UNESCO UCLA work in Vietnam and the recent visit of President Obama.

UNESCO UCLA work in Vietnam and the recent visit of President Obama.

Carlos Alberto Torres, UNESCO UCLA Chair in Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education and Jason Dorio, Ph.D. Candidate

Vietnamese journalist Lan Anh of VietNamNet, the most important Vietnamese newspaper, published a short article reflecting upon the recent visit of President Obama to the country which was once at war with the United States. Multiple projects are underway to not only repair relationships but to take advantage of new found synergies between both countries, governments and civil society. The visit of President Obama opens a new and bright future for all.


Before posting the article in our website, we would like to provide some background of our work and plans for the future. The UNESCO UCLA Chair in Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education has been working in Vietnam since 2015 with a project on “THE UNIVERSITY IN TRANSITION: Policy Research Addressing Major Challenges In The Institutions Of Higher Education In Vietnam.” This project has support from private sources in Vietnam and strong collaboration from government institutions.

We are absolutely delighted to realize that both countries are achieving a great level of reconciliation and collaboration. Moreover, what this trip symbolizes is the great importance of a culture of peace to promote the protection of the planet, the protection of peace, and the protection of the people, the three goals of our Chair which symbolizes our commitment to a better world.

What follows is a detailed description of the objectives and rationale of our project in the context of the overall challenges to higher education in Asia. We also look at the challenges for higher education in Vietnam and the United States.


  1. Analyze the main challenges of higher education in Vietnam
  2. Explore how the lessons from universities in the United States can contribute to addressing the challenges of higher education in Vietnam
  3. Investigate the roles of online education and other technologies in furthering access and quality for higher education in Vietnam
  4. Develop a network of scholars, policy makers, students, and educators on issues of higher education in Vietnam and the United States.


Universities and institutions of higher education embedded in the dialectic between the local and the global are in transition. Two challenges have been magnified by the changes in technology and access to higher education: the question of rankings and the search for global or world class universities. These questions significantly confront the expansion of higher education in Vietnam and its position in the regional context.

Overall challenges to higher education in Asia

The twenty-first century is marked by significant political, economic and cultural shifts globally away from political and economic powers traditionally centered within the Atlantic-Mediterranean to the rising powers within the Asia-Pacific region. As Hawkins (2013) argues, “Given that half of global GDP and one-third of the world’s population are in Japan, China and the United States, in many respects these three countries represent the core of the emerging twenty-first century global political economy, including many of the HE indicators of concern to those proponents of HE regionalization” (p. 360-361). However, the region faces a number of important issues that will certainly be shaped by and shape higher education in Asia-Pacific.

Hawkins identifies four enduring issues that are critical to higher educational transformation in the Asia-Pacific region for the twenty-first century. Providing a general overview of the region, these issues include access and equity to higher education; quality assurance of higher education; the impacts of the movement and mobility of students, scholars, and knowledge to institutions in the region; and efforts to build cooperation and regionalization of higher education.

As one of the most dynamic and rapidly changing regions in the world, the issues of higher education will be exacerbated and significantly shaped by future efforts to raise employment prospects, which are obviously essential for social stability, and increasing domestic demands vis-à-vis international demand for goods and services. As one of the populous countries in the region, Vietnam has experienced an impressive expansion in its higher education system since 1993 (World Bank, 2008). However, similar to other countries in the region, Vietnam is facing a number of issues of higher education that demand alternative and comparative perspectives to address such issues in the twenty-first century.

Higher education in Vietnam

The country of Vietnam has had a long legacy of higher education. The oldest known institution of higher education in Southeast Asia was established in Vietnam in 1076 during the Ly dynasty (Houng and Fry, 2004; Welch, 2011). In the modern era, the Vietnamese higher education system has developed as an amalgamation of influences by indigenous, Chinese, French, Soviet, American and global initiatives and models of higher education (Houng and Fry, 2004). As one of the most populated countries in Southeast Asia, with a considerable percentage of young people,[1] Vietnam is currently facing a massive demand for higher education.

Over the last two decades, the system of higher education in Vietnam witnessed increasing numbers of student enrollment and an expansion of higher education programs and institutions. For example, the World Bank (2008) stated that in 1992-1993, approximately 162,000 higher education students enrolled in just 110 institutions, while in 2008 those numbers grew to 1.3 million students enrolled in 230 higher education institutions (p.1). The demand for higher education and the increases in student enrolment have exacerbated some of the major challenges facing the system of higher education in Vietnam. Issues such as improving the models of curriculum and teaching methods (Houng and Fry, 2004; Hayden and Lan, 2013), the quality of faculty and research (World Bank, 2008; Welch, 2011), teacher education (UNESCO, 2011), gender and ethnic minority equity (Hayden and Lan, 2013; World Bank, 2008), internationalization and regionalization (Welch, 2011), and privatization (Hayden and Lan, 2013; Welch, 2013) all present major challenges for policy makers, professor and students alike. Subsequently, to address some of its higher education challenges, the Vietnamese government has recently implemented a number of comprehensive state-driven higher education reforms (World Bank, 2008; Pham, 2014). However, it is unclear to what extent has the state-driven reforms have fully addressed some of the major challenges currently facing higher education in Vietnam (Pham, 2014), including the challenge to develop world-class universities in Vietnam.

