Background Global context and higher education in Vietnam

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The last two decades have witnessed the increasing global growth in quality assurance systems in higher education. The International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) began with 8 members in 1991, its total membership now exceeds 200 members in 2010 (INQAAHE, 2010). This rapid growth in interest in quality assurance systems may have resulted from increased numbers of students, increased public funding for higher education (HE), increased government attention to national needs for graduates, increased demand for HE, decreasing micro-management by governments of higher education institutions (HEIs) and globalisation. All of these reasons have increased the importance of quality assurance systems to assess whether HE is keeping pace with change, to evaluate expenditure decisions, quality of graduates, and transnational mobility of students as well (Kristoffersen & Woodhouse, 2005).

Whilst HEIs in developed countries have a long history of developing their own quality assurance systems and various approaches to improve the quality of teaching, learning and research, quality assurance and accreditation in many developing countries have recently gained much favour (Lim, 1999). In most developing countries, HE is characterized by massification, i.e. the development of mass higher education (Scott, 1995), resource scarcity, increased competition, accountability to various stakeholders and the growing complexity of knowledge (Mhlanga, 2008). Massification in HE is considered as a means of providing developing economies with a highly skilled workforce to enhance economic development. In the year 2008-2009, Vietnam had over 1.7 million students at 369 HEIs (74 % of those are non-public institutions, accounting for 20.5% in total), an increase of more than 10 percent from 1992-1993 (Duong, 2010). Mok (2000) claims that "the rapid increase of university students, together with the expansion of private colleges and universities in Taiwan has been cause for social concern'' (p.654). That much of this expansion has "…been unbridled, unplanned, and often chaotic" (World Bank & UNESCO, 2000, p.27). The results as reported by World Bank and UNESCO (2000) as "deterioration in average quality, continuing interregional, intercountry, and intracountry inequalities, and increased for profit provision of higher education could all have serious consequences" (p.27). Many educators and scholars have expressed their concerns about the quality of education provided by HEIs and the protection of consumers of that education (Pillay, Maassen, & Cloete, 2003). Zemsky (1997) also noted that new developments like reduced public funding and rapidly increasing enrolments may lead to the problems of lowering academic standards. In response to aforementioned concerns about quality, many governments and universities in the world have focussed more on quality assurance policies and mechanisms. A wide variety of quality assurance agencies have been formed nationally, regionally and internationally including INQAAHE (1991), Nordic Network of Quality Assurance Agencies (1992), European Association of Quality Assurance (ENQA, 2000) and Asia Pacifica Quality Network (APQN, 2003).

In line with these developments in the world, Vietnam is also taking up steps to establish a similar quality assurance system in tertiary education. The World Conference on Higher Education in the late 1990s marked the beginning of quality movement and assurance in Vietnam when a Vietnamese representative presented development strategies to 2020 for higher education by Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) as to complete the organisational and managerial systems of tertiary education, empowering universities in terms of their training and research, as well as to develop a system to assess and control the quality of higher education, the quality of teaching and training basing on a standard set of criteria (MoET, 1998). Two years later at Dalat Conference in 2000, the National Workshop on Quality Assurance in Higher Education was held aiming at defining what the quality in tertiary education is and focusing on what could be done to improve the quality of this sector. Particularly, building up a system to assure quality in tertiary education at national and institutional level has been considered as an initial and important step to improve educational quality. More significantly, the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Phan Van Khai at the 2001 National Conference on Higher Education confirmed the government efforts to developing, establishing policies and strategies for the educational development, and identifying approaches and mechanisms in management via monitoring, inspection and accreditation of educational quality (Phan, 2001). To actualise the national strategies in quality assurance, educational quality accreditation was officially brought into the Vietnam Amended Education Act in 2005 (Vietnam National Assembly, 2005), specifically stated in articles 17, 58 and 99. The mission of educational accreditation is proclaimed to be of great concern to the government and requires a scientific and strictly implemented procedure. More research is urgently needed and prioritised in this area in the current context of Vietnamese tertiary education. Further steps have been recently taken to establish and develop a quality accreditation system for higher education during the period 2011-2020 as shown in the following diagram (MoET, 2010).


