14, Paragraph 4 states that “foreign-invested higher education institutions are autonomous in their organizational structure”, while the organizational and personnel autonomy of other educational institutions is defined unclearly.

Financial autonomy and property: Article 20, Paragraph 4 clearly states that the head - the principle of a public higher education institution, the chairman of a private education institution - the account holder (...) shall exercise autonomy and self-responsibility of financial publicity and transparency in accordance with the law. Article 67, Paragraph 1 provides that educational institutions shall be free to self-control and be liable for assets from non-State budget sources and shall not be entitled to autonomy in the management and use of such assets formed from the State budget.

Training autonomy: The Higher Education Law (2012), Articles 33, 34, 36 and 37 regulates university autonomy on the four main activities of the training sector, namely (i) development of training fields and specific areas (ii) enrollment criteria and methods; (iii) development, appraisal and promulgation of training programs; (iv) training organization and management.

Autonomy of science and technology: Article 41 contains 9 clauses defining the tasks and powers of private education institutions, of which only Clause 4 stipulates “autonomy and self-responsibility in signing contracts on science and technology; performing scientific and technological tasks; registering for participation in the selection of performing scientific and technological tasks”. Under this provision, private education institutions are allowed to be autonomous in scientific and technological activities in three tasks and powers: (i) contract signing (ii) performance of duties and (iii) registration for participation in the selection of scientific and technological tasks. This is different from university autonomy in developed countries where academic freedom has become a cultural foundation for universities to perfect their mission of scientific and technological research and education.

International cooperation: The Law on Higher Education (2012) has used the term “international cooperation” for seventeen times, in which only one refers to general “autonomy in international cooperation” without any specific regulations define this autonomy in international cooperation activities.

Autonomy in ensuring the quality of higher education: This is the sixth content of autonomy already provided for in Article 32 and concretized in Article 53, where the results of accreditation of higher education are used to be the basis for exercising autonomy and self-responsibility.

4. Some initial results of university autonomy from 2014 to date

Pilot university autonomy is officially launched in Vietnam in the period 2014-2017 according to Resolution No. 77/NQ-CP of the Government. Accordingly, any public higher education institutions which “commits to be able to self-provide enough finance for all regular expenditures and investment expenditures shall be piloted “to carry out full autonomy and self-responsibility” . In particular, these institutions shall be autonomous in six content groups, namely (i) training and scientific research, (ii) organizational structure and personnel, (iii) finance, and (iv) scholarship and tuition fee policy for preferred subjects, (v) investment and procurement, (vi) other contents not mentioned in this Resolution shall be subject to other regulations of the law. However, this Resolution only generally stipulates that “public higher education institutions” shall exercise autonomy, self-responsibility(2) and only once mentions the “school managing board” in the “decision of the structure and the number of people employed; recruiting officials and contract staff after approval of the school managing board” and only once refers to the “principal” in the regulation on the level of the remaining funds and the additional income decided by the principal according to the internal regulations of the unit. Although, in 2015, the Government issued Decree No. 16/ND-CP stipulating that some autonomy contents must be submitted to competent authorities for approval and decision. (For example: “Public non-business units shall develop their own job positions and personnel structure according to their professional titles and submit to competent authorities for approval”(3) or “public non-business units shall ensure that, regarding regular expenditures and investment, a management board shall be set up to make decisions on important issues in the operation of the unit”) but it is unclear how a public higher education institution with its own managing board operates?

The most obvious result of the pilot of university autonomy is the change from the fact that the Ministry of Education and Training previously operated as a collegiate university with affiliated universities, then from October 2017, there have been 23 public universities affiliated to ministries and central agencies participating in the pilot of university autonomy. Among them, 12 schools have been autonomous over 2 years, 3 schools have been autonomous for 1-2 years, 5 schools have been autonomous less than 1 year and 4 new ones are assigned with autonomy rights from July 2017.

The report on the evaluation results of the implementation of Resolution 77/NQ-CP on piloting the innovation of operational mechanism for public higher education institutions in the period 2015-2017 proves that(4) the pilot schools themselves have opened many new branches and training programs; the number of scientific papers have increased remarkably, especially the number of articles published in international magazines; organizational structure has been changed in the direction of increasing the quality with the proportion of lecturers increasing to 65%, the proportion of experts and staff reduced to 25%; the proportion of professors and associate professors was 9% compared to 6% of the whole system; the total revenue of autonomous universities has increased by nearly 20% and total expenditures have also increased by 13-14%. The difference of about 6% has been used by self-financing institutions for equipment investment, reward funds, and support policy for learners and scientific and technological research. However, these pilot institutions have faced a number of problems, such as reduced enrollment scale and decreased revenue from service and business operation by 0.2% compared to that in 2014 n


(1) N.V. Varghese - Michaela Martin. Governance Reforms and University autonomy in asia. International Institute for Educational planning (IIEp). UNESCO, 2013; Thomas Estermann. “University autonomy in Europe”, University Education, No. 3-2015.

(2) Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Resolution No 77/2014-NQ-CP dated October 24, 2014 on pilot program to renovate the operation mechanism for public university in 2014-2017 period.

(3) Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Decree No 16/2015-ND-CP dated February 14, 2015 on autonomy mechanism for public service units.

(4) Ministry of Education and Training: Report on results and assessment of the implementation of Resolution No 77/NQ-CP on pilot program to renovate the operation mechanism for public university in 2015-2017 period.


Vietnam National University, Hanoi

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