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Tuesday, 25 February 2020 10:48
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Renovating university governance in Vietnam: System theory and creation of a modern and professional model

(LLCT) - System theory indicates that university governance is a complex combination of state, market and scientists, from which there is a model of university governance compatible with the specific eco-socio environment of each country. In Vietnam, the subsidized and bureaucratic university governance model is being transformed and turned into a modern and professional university governance model under the State management, market influence, and the fair and creative participation of stakeholders in order to improve the quality of training and expand opportunities for higher education to meet the country's sustainable development requirements.

Keywords: system theory, management, governance, university governance.

1. Governance from perspective of system theory

The classical and modern system theory always emphasizes the integrity and essence of a set of interacting elements, creating a system of identification that is both different and closely linked to the surrounding environment(1). This theory identifies five principles of the social system at its highest level of development. Governance is a system, so it also follows these principles: (i) Openness to interact with the environment, (ii) Purposefulness to orient to the priority purposes, (iii) Multi Dimensionality is the unity in the diversity of the side dimensions; (iv) Emergent property is the ability to integrate to create superior strength and (v) Counter Intuitiveness is always faced with abnormal and unpredictable changes.

However, the current studies on university governance have not fully grasped the approach to system theory, so it is often encountered major shortcomings that limit the applicability in policy making and training for developing university governance capacity.

Firstly, these studies often overly emphasize the internal components, structure, and activities of the closed system, but disregard the relationship with the surrounding environment. Studies on university governance do not even take into account changes in socio-economic environment, while only these changes have enough pressure to force leaders and administrators into improving components, structure and operations of system internality. System theory not only indicates that a system must innovate itself to adapt to functional requirements from the environment, but also specifies that a system must compete for input resources and output markets. The higher education system aims to improve people’s knowledge, train human resources, develop talents, and to serve the sustainable development of the whole society where education is an integral part. This system must mobilize resources from society and must provide outputs that meet the requirements of social development.

Secondly, existing research on governance in general and university governance in particular have overly focused on governance with subjects, objects, targets, functions, purposes, content, tools, means, methods, measures, and solutions constricting interpersonal relationships. These studies often take an approach of administrative management initiated by Henry Fayol; considering governance as management and only one of the labor types for an organization. This led to the training of staff to overly focus on learning management skills, leadership in the form of soft skills, communication skills, and behavioral skills, but disregard scientific knowledge and innovation capacity of institutions and policies. Such cadre training is only suitable for the administrative management specializing in implementing and managing the implementation of management regulations, but not enough for governance and leadership.

In order to limit the above situation, studies on governance in general and university governance in particular need to apply the system theory approach to clarify the following related concepts:

Governance is a system of components, structures and decision-making processes, so governance is associated with fighting for power, and holding, using and controlling power to make decisions to implement certain goals and benefits.

University Governance is a system of components, structures and decision-making processes for higher education. University governance can take place in both the higher education system and for institutions and organization of university. University governance for the system of higher education institutions requires the assignment and coordination of State management bodies and governmental and non-governmental organizations and stakeholders. The university governance for the universities takes place simultaneously inside and outside the universities with the participation of stakeholders.

Management is a system of components, structures and processes for implementing decisions. This is particularly evident in an organization with a specialized management team responsible for making decisions and a team of managers employed to enforce those decisions. Governance can be a management style that means both making decisions and managing decision execution. At the same time, management can be concurrent or authorized, giving autonomy to decision-making and being responsible for such decisions. Therefore, the effectiveness and efficiency of management depends considerably on the level of “righteous” identification, openness, and transparency with leadership and governance.

Leadership is a system of components, structures and processes that influence decision making and decision implementation. University governance can be in a kind of leadership, which means setting goals, guidelines, policies, and motivations while encouraging others to act, but not directly making decisions and not taking responsibility. Leaders can act as a pooh-bah, doing the works of both managers and governors, so it is difficult to promote the capacity of the team of managers and governors. Renovating the organization and personnel in general and university governance in particular requires clear identification of leadership, governance and management.

2. Three models of system theory on university governance

Triangle coordination university governance: Based on the system of a “triangle of coordination” between the power of the state, the scientists, and the market, Burton Clark has launched a famous classification of three models of university governance that has been applied and developed by many researchers(2). Corresponding to the power triangle of coordination are (i) academia-based governance, (ii) state-based governance and (iii) market-based governance.

The model of university governance based on the scientists: other variants of this model are “academic governance”, “collegial governance”, and “self-governance” found in the UK, Germany and some other countries. This model is based on the viewpoint of academic freedom in scientific research, teaching, and learning, which is considered a specific characteristic of academia and universities. This is a long-standing tradition in European university governance as a result of the struggle to separate universities from churches and the state for centuries and the struggle to separate universities from current “commercialization”. The classic example here is the University of Berlin which was founded in 1810 at the initiative of Professor Wilhelm von Humboldt with the goal of training and scientific research itself without interference from any other goal from the state or the market. Academia has a complete governance over the universities and still receives state funding without being regulated by the state. This type of academic freedom is not “anarchist”, but it always respects the law. For example, it must comply with the budget allocation laws and regulations on higher education accreditation, and also pay attention to market signals related to scientific training and research.