Function as a national agency on educational quality accreditation






Vocational high schools



Scientific research institutions for PhDs


Figure 1. The relationship between accreditation agencies, MoET and tertiary institutions (MoET, 2010, p.7)

Rationale for the study

The researcher's interest in pursuing quality assurance was motivated by the Rector of her university when she expressed her wishes to have some staff trained abroad in this field so as to help the institutions do the right things first. It is also in line with one objective of Project 322 by the Vietnamese government, i.e. sending 20,000 tertiary teachers abroad for doctorate degrees till the year of 2020, under which the researcher is being funded to carry out her research in quality assurance and accreditation here in New Zealand. This is because of the need of empirically-based insights into sound and comprehensive quality assurance systems in higher education. There is limited research in the area of quality assurance in higher education in Vietnam. As a result, government and tertiary institutions borrow policies and practices from the developed world, particularly the USA (MoET, 2004). In many cases, the transferability is problematic, and they failed to enhance quality in these nations and institutions due to the lack of contextual relevance between national and regional groups (Hofstede, 1994, 2010). Beatty, Berrell, and Martin (2009) proposed that "without the careful direction of those responsible for ensuring quality in cross-cultural educational institutions, groups may begin to develop a series of ideas and attitudes that cumulatively coalesce into an opposition sub-culture" (p.10).

After a long debate and discussions among educators, the US accreditation approach was chosen as a model for Vietnam to follow in its initial efforts to accredit educational quality (MoET, 2004). A myriad of weaknesses and problems were identified after the initial accreditation of twenty HEIs. Whilst self-study and peer review have proved their effectiveness in changes, and played a crucial role in the accreditation process, external evaluation has not been feasible within the Vietnamese historical and socio-cultural context due to Vietnamese beliefs and values about authority, hierarchy, social relationships and "face saving" features in its culture (Q.A. Nguyen, 2008). Harvey (2009b) wrote about quality culture aiming at "requiring self-reflection on the part of the practitioners, something akin to developing a self-critical and reflective community of practitioners" (pp. 2-3), taking contexts and cultures into consideration and recognising that quality is primarily the responsibility of tertiary institutions. Similarly, developing a successful quality culture within HEIs in Vietnam is stated to be the final goal of achieving quality in education. Accreditation in Vietnam, though is expected to contribute to a culture of quality and accountability (Huynh, 2006, Westerheijden, Cremonini, & Empel, 2010), is in practice only a way that helps to see a "quality picture" of an institution at a certain time, which means that accreditation is not an only way for quality problem (Huynh, 2006). It "tends to be a control instrument rather a quality improvement instrument" (Westerheijden, Cremonini, & Empel, 2010, p.193) after the pilot period with the help of World Bank's Higher Education Project 1 (HEP1) and the Dutch government's ProfQim. Huynh (2006) also compares accreditation in Vietnam as exactly the same story of International Organisation for Standardization (ISO). Many countries even do not need to mention ISO when referring to quality. Quality culture rather than accreditation is what Vietnamese higher education institutions need. The awareness of each HEI to build a culture of quality is a genuine objective of accreditation.

In consideration of building a quality culture within an HEI, it is necessary to "examine the implicit and explicit cultural dimensions of both the target institution and the individuals and organizations engaged in the implementation process" (Beatty et al., 2009, p.10). The various conflicts between an institution and its stakeholders can be attributed to regional culture differences, "especially the case when all stakeholders fail to recognize, address, and accommodate their cultural differences" (Beatty et al., 2009, p.11). There appears to be little research exploring the formation of quality assurance policies, strategies and models from the unique cultural contexts of various nations and institutions while at the same time cognisant of worldwide trends.

