Who nurtures universities?

Who nurtures universities?

In my hometown, a village in the Mekong Delta, before 1975, getting into university was a sign of academic achievement.

At that time, out of 100 students taking the college entrance exam, only 30-40 passed, and among those who passed, only 5-10% got into university. My village is only about 20 kilometers from Rach Gia town, but the number of students passing the college entrance exam can be counted on one hand, and university graduates are even rarer. A university graduate is a source of pride for the whole village.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the doors to university education began to open wider. A few years ago when I went home for Tet, I heard a long list of children and grandchildren of neighboring farmers who had graduated, some of whom were serving in hospitals outside Rach Gia. Among them were quite a few people of Khmer origin and from poor backgrounds. I thought to myself that education policy had somewhat succeeded in shortening the “university gap” between rural and urban areas, between rich and poor.

But this year, things are different. A few students in my village have no intention of going to university because tuition fees are high while their family’s economy is increasingly difficult. Tuition fees range from 30 to 50 million VND per year, not including other expenses. In my hometown, a farming family with 10 acres of land, after deducting all expenses, only has about 70 million VND left each year. With such an income level, it is very difficult for their children to pursue an academic path.

This is an obvious consequence of the policy to increase tuition fees. According to Decree 81, this year’s university tuition fees are expected to increase by 10-15% compared to last year. In 2020, tuition fees for medical majors ranged from 15-20 million VND per year, but just three years later they have risen to an expected level of 55-60 million VND.

It’s not hard to understand why universities have to raise tuition fees to… survive. According to an analysis by the World Bank, in 2017, 24% of total income for public universities came from the state budget; four years later this figure was only 9%. Tuition fees went from accounting for 57% of total income to jumping up to 77% four years later. The survival of universities depends on tuition fees.

This is a worrying trend. Over-reliance on tuition fees can lead to a decline in training quality. This situation occurred in Australia when universities turned a blind eye and lowered standards to increase student numbers, thereby ‘sacrificing’ training quality.

Increasing tuition fees also increases the educational gap between rich and poor. This was the experience in Canada. When the Ontario provincial government allowed universities to raise tuition fees, they subsequently recorded a decrease in enrollment among poor labor groups. In other provinces like Quebec and British Columbia where there were no changes in tuition fees, there were no changes in enrollment rates among different economic groups.

This concern has been recognized by the Government through the Deputy Prime Minister’s directive on amending Decree 81 towards not increasing tuition fees for the academic year 2023-2024. But this source of money is like a narrow blanket; if you pull it over here it will be short over there. If tuition fees do not increase, students will have their burden reduced, but how will universities cope when diversifying revenue sources is becoming a dead-end story in Vietnam?

The revenue structure of universities around the world is very diverse. In addition to tuition fees from regular and non-regular training programs and cooperative training programs, universities also have income from scientific research activities (funded by the government or ordered by businesses); from donations by individuals or businesses; from exploiting rental infrastructure and providing consulting services for businesses.

In theory, schools in Vietnam also have mechanisms to diversify their revenue sources in such a dynamic way. But why is it not feasible in practice?

Vietnamese universities are still heavily focused on training human resources, while scientific research activities are secondary. Most lecturers and professors are too busy with teaching, only a very few do scientific research, and they work under very difficult conditions. Therefore, it is not surprising that such scientific research is difficult to transfer into products and generate income.

Most scientific research from universities has not proven its applicability or practical value enough to convince major donors to sponsor. Many studies are conducted just to “cope with the situation” (such as in the promotion of professor and associate professor titles) rather than aiming to solve major issues that society cares about.

Universities in the West receive quite a lot of money in donations. In Vietnam, the culture of donating to universities is just beginning to form. There have been some fundraising efforts here and there but it is still not widespread among individuals or businesses, partly due to a lack of incentives. In the U.S. and some other countries, individuals and businesses who donate money to universities will be tax-exempt for the donation amount.

Tuition fees are not allowed to increase, other sources of revenue are small and insignificant, the state budget is too low, universities are like being tied hand and foot in front of the requirement to improve training quality.

The figure of 9% that the state budget contributes to the revenue of universities is too low. In China, about 50-55% of total income for universities comes from public budgets, only about 30% from tuition fees. In Australia, the government funds each university based on the number of students admitted each year. In 2020, nearly 35% of Australian university revenue came from government funding, with the remainder being tuition fees from foreign students (26%) and domestic students (about 17%).

It should be added that in Australia, when I was at university (more than 40 years ago), schools did not charge tuition fees because the government had a policy of opening up university education for children from the working class. It wasn’t until the 1990s that universities gradually began charging tuition fees, but they were also very low.

Currently, student credit policy in Vietnam, through the Social Policy Bank, lacks appeal. According to a report by the World Bank, in 2011 there were 2.4 million beneficiaries, in 2017 there were only 725,000 people and by 2021 there were only 37,000 beneficiaries of this policy. One way to reduce the “university gap” between rural and urban areas (or between poor and rich people) is to adjust credit policies by increasing the amount of money poor students can borrow and not charging interest after graduation.

There is good reason for the Vietnamese Government to increase education budgets. A developing country in peacetime should see investing in university education as important as investing in infrastructure.

Those trained from universities are a very important factor contributing to economic development. Investing in people always brings the greatest national benefits.

Nguyễn Văn Tuấn

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Who nurtures universities?
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