Autonomy in public universities: Many problems that need solutions

November 13, 2020 - 00:33

Audit results at public institutes for higher education last year show there have been problems that need to be solved, and recommendations are needed to improve the management mechanism for the current public institutes for higher education.


Autonomy in public institutions for higher education is no longer a new problem when it has been studied and put into practice by many countries around the world.

In Viet Nam, the concept of "university autonomy" has existed for nearly two decades. Through the implementation process, university autonomy has brought some undeniable achievements, but it has posed many problems that need to be overcome as well. As shown from the summarisation of audit results at public institutes for higher education last year, there have been problems that need to be solved, and there should be some recommendations given to improve the management mechanism for the current public institutes for higher education.

Organisational autonomy

Regarding the organisational autonomy, public universities have gradually taken the initiative in reorganising personnel. Many of them have set up a University Council, cut down their workforce, and organised the apparatus in a streamlined and effective manner, while at the same time increasing income for staff. However, this implementation process still shows certain limitations, as follows:

The first lies in issuing and guiding the implementation of documents. Although Decree No. 16/2015/ND-CP dated February 15, 2015, stipulates the autonomy mechanism in public non-business units (replacing Decree No. 43/2006/ND-CP dated April 25, 2006), the Ministry of Education and Training has been finalising a draft circular guiding the decree on autonomy of public non-business units in the field of education and training in the direction of Government and stakeholders' comments so far.

Therefore, for autonomy in organisational structure and payroll, except for basic regional universities assigned the right to self-manage payrolls, training institutions still comply with Joint Circular No. 07/2009/TTLT-BGDDT-BNV dated April 15, 2009, stipulating that: “Units that self-guarantee their own budget will have the right to decide the payroll but still have the responsibility to report to the superior agency for management, while the units that self-guarantee a portion of the budget must develop an annual payroll plan and submit it to the competent authority for approval,” not in accordance with Decree No. 43 stipulating that: “Non-business units that self-guarantee operating expenses may decide the payroll by themselves” and not in accordance with the provisions of the Law on Higher Education, Decision No. 70/QD-TTg dated December 10, 2014 on the university organisation charter which provides the universities with autonomy in organisational apparatus and labour.

The second is the reorganisation and improvement of the organisational structure. As shown by the audit results, as of December 31, 2018, at the Ministry of Education and Training, 11 of 36 universities have not yet established their University Councils. In addition, the appraisal and approval of job placement schemes still has a certain delay. As of May 28, 2019, 27 of 27 universities developed job placement schemes and submitted them to the Ministry of Education and Training, but only one was approved, leaving 26 not appraised, accounting for 96.2%.

The third is about the organisation model. According to audit results of the implementation of autonomy mechanism at 23 public universities under the Ministry of Education and Training obtained by the State Audit, the affiliated units are operating with many different organisational models and management methods. Inconsistent organisational models lead to inadequacies in the implementation of financial management. Specifically, except for Thuongmai University, the remaining universities have both centres and institutes (under the faculty) operating under the model of a dependent division, and at the same time having other centres and institutes acting as an independent division. There are two universities with affiliated hospitals, five with business models, affiliated companies, four with affiliated units operating ineffectively but unable to be dissolved because these units are established by the Ministry of Education and Training.

Regarding regulations on financial management and organisational model of affiliated units: Except for institutions and centres for research and application of science and technology, which operate based on guiding documents; other affiliated centers are not provided with any documents guiding the financial mechanism, uniform accounting regime, as well as the university's responsibility with its affiliated units. As a result, up to 20 universities have not provided consolidated reports of affiliated units to the general financial statements.

Autonomy in task performance

According to the audit results, autonomous higher education institutions have been given more power in certain fields, helping reduce administrative procedures, and gain further initiative and flexibility in organising their activities. Time and procedures to open new training majors, advanced and high-quality programmes in a rapid manner help them take the initiative in training, taking advantage of opportunities to promptly meet the needs of society according to the market law.

In addition to the achieved aspects, the autonomy in task performance still has some shortcomings. The first is implementing the admission quota and opening training majors. The audit showed that some universities fail to comply with the current regulations when implementing admission in terms of: determining the quotas, implementing the admission beyond the training capacity of full-time lecturers, material conditions according to the provisions of Circular No. 32/2015/TT-BGDDT dated December 16, 2015 and Circular No. 06/2018/TT-BGDT dated February 28, 2018 of the Ministry of Education and Training, some fail to specify admission quotas for international training systems in the process of determining training quotas, or use leased facilities to determine the conditions of their facilities when determining the admission quota.

Many training institutions open new training majors but have not focused on surveying the urgency of opening such codes, leading to low admission numbers, or even no admission. According to the audit results in the 2016-2018 period at 9 of 25 audited universities, there were 22 newly opened majors with very low admission rate, some with entrance scores lowered but still failed to attract students.

The second is the construction of training programmes. Many audited higher education institutions still show errors in the construction of training programmes, directly affecting the output quality and increasing the burden of tuition fees of students such as: developing English programmes with insufficient credits or no English subject in the training programme which is not commensurate with the output standards as prescribed in Circular No. 07/2015/TT-BGDĐT of the Ministry of Education and Training and graduation requirements. In order to qualify for graduation, the fact that students have to pay extra costs to qualify for English is not in line with the autonomy policy enacted by the Party and Government. In some universities, the number of credits for conditional subjects (Physical Education, National Defence Education) is not included in the total number of credits when determining the unit price for one credit which is inconsistent with Decree No. 86/2015/NĐ-CP, making students pay additional costs of learning physical education and national defence education of VNĐ56,798.3 million.