Working in Vietnamese institutions experiencing an expansion in student enrolments and programme offerings has raised the researcher's awareness of the need to conduct research on quality assurance. As a lecturer, it has been concerning to recognise that the success of an institution in Vietnam is currently based on student enrolment numbers rather than the quality of the graduates from the institution or programme. Neither do institutions explicitly check whether each individual has learnt as a result of the teaching during their enrolment. Under the pressure of expansion and the challenges posed by numerous attendant constraints including reducing public funding, resource shortages, poor working conditions for staff, and political intervene into institution activities, there is a need to protect students enrolled in institutions in terms of quality of education they receive. Although 2009-2020 educational development strategies asserted Vietnamese success in expanding the tertiary education system from 178 HEIs in 2000-2001 to 369 in 2007-2008 (MoET, 2008), quality improvement still represents "a continuing and daunting challenge" (Fry, 2009, p.252).

The researcher's interest in pursuing quality assurance initiatives additionally arose from the fact that teachers, students and employers of the graduates are being excluded in the quality assurance processes, who are considered to be 'insiders' of higher education, not the administrators or policy markers or so-called quality experts, i.e. outsiders of teaching and learning processes.

This study will contribute towards (a) understanding quality assurance systems in different contexts of tertiary institutions under research, (b) exploring potential challenges and enablers to involve students, teachers and employers in the processes of assuring quality as well as (c) understanding key features of a successful quality culture in the Vietnamese tertiary education context.

Initial Literature Review

This section will briefly review the literature on quality, quality assurance movements in tertiary education and the currently emerging concept of quality culture.

The concept of quality within the context of higher education has been explored in a range of literature and how to define it has been debatable and controversial across Europe (Newton, 2007). In higher education, Harvey and Green (1993) define quality as 'slippery and value-laden', Neave (1994, p.115) and Green (1994, p.22) see it as an 'elusive' concept and Becher (1999) considers it as 'a creature of political fashion' (p.235). Scott (1994) claims that there are no possible authoritative ways to define quality in higher education, which reveals 'the little theorising of quality' (Harvey, 2010, p.1) in the literature. Instead of defining what quality is, McConville (1999) asserts that 'you know it when you find it!' (p.2). Green (1994) after a long discussion of quality concludes that 'in the last resort quality is a philosophical concept' (p.27).

They way quality is defined is contestable; however, Harvey and Green (1993) developed five measures of quality which have been accepted worldwide:  

Quality as Exceptional, meaning something special including three variations: distinctive, embodied in excellence, and passing a set of required (minimum) standards

Quality as Perfection or Consistency - encapsulating in two interrelated dictums: zero defects and getting things right first time.

Quality as Fitness for purpose - relating quality to the purpose of a product or service, with two alternative priorities for specifying the purpose. The first puts the onus on the customer (customer specification) and the second on the provider (mission)

Quality as Value for money - you get what you pay for

Quality as Transformation - meaning a qualitative change, a fundamental change of form.

