Vietnam’s Ph.D. programs fundamentally flawed: experts

The country turns out many Ph.D.s annually, but critics say Vietnam’s academic evaluation process needs a major overhaul as several students are undeserving of the credential.

Professor Nguyen Ngoc Lanh from the Hanoi Medicine University said that many of Vietnam’s doctoral candidates often perform only a perfunctory job of putting together a thesis and then go on to serve as the next generation of guidance teachers for others, said Prof. Lanh.

The quality of research being carried out in Vietnam is also severely lacking, said Professor Pham Duc Chinh from the Institute of Mechanics in Hanoi.

A heated dispute recently broke out over the dubious awarding of a Ph.D. to an unqualified student from the HCMC Polytechnic University. The incident highlights deep-seated flaws in Vietnam’s higher education system in which the quality of student research takes a backseat to the quantity of Ph.D.s awarded. (Photo: SGGP)

Many studies are carried out which are of limited practical value, or offer little in the way of new ideas as they are simply compilations of previous work performed by others. Much of the research carried out by Vietnamese students also overlaps with one another, leading to redundancies.

Another problem, said Prof. Chinh, is that doctoral students often seek out renowned professors to serve as their research supervisors to ensure a successful thesis defense.

However, such professors are often too busy in their administrative positions to be in touch with current research trends, and thus fall short of being good student mentors.

Inappropriate student-supervisor relationships also compromise the objectivity of research evaluations, experts have said. Since students often live far from their supervisors, the doctoral hopefuls will pay for any travel and food expenses incurred by their professors when coming to see them, despite the fact that the government covers such expenditures.

Supervisors in turn feel obligated to be more lenient with students in judging their work.

In addition, there is often a very close relationship between guidance teachers and scientific council members who ultimately pass or fail doctoral students. Frequently, there is an implicit agreement that council members will pass students because the students’ supervisors will later sit on other panels to assess the doctoral students of council members.

This dubious relationship led one well-known professor, who wished to remain anonymous, to recently withdraw from his scientific council position. He said he felt ashamed to be part of such a sham evaluation process and felt pressured to agree with the decisions of other members, even though he knew many students fell far short of academic requirements.

In a recent case, a heated dispute broke out amongst scientific experts and staff at HCM City’s Polytechnic University over the dubious passing grade given to a doctoral student named TTS.

Despite his questionable research, poor presentation, and inability to answer questions posed by an evaluation panel, TTS received a “pass” for his thesis defense.

The ensuing controversy led the university to repeal the passing evaluation and a meeting was held to discuss the issue on December 4, 2009.

Dr. Tran Thien Phuc, head of the Polytechnic school’s Mechanism Faculty, expressed his disapproval of the evaluation process, saying that TTS’s thesis was carried out sloppily in an illogical manner and was riddled with errors.

Moreover, the student was accused of copying the earlier work of a team of researchers, one of whom had gone on to receive a patent for a subsequent invention born out of the research.

Yet in spite of this, five out of seven members of a scientific evaluation council approved TTS for a Ph.D.

Several academic experts at the meeting criticized loopholes in the approval process, which allow evaluation panels to pass large numbers of doctoral hopefuls regardless of quality.

The case of TTS highlights a fundamental problem with Vietnam’s higher education system that more priority is placed on turning out a high number of Ph.D.s annually, rather than on ensuring students are actually qualified.

Related article:
Dispute breaks out during student’s thesis defense

By Linh An, Tien Dat - Translated by Uyen Phuong

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