Globalization and higher education in the United States

It has been argued that particular visions of the state shapes to a large extent higher education reform (Rhoads and Torres, 2006). The United State provides an important example of this connection. During the 1960s and 1970s, under the US Higher Education Acts, significant expansion and changes took place at US colleges and universities. Changes included increases in state financial support that directly led to higher education being available for first generation students, students from low socio-economic status, and students of color. The vision of increasing the access to higher education and other important changes which broke down social stratification and increased some levels of social and economic mobility, was related to progressive social movements of the 1950s and 1960s as well as to the particular vision often referred to as the Great Society. However, since the 1980s, particularly with the election of President Ronald Reagan a redefinition of the state emerged. This vision included attacks on affirmative action, assaults on state support for college, including “merit-based scholarship” and an overall decline for higher education as a public trust (Rhoads and Torres, 2006). Therefore, any visions of the university and higher education must take into account the impacts that forms of globalization have on the conceptions of the state.

The United States, along with providing significant models of world-class universities for emerging countries, is not immune from some of the issues that globalization present for higher education. Rhoads and Torres (2006) highlight some of the important issues linked to the changing landscape of higher education in the United States. First, the increase of knowledge and communication has amplified competition among institutions of higher education and adult education. This has led to inter-institutional partnerships of higher education being increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts to strengthen local, regional, national and global economies. Second, economic forces have increasingly shaped the visions of institutions of higher education shifting their foci on instrumental education, elevating fields of study that directly affects the economy or related careers within economic sectors. Consequently, Rhoads and Torres argue “business and science disciplines that directly connect to emerging technologies and revenue streams receive higher levels of funding and support than more traditional fields in the arts, humanities, and social sciences” (p. 337).

Third, linked to the increased relationship between universities and the economy, the operation of universities in the United States, especially world-class universities, has been driven to a large extent by “academic capitalism” (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). It appears that the mission of universities being driven by “public good” have been increasingly defined in solely economic terms. Forth, with the vision of the university being shaped by the neoliberal privatization movements, access to affordable higher education is slowly diminishing in the United States. Smaller portions of states’ budgets for public institutions of higher education have forced institutions to increase student contributions for tuitions and fees. To the point, a recent study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, found that America’s public colleges now get more money from their students than from all state sources (Chappell, 2015). Consequently, educational technology and online education has been introduced to alleviate some of the costs and demands of higher education. However, as Douglass (2013) argues, MOOCS (massive open online courses) have had “extremely low completion rates in purely online courses” for traditional age students, 18-to 24-years olds. Moreover, Douglass continues “large classroom courses supplemented by technology seem to be much more effective as a model” citing a recent experiment with online courses at San Jose State University in California, that found “large classroom courses may be cheaper on a per-student basis than MOOCs, when you factor in rates of completion of the course.”

Fifth, there is a broad shift globally, toward an international standardization of education curricula and credentials that is also connected to the last issue that Rhoads and Torres presents, which is the accountability movement. In the United States, academic standards and accountability have been framed as “assessment” or “institutional assessment.” Rhoads and Torres observe, “assessment tends to be rooted in schemas in which comparisons are drawn between and among similar types of institutions, as opposed to basing the assessment on measure of the institution’s contribution to society” (p.340). These measures tend to focus on the number of faculty publications, the number of faculty generated grants, the number of students, the number of degrees or certificates awarded, and the time to degree. Correspondingly, these measures put an enormous amount of stress on institutions, professors, and students to meet and exceed these quantitative indicators rather, than, again, focusing on a conception of the university as a public good and contributor to the betterment of local, national, and global communities.

The overall changing landscape and visions of higher education in the United States, promulgated by globalization, has forced policy makers and educators to face issues of instrumentalism, academic capitalism and entrepreneurialism, access and affordability, and evaluation and assessment.  Accordingly, institutions of world-class universities in the United States can provide valuable insight and models for institutions of higher education in Vietnam as they engage with similar as well as contextualized struggles connected to domestic, regional, and global impacts.

Globalization and the quest for World Class Universities

The question of ‘World Class Universities’ or in another formulation Global Research Universities is intimately tied to the discussion on the purpose and validity of global university rankings. Unfortunately, out of the five world university ranking sites for the 2014-2015 (Shanghai, QS, Times, US News &World Report, and CWUR), universities in Vietnam were not ranked within the global comparisons of universities. Only the QS World University Rankings 2014/2015 ranked three universities in Vietnam (#161 Vietnam National University, Hanoi; #191Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City; and#251 Hanoi University of Science and Technology) within the top 300 for the regional Asian University Rankings.  These dismal results in the university rankings should be a cause of concern for a country with such distinguished historical experience in higher education.