Lomas (2002) applied four of Harvey and Green's (1993) categories of quality (excluding quality as perfection) as an analytical framework to examine whether the end of quality was attributed to the massification of higher education. A survey with 108 senior managers in HEIs in the UK demonstrated that fitness for purpose and transformation were perceived as the most appropriate measures to define quality. The findings also revealed the conflict between perceptions and practices of the senior managers in Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) due to the difficulties in measuring quality as transformation. Consequently, fitness for purpose and value for money are very much interpretation of QAA in its practical application as Seddon (2000) states that quality assurance practices ignore what counts and just concentrates on what you can count. Using a multiple choice questionnaire to examine what quality in HE means to the senior managers may have been problematic because of the complex nature of five quality categorisations by Harvey and Green (1993). Different interpretations of quality in participants' comments during follow-up interviews reflected this complexity. The qualitative data helped clarify their perceptions of quality as excellence to be the most appropriate, rather than fitness for purpose and value for money as found in the quantitative data. The findings also divided the respondents into two categories referring to the result of massification in HE, "more meaning worse" and "more meaning different" (Lomas, 2002, p. 77). Similarly, K.D. Nguyen (2003) used a Likert scale questionnaire to observe Vietnamese deans, staff and students' attitudes towards various ways to define quality in HE, i.e. quality as excellence, meeting customers' expectations, value for money, fitness for purpose and meeting the requirements of the society, which were categorised from initial interviews. Although the latter three were most accepted understandings of quality for the respondents in her study, Nguyen noticed the differences in defining quality amongst various groups of stakeholders (faculty deans, academic staff and students), which is in line with the most dominant understanding of quality concept found in the literature, quality as a stakeholder-relative concept by Harvey and Green (1993), Tam (2001), Vroeijenstijn (1992), and Watty (2006). Exceptionally, Nguyen found consensus in the way they all shared "meeting the requirements of the society" definition of quality. In regard to a variety of stakeholders with an interest in HE, each potentially thinks about quality in different ways. More recently, Iacovidou, Gibbs and Zopiatis (2009) investigated staff and student perceptions of quality in a Cypriot private HEI. This research reinforced the stakeholder-relative approach of defining quality in tertiary education. A mismatch in student and staff's perspectives regarding the importance of seven factors in constituting the quality of higher education was reported in the findings. Put it differently, quality is a "highly contested concept and has multiple meanings" (Tam, 2001, p. 4), "not a unitary concept, it is open to multiple perspectives. Different groups, or stakeholders, have different priorities" (Newton, 2007, p. 15).

Another trend of understanding this concept in HE is that it is a context-relative concept, which is found in literature by Fry (1995), and Nordvall and Braxton (1996). These authors attach quality to a context with respect to the quality of teaching and learning, academic programmes, programme designs, student intake and experience, and assessment as well.

The concept of quality has always been subjected to historical, economical, national and international context. While Houston (2008) supposed succinctly that definitions of quality in higher education are transferred from industry, Vroeijensteijn (1995) states that this concept has always been part of the academic tradition and the changing relationship between higher education and society has led to its external stakeholders demanding attention to quality. Newton (2007) notes that changes in society have had a profound impact on higher education in terms of its expansion, diversification, and massification. These changes also have led to changes in funding regimes, pressures for increased efficiencies and economies of scale and diverse student populations. Harvey (2006) indicates that quality in higher education in the United Kingdom over the last two decades evolved around the need for higher education to contribute more effectively to improving the performance of the economy, raising academic standards and paying continuous attention to the quality of teaching. It would appear that such motivations also hold true for developments in most Western countries (Brennan & Shah, 2000) and also true for Vietnam as stated in its Higher Education Reform Agenda (HERA) where the general aim is identified as:

to reform higher education fundamentally and comprehensively; and make fundamental changes to educational quality, quantity and effectiveness so as to meet the requirements of Vietnam's processes of industrialisation and modernisation, international economic integration and the learning opportunities for people. By 2020 Vietnam aims at having a tertiary education system that is advanced by the regional standards and gradually by the international level, highly competitive and quickly responsive to the socialist-oriented market mechanism. (Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 2005, p. 2)

Contextual variables play an important role in how quality is conceptualised in higher education, which varies across countries, regions, institutions and departments.

The contestable and changing ideas about defining and measuring quality in HE have led to different approaches on how quality should be evaluated. Law (2010) identified three common approaches to addressing educational quality issues: total quality management, performance indicator and external quality monitoring.

The approach of total quality management (TQM) in education followed trends from industry as argued Houston (2007). Murad and Shastri (2010) defined TQM as "the process of integration of all activities, functions and processes within an organization in order to achieve continuous improvement in cost, quality, function and delivery of goods and services for customer satisfaction" (p.10). When implementing in HE, TQM has faced much criticism including ambiguity in indentifying customers in education, leadership and cultural transformation (Srivanci, 2004).