With the collegial governance model, scientists hold key positions in university governance. The model of collegial management based on the democratic participation of scientists and colleagues is different from the model of office management and the model of state administrative management because while the latter two always rely on the ladder of power, the first model uses the process of decision making. Therefore, collegial management is very suitable for higher education institutions that highly value scientific professionalism, democracy, intelligence, innovation, and creativity.

State-based university governance model: this model and its variants are state totalitarian governance and political governance that can be found in Sweden, France, Russia, Turkey, China and other countries. This model is characterized by the goals that university governance is determined by the state and therefore very political; its operating resources are allocated and strictly managed by the state. In this model, the market and the scientists are negligible because the state directly manages all fields of education such as human resources, enrollment, training, curriculum, scientific research, cooperation, finance, and facilities. Universities that allow their leaders, managers, organizations, units, divisions and activities to be strictly controlled by the state therefore have very little autonomy. Despite the participation of scientists, they only play a limited role in a certain area of expertise. In this model, the relationship between universities and the state is a hierarchical relationship, in which subordinates are affiliated universities and must execute the orders of superiors which are state governing bodies. 

Market-based university governance model: its variants are the “corporate governance” and “business management” that can be found in the United States, Canada, Australia and some other countries. The extreme principle of this model is the “the maximize market and the minimum state”, where the scientists are also subject to market pressure. This model is based on the viewpoint of promoting the optimal efficiency of an “invisible hand” consisting of market economy rules for higher education, so the best way for university governance to govern is with an economic organization, a corporation, and an enterprise doing business in higher education services with free market conditions. Universities are producers who compete with each other on the number of learners and resources and on output markets with employment opportunities for students as customers. Under this model, the university is no longer governed for the purposes of “by it” and “for it” as in the model of governance based on the scientists, nor for the political, social purposes as in the state-based governance model, but the governance is mainly for the economic efficiency and profit. This model is encouraged for application in public universities that are inefficient and especially in conditions of state budget cuts. This model is often criticized for the risk of commercialization, turning university degrees into commodities, students into customers, and lecturers into salespeople. Therefore, even in the United States, the American Association of University Administrators always calls for vigilance and caution on signs of the corporate type of university governance in order to protect the interests of learners, lecturers, and employees in universities.

3. Innovating and creating university governance models in Vietnam

“Centralized, bureaucratic, subsidized” university governance model before Doi Moi (renovation)

Before Doi Moi (renovation), Vietnam’s economy was governed by centralization, administration, order, bureaucrats, and subsidization. The social life was very difficult. Of the total population of over 61 million in 1986, over 80% lived in rural areas; in 1988, Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was only $86 USD, the lowest in the region (for example, Laos’ GDP was $142 USD/person, China $364 USD/person, the Philippines was $645 USD/person, and Thailand was $1,115 USD/person). By 1993, Vietnam had more than 58% of people living below the general poverty line, below 2,100 kcalo/person/day, of which over 18% were poor in food and foodstuffs(3). Under these conditions, it was difficult for Vietnamese higher education to be governed by a model other than a state-based model based on centralized, bureaucratic and subsidized management.

Under this governance model, the position and role of academic scientists was very minor and limited only to the scope of the tasks of executing the administrative decisions from the top down. This was a model of state-based university governance but not a combination of the three powers of the state, the market and the scientists, but rather a model of governance based entirely on the state and the role of the scientists, only focused on the field of professional activities “as prescribed”. Under this model, State management bodies directly performed the functions of granting state budgets and resources, and at the same time planning and organizing, directing, operating, and supervising all higher education activities. Universities became faculties, subjects and units under the managing ministries.

Creating a modern and professional university governance model in period of Doi Moi (renovation)

The renovation of the model of a centralized, bureaucratic and subsidized university governance initially achieved some recognized results. In 1986, there were 15 students for every 10,000 people, and by 1993 this number had increased to 18 students, then in 1997 to 48 students. In the period from 1992 to 1993, the rate of the 18-24 year old population attending college and university among was only about 2%, and in period 1997-1998 this rate reached over 9%.

Along with the country’s economic development under the socialist-oriented market mechanism, university governance has been continuously renovated and from 2013 to now has been “fundamentally and comprehensively” renovated from the system of higher education to its components and structures, from leadership and management mechanisms to higher education activities.

The concept of governance is increasingly used in the Higher Education Law. The Law on Higher Education (2012) has mentioned the word “governance” 21 times. The Higher Education Law amended in 2018 dedicates Article 16 to stipulate university councils in public higher education institutions with the definition that the university council is an organization that governs and exercises the representative rights of owners and stakeholders; Article 17 stipulates that university councils in private universities are the governance organization, representing investors and stakeholders.