The third, transnational education helps higher education institutions promote their potential in terms of existing facilities and faculties with the aim of enhancing the exchange of teaching methods and training curricula with domestic and foreign partners, at the same time, raising legal sources of income. However, a number of audited universities still show their transnational education with domestic and foreign partners in the context of unsatisfactory facilities, unqualified programmes, not self-developed curriculum, unqualified lecturers, unqualified students eligible for entrance under the curriculum, transnational education without the permission of the Ministry of Education and Training, opening courses for the first time at locations without any written request from the provincial People's Committee. In particular, the diploma accreditation assessment process shows that there are many students failing to be recognised with diplomas from transnational education programmes with foreign elements.

The fourth is the improvement of programmes and training quality. The actual audit results at a number of public universities show that many universities have not really focused on innovation to improve the quality of training programmes, when the cost of innovation and improvement of programmes, subject outlines and curriculum construction only accounted for 0.34% of total recurrent expenditure. The renovation of training programmes and methods mainly adjusts some subject credits to suit training reality, updates the course outline, reduces the number of credits for general subjects, increases the number of credits in English or adjusts the number of credits in elective subjects. The results show that some universities build programmes that are close to international standards, but encounter many obstacles and show ineffectiveness in the implementation process. There are 18 of 23 audited universities under the Ministry of Education and Training renovating their training programmes, while the remaining five still use training programmes from many years ago and only update and adjust the subject outlines and curriculum.

The fifth is the implementation of education quality assurance. In general, the education quality accreditation at universities has not received equal attention, without sufficient full-time staff and abundant investment resources. The self-assessment implementation progress of some universities also shows delays, while many units have not yet performed the assessment. These universities are mainly interested in accrediting the quality of educational institutions, not paying attention to accrediting the quality of training programmes.

Financial autonomy

In the context of limited state budget resources, the allocation of financial autonomy enhances the autonomy and responsibility for public universities, creating conditions for training institutions to be proactive in balancing revenues and expenditures based on available research and training potentials. The audit results show that the state budget to support partially autonomous universities has substantially decreased in the 2016-2018 period at the Ministry of Education and Training and some universities.

The public universities have been proactive in adjusting their expenditure structure according to the goal of improving the quality of teaching, quality of lecturers, increasing the rate of direct spending on training activities through stabilisation and improvement of income for lecturers. According to data compiled at the Ministry of Education and Training for the periods of 2013-2014 and 2017-2018, spending on people increased from 49% to 55% of total expenditure structure, spending on professions increased from 39 % to 43%, while other spending reduced from 12% to 2%. In addition, the implementation of the autonomy mechanism helps many public universities be proactive in accessing non-budget capital sources such as loans from commercial banks, stimulus funds or use of development funds to invest in infrastructure, equipment, enhance both service quantity and quality, and meet the increasing demand for teaching and learning of the people.

However, in addition to the remarkable results mentioned above, the implementation of the financial autonomy mechanism still shows many shortcomings in terms of issuing and guiding the implementation of the documents of financial autonomy mechanism; the governing body's allocation and assignment of cost estimates; expenditure structure from tuition fees, etc.

From the audit results, the State Audit points out groups of solutions that should be implemented soon to overcome these shortcomings, contributing to the successful implementation of the Party's policy in Resolution No. 19/NQ-TW, Resolution No. 20/NQ-TW of the 6th Central Conference at its XIIth session as well as the goal of improving the training quality of universities given by the Party and State.

Specifically, it is necessary to build a full and appropriate legal corridor to implement the autonomy mechanism, avoid overlaps, and create a solid legal basis for the implementation of autonomy. A legal framework should be built to specifically guide the organisational model of university units. The Ministry of Education and Training needs to soon study, complete and report to the Government for consideration and promulgation of a framework that regulates the percentage of expenditures from tuition revenues, links the roadmap for increasing tuition fees with the responsibility of improving training quality, balancing revenues and expenses to ensure the policy of supporting talented people and achieve the goal of improving the training quality.

At the same time, it is necessary to specify amounts that are collected or not in order to ensure transparency, and open compliance with the provisions of law. The Ministry of Education and Training should issue a unified and comprehensive guidance on the autonomy mechanism for public universities in accordance with Law No. 34/2018/QH14 dated November 19, 2018, amending and supplementing a number of articles of the Law on Higher Education in order to maximise available resources and potentials of the universities associated with the policies of the Party and State in the current period.

It is better to improve the accountability associated with the responsibilities of the heads of higher education institutions for the openness and transparency in revenue and expenditure items. The increase in tuition fees should be halted until the economic and technical norms are issued as a basis for public universities to set up training service charges to ensure they are consistent with the above average income per capita and tuition fees do not become a burden for students, especially those in difficult circumstances. Propagating, disseminating and unifying awareness among managers and workers in public universities about the contents of autonomy at public universities, reforms of Decree No. 16/2015/ND-CP should be highly promoted, thereby contributing to the successful implementation of the goals of autonomy policy set by the Party and State./.