Research-led evidence has proved that TQM in HE is focussing on improvements of non-academic activities. Thalner (2005) criticised several previous studies implementing TQM in HE at institutional level. He carried out research implementing TQM at departmental level, rather than institution-wide. Directors from several sites in Michigan were surveyed about the efficiency of TQM at their departments. The findings from the new model, continuous quality improvement, only demonstrated the success of the model at non-academic activities such as increased financial returns, quicker response, and improved communications within departments and institutions. The results gained from questionnaires may limit the findings to the superficial understanding of TQM in HE without in-depth insights from the directors' perspective and exclude other key stakeholders' viewpoints. Little evidence has been found so far in improvements of core academic activities, i.e. teaching and learning despite its popularity in industry (Koch & Fisher, 1998; Koch, 2003) because of its mismatch to higher education institutions' features (Houston, 2007) or overall cultural differences between higher education and business (Birnbaum, 2000). Consequently, this approach fails to address the transformative nature of education, misfits the exploratory nature of student learning and is fundamentally different from the nature of academic culture characterised by collegiality, professionalism, and academic freedom (Koch, 2003; Houston, 2007).

The way that quality in education is managed and assured has been found to be inconsistent when underpinned by accountability. The second school of thought as outlined by Law (2010) addresses quality issues in tertiary education using external quality assurance approach, which has rapidly developed and become the dominant approach of accountability (Harvey & Knight, 1996). Dill (2000) suggests that there are presently three main approaches to external quality assurance: accreditation, assessment (or evaluation) and audit (or review). Sachs (1994) claims that these approaches serve two main purposes: accountability and improvement; however, Harvey and Newton (2004) believe that 'compliance and accountability have been the dominant purposes and any improvement element has been secondary' (p. 152). Harvey (2006b) while attending INQAAHE workshop in The Hague discussed the impacts of quality assurance with representatives of quality assurance agencies. The diverse impacts identified included evident changes from one review to the next, improvements in performance indicators, adoption of formal internal quality processes by institutions, positive changes found in student feedback, and improvements in graduate abilities from employers' perception. Harvey (2006b) argues that the findings, which seem very positive, resulted from the perspective of quality assurance agencies, and the main complaints from the sector tended not to be addressed. Such complaints found by Newton (2000), Anderson (2006), and Hoecht (2006) to be mainly against external assurance practices included doubtful validity, bureaucratization leading to workload burdens, and superficial and impermanent positive impact. Newton (2000) studied and explained academics' responses to the external quality assurance and monitoring at a higher education college in the UK using a single case study approach with the assistance of interview data, identifying the implementation gap between quality policy intentions and the actual outcomes. Newton supposes that if the conditions and context of academics' work are not paid more attention, academics, who are argued to remain pivotal in attempt to improve teaching and learning quality, may tend to treat quality assurance processes as "game-playing" (Newton, 2000, p.155), and quality assurance activities as a "beast-like" system to be "fed" (p.153) through ritualistic practices in order to meet accountability requirements rather than improvements. This first time-ever study exploring the insider research, i.e. academics' perceptive of quality assurance practices did contribute their voices to the literature in this sector, proving the tensions between accountability and improvement dual purposes of quality assurance. The results were drawn, however, from a UK perspective, a mature and developed higher education system as well as challenging external quality monitoring environment rather than from a developing country with underdeveloped quality assurance systems. The study did not include views from external agencies or other stakeholders so that their possibly different or similar interpretations could not be achieved in that case.

In align with what Newton (2000) concluded in his study, Anderson (2006) revealed critiques of 30 academics of quality assurance processes in 10 Australian universities as it increased workload burdens due to the different perceptions of the contested concept - quality: quality as excellence for academics versus quality as compliance with minimum standards in Total Quality Management discourse. He also argued that unless mutually agreed understandings of the quality concept between academics and quality agencies achieved, academics will continue their resistance to the processes and consider them as what Newton (2000) called games to be played and systems to be fed. Although the strong point of this study as compared with Newton (2000) is the number of universities under investigation, it was also done in a mature tertiary education system, i.e. Australia and limited to academics' perceptions.