In addition to the dismal positioning of Vietnam universities in international rankings, the impact of globalization on universities raises several important questions.  Do shifts toward a market-oriented ideology within the wider society suggest similar and inevitable shifts within universities?  Do such shifts bring about the inevitable commodification of professional activities, family life, and the environment, or the life of the professoriate?  If such responses are unavoidable, does this necessitate a move in the direction of a free-market ideology on a global scale and hence we need some comparative data to assess who is who in higher education?  To what extent can the emergence of a single, global monoculture in higher education be expected once we have established a firm ranking of quality universities at a world scale?  Some of these questions will be addressed in this policy research.

The Purpose of this Policy Research

The purpose of The University in Transition: Policy Research To Address Major Challenges In The Institutions Of Higher Education In Vietnam is to conduct empirical research connected to the challenges facing higher education in Vietnam. The second component of this initiative is to bring together international and Vietnamese scholars, educators and policy makers who have dealt with these issues in varied national, political and institutional levels to enrich the research findings, knowledge, communication and cross-pollination of ideas on higher education in Vietnam.

The World Education Forum that took place in Incheon, South Korea on 19-22 of May 2015 set the tone for the changes at all levels of education worldwide. For the purposes of this policy research, inclusion, equity and quality are the topics that need to be urgently addressed in the higher education system in Vietnam and to be sure in most institutions of higher education in the world. Point #9 of the Incheon declaration is particularly relevant for higher education: “We commit to quality education and to improving learning outcomes, which requires strengthening inputs, processes and evaluation of outcomes and mechanisms to measure progress. We will ensure that teachers and educators are empowered, adequately recruited, well trained, professionally qualified, motivated and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems. Quality education fosters creativity and knowledge, and ensures the acquisition of the foundational skills of literacy and numeracy as well as analytical, problem-solving and other high-level cognitive, interpersonal and social skills. It also develops the skills, values and attitudes that enable citizens to lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions, and respond to local and global challenges through education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship education (GCE).”



Goyette, K. A. (2012). Stratification and the emergence of the postsecondary private education sector in  Vietnam. Comparative Education Review, 56(2), p. 197-222.

Harman, G., Hayden, M. and Nghi, P. T. (2010). Higher Education in Vietnam: Reform,

Challenges and Priorities. In G. Harman, M. Hayden, and P.T. Nghi (eds.) Reforming Higher Education in Vietnam: Challenges and Priorities. New York: Springer, p. 1-14.

Hayden, M. and Lan, L. T. N. (2013). Vietnam: The Education System—A Need to Improve Quality. In L. P. Symaco (ed.) Education in South-East Asia. London:Bloomsbury, p. 323-344

Houng, P.L. and Fry, G. (2004). Universities in Vietnam: Legacies, Challenges, and

Prospects. In P.G. Altbach and T. Umakoshi (eds.), Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 301-331.

Pham, D. (2014). Vietnam: New Legislation and Future Possibilities. International  Higher Education, 74, p. 27-28.

UNESCO (2011). World Data on Education: Viet Nam, 7th Edn, 2010/2011. Available at               http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001931/193193e.pdf

Welch, A. (2011). Higher Education in Southeast Asia: Blurring borders, changing balances.               New York: Routledge.

The World Bank (2008). Vietnam: Higher Education and Skills for Growth. Washington, DC: The World Bank. The World Bank (2014). Data: Vietnam. The World Bank Group. Accessed at    http://data.worldbank.org/country/vietnam.

[1] Approximately 22. 9 percent of Vietnam’s population of nearly 90 million is under the age of 15.

DR. CARLOS ALBERTO TORRES – Member of Board of Thinkers, Boston Global Forum; Distinguished Professor of Education; Director, UCLA Paulo Freire Institute; UNESCO Chair in Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education

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Dr. Carlos Alberto Torres is a political sociologist of education, a published poet and short story author. He did his undergraduate work in sociology in Argentina (B.A. honors and teaching credential in Sociology, Universidad del Salvador), his graduate work in Mexico (M.A. Political Science. FLACSO) and the United States (Master of Arts and Ph.D. in International Development Education, Stanford University), and post-doctoral studies in educational foundations in Canada (University of Alberta). He is a Professor of Social Science and Comparative Education at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Chair of UNESCO-UCLA  in Global Learning and Global Citizenship Education.

In 1991, in partnership with several colleagues, he created the Paulo Freire Institute, PFI, and is currently serving as its Founding Director at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. He also served as director of the UCLA Latin American Center. Dr. Torres has been a Visiting Professor in universities in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa. He has lectured throughout Latin America and the United States, and in universities in England, Japan, Italy, Spain, Tanzania, Finland, Mozambique, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Portugal, Taiwan, Korea, Sweden and South Africa.

Jason Dorio  –  Ph.D. candidate Social Sciences and Comparative Education Division of the UCLA Department of Education


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