In the process of innovation, Vietnam’s university governance has been continuously transformed from the “centralized, bureaucratic, subsidized” model to a modern, professional model, characterized by a combination of various powers and diverse forms of ownership and investment. At the same time, the decentralization in State management bodies with the participation of related organizations gives autonomy to universities that are competing for input resources and output quality (Figure 2). “Giant” universities that were previously divided into groups are now competing with each other in different market types. In the public sector, there are: (i) national universities, (ii) regional universities, (iii) local universities, (iv) universities under ministries (v) universities under corporations, groups (vi) higher education institutions of central bodies, and socio-political organizations. In the non-public sector, there are (vii) private universities and (viii) foreign-invested universities. In 2007-2008, Vietnam had 160 universities, including 120 public universities, 39 private universities, and 1 school with 100% foreign capital.

In 2017-2018, Vietnam had 236 universities including 171 public universities, 60 private universities, and 5 universities with 100% foreign capital. Universities are unevenly distributed, meaning the Red River Delta has the largest number of universities with 102, accounting for over 43%, followed by the Southeast region with 55, accounting for over 23%; the Central Highlands has the smallest number with 4 universities. The higher education system also has 37 scientific research institutes that are assigned the task of doctoral training. The number of non-public lecturers accounts for 21% of nearly 75,000 lecturers and the number of non-public students accounts for nearly 16% of the nearly 1.5 million students.

In parallel with the above process of decentralization, the process of decentralization and professionalization among the State management bodies of higher education and the autonomy granting to universities has been carried out. By the end of the 2016-2017, there were only 23 public universities in the public university sector approved by the Prime Minister to pilot the project of autonomy in renovating the operation mechanism. As of August 2018, only 45% of universities had established university councils and the whole country had 5 institutions of higher education accreditation, while 117 universities were accredited satisfying the accreditation quality.

The allocation of the state budget was renovated from the “giving” mechanism to the investment mechanism based on the management capacity of the universities, combined with direct investment for learners; universities have been permitted to increase autonomy in enrollment, training, personnel organization, finance and attraction of the participation of lecturers, students and stakeholders. The educational quality accreditation mechanism has been implemented according to domestic standards and international integration orientations. The most obvious example is the 2017-2018 academic year, when non-autonomous public universities collected tuition fees of 8 million VND/year, autonomous universities collected 18.5 million VND/year, RMIT universities collected over 206 million/year, and FPT University collected 18.9 million to 25.3 million dong/semester. Currently, state budget expenditures on higher education account for only 9-10% of total state budget education expenditures, about 2% of the total state budget expenditure and only over 0.5% of the country’s GDP, accounting for less than 50% of the investment (cost) of about $630 for a Vietnamese student. For social development, the university governance model is created in the direction of modernization and professionalization, contributing to the expansion of higher education opportunities among the 18-24-year-old population to nearly 24% in 2016(4). In this aspect, the model of university governance in Vietnam is innovating from the “quintessence” model for under 10% of the population ages 18-24, to the modern, “universal”, “mass” model with the majority of young people having the opportunities to enter universities.

Vietnam’s university governance has developed in a modern, professional model, characterized by a combination of diverse powers with decentralization among state bodies, granting autonomy for universities and fair, democratic and creative participation for stakeholders. On the one hand, obey the laws of the state. On the other hand, take into account the demand and supply market signals and mobilize the participation of lecturers, scientists, learners, employees and other components to improve the quality and expand higher education opportunities to meet the requirements of the country’s sustainable development in the context of world integration.



(1) Jamshid Gharajedaghi: Systematic thinking: Managing chaos and complexity, some grounds for business architecture design, Social Sciences Publishing House, Hanoi, 2005; Le Ngoc Hung: Social systems, structure and differentiation, Vietnam National University Press, Hanoi, 2015. 

(2) Burton Clark: The higher education system: Academic organization in cross-national perspective. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983; Nitza Davidovitch, Yaakov Iram. Models of higher education governance: A comparison of Israel and other countries, Global Journal of Education Studies. Vol.1, No. 1, 2015; Le Ngoc Hung: “University autonomy is the development tendency in the basic, comprehensive renovation of education”, Political Theory Journal, Vol. 10-2018.

(3) General Statistics Office: Statistical Yearbook 2017, Statistical Publishing House, Hanoi, 2018; General Statistics Office: Vietnam 20 years of renovation and development 1986-2005, Statistical Publishing House, Hanoi, 2006; Le Ngoc Hung, Bui Thi Phuong, Do Van Quan, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong: Public opinion, statistical data and education from communication science perspectives, Communicology International Scientific Journal. Vol 6. No.6. 2018.

(4) Ministry of Planning and Investment - General Statistics Office: Population change and family planning survey from April 1, 2016: Major results Hanoi, 2016, World Bank Group - Ministry of Planning and Investment: Vietnam 2035: Towards prosperity, creativity, justice and democracy, Washington: 2015.

Prof., Dr. Le Ngoc Hung

University of Education

Vietnam National University, Hanoi

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