Lim (1999) in his article discussing quality assurance in higher education in developing countries asserted that quality assurance processes adopted from developed countries must be modified to suit the conditions of developing countries including poor working conditions for staff, shortage of qualified local staff, significant political intervention in university affairs and ironically enough, the presence of foreign academics. The problematic nature of this transferability is reported in Lim's (2008) study when he examined the understandings on quality assurance between an Australia university and its offshore partner institution in Malaysia using an interview method with staff at all levels. In addition, the study goes further when it argues that quality assurance remains a challenge for not only the importer, Malaysian universities but also the exporter, Australian universities. Those empirical studies from developed countries have indicated the controversial issue over quality and quality assurance between accountability and improvement, how it can believably or hopefully bring improvement for developing countries who borrow the ideas. In addition, the underpinning beliefs and values of the society were not considered as part of the research.

Jones and De Saram in 2005 conducted research to examine 22 academics' views on quality systems in a Hong Kong university, particularly focusing on teaching and learning, two core academic activities in education. They argue that introduction of a lean philosophy together with tolerance of breaking rules in well-intended and rational ways for maximum outcomes as intended, development of a trust culture between staff and management, and giving staff the fullest possible flexibility to translate required standards into practices are necessary for positive changes in higher education. Using critical incident technique may be effective to collect qualitative data in their study in the context that the university was preparing for a newly-approved approach, i.e. the Teaching and Learning Quality Process Review in Hong Kong. It may not be useful technique in other contexts without any recent external quality assurance activities because of the technique's over-reliance on memory. Furthermore, the academic participants were chosen purposively in a way that they all engaged in educational development activities and quality work in that university; therefore, the voices of other academics were excluded.

Research that focuses on narrow range of academics may limit the understandings of quality assurance processes. Jiang (2007) observed the perspectives of both administrators and academics about quality assurance at University of Culture in Australia as a case study with a qualitative research methodology. His findings suggested that there were divergent and opposing views on quality and quality assurance. Administrators perceived it as necessary and relevant to the university's mission whereas academics viewed quality systems as cumbersome, unnecessarily onerous and bureaucratic processes, and performance indicators as a management tool. As a result, they preferred self-assessment, self management of quality at a faculty level to external reviews. He asserted the need of compromising between managerialism and collegialism in order for quality assurance to have a major role in quality improvement. His findings suggest further investigation to ascertain if and how the compatibility of the two approaches may be integrated further in Australian and other universities. It may be useful to investigate the extent to which whether a modern university needs a top-down strategic plan to help it respond to external changes and whether a bottom-up method can be used in the process of strategic planning at universities, developing the culture of quality, which will be discussed later in this section. Like others, his conclusions were drawn from a university in Australia with high quality outcomes; it may be different in universities of developing countries like Vietnam.

Mhlanga (2008) critically examined the nature of quality assurance policies and practices in three different countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, using qualitative data with the aid of quantitative dimensions of data. He confirmed the tensions that were observed amongst the various stakeholders within institutions, especially between management and academic staff. His research revealed the complexities that arise in institutional policy making as a result of the highly differentiated nature of the academy. On the whole, institutions were mainly preoccupied with developing quality assurance policies and systems that are comparable to international standards, hence the heavy reliance on external/international expertise in doing so. The quality assurance systems that were developed did not take into account the contextual peculiarities of the studied institutions. He concluded that a direct consequence of this was the development of policies and mechanisms that were more concerned with standardisation of procedures than with enhancement of academic practice and such quality assurance systems are unlikely to result in the self-improvement of institutions. He also confirmed that the establishment of quality assurance policies and the putting in place of structures and procedures were necessary but not sufficient conditions for enhancing academic practice in universities. Quality assurance policies in his study may refer to top-down approach and the sufficient conditions Mhlanga mentioned may align with bottom-up approach. The compatibility of the two approaches also requires further investigation which should take the ambivalence concerning the relationship of top-down and bottom-up ideas into consideration (Lueger & Vettori, 2008). Several zones of ambivalence argued by Vettori, Lueger and Knassmüller (2007) are management-driven versus stakeholder-oriented strategies, control-oriented versus development-oriented paradigms of evaluation, standardization versus innovation, external versus internal relevance. However, the contexts of his study may be broad enough for obvious differences between three countries though within the same geographical region at governmental and institutional levels. In terms of bottom-up approach and the involvement of all stakeholders in quality work, contextual variables may be different amongst different universities within a country and even between different faculties of a university, or smaller unit of the same faculty.

Mertova and Webster (2009) compared academic voice and leaders in English and Czech higher education quality and identified a number of similar issues/common perceptions and concerns in the area of quality shared by English and Czech academics despite significant cultural and historical differences including lack of focus on innovation and change, collegial approach, and value of research in teaching practices. A further need for a greater focus on quality enhancement in English higher education system with established and advanced level of quality evaluation practices as well as in Czech Republic with less advanced system was identified. The findings caution higher education systems which may be considering adoption of higher education quality mechanisms from overseas to be aware of cultural differences. Two major issues emerge from the study: first, a quality enhancement mechanism is needed rather than a quality assurance mechanism and second, cultural specifics ought to be considered. In Vietnamese context this could include a centralized system in the Socialist Republic nation, and Confucian values on power distance and saving face.

Jiang (2007), Mhlange (2008) and Mertova and Webster's (2009) suggestions for further investigation in the compatibility of top-down and bottom-up approaches are what the researcher wishes to explore in her research.

Integrated top-down and bottom-up approach is forming a current trend in quality assurance, i.e. Quality Culture approach which was promoted by European University Association (EUA 2005, 2006, 2007). This new approach is worth striving because of its improvement potential, which Lueger and Vettori (2008) think differs clearly from more traditional quality management strategies, shifting attention to more development-oriented and value-based aspects. The approach requires the involvement of all stakeholders both external and internal, especially 'front-line' academics and students, who are closest to teaching and learning processes into quality work with the hope to genuinely improving and enhancing quality in tertiary education.

Improvement has been reported in Kowalkiewicz's (2007) research in a Polish higher education institution, confirming a strong positive correlation between the two variables examined: quality culture and quality of teaching. Quality culture largely determined the quality of the teaching they offered. Optimistically he also concluded that universities with a relatively lower value of their intellectual and material resources could be successful in improving quality with the development of quality culture. The author noted that a low level of these resources does not necessarily mean that the teaching is worse. He suggested that well developed quality assurance systems and procedures may not help improvements, unlike a successful quality culture. This could be relevant for developing countries with limited material resources. Kowalkiewicz suggested accrediting quality culture. Needless to say, this can only add more complexity to the current conflict and debate over quality, quality assurance, quality improvement and quality culture and may reflect a poor understanding of quality concept, being used as a "manipulative tool:", seeing it as "an end product" as cautioned by Harvey (2009a).

Since its first introduction officially in higher education among European universities, many authors have discussed the complexity of quality culture concept (Katiliute & Neverauskas, 2009, Harvey & Stensaker, 2008). Most of them focused on the different theoretical frameworks and complicated nature as well as literature around the two concepts 'quality' and 'culture' in the possibility that many efforts in building a quality culture are linked to transformative learning and teaching. Although the concept of quality culture is taken for granted for many networks during Quality Culture Project (EUA, 2006) and no clear definitions offered, following characteristics were identified by Harvey (2007) are indicative of quality culture and summarised by the researcher in Figure 2:

Figure 2: Features of a Quality Culture (developed from Harvey, 2007)

EUA Quality Culture Project reported that any quality culture was based on two distinct elements. The first one, psychologically, is a set of shared values, beliefs, expectations and commitment towards quality. The second one, structurally/ managerially refers to well-defined processes that enhance quality and aim at coordinating individual efforts (EUA, 2006, p.10) (see Figure 3). These two aspects, however, are not to be considered separately: both elements must be linked through good communication, discussion and participatory processes at institutional level (EUA, 2006).

Quality culture




Quality management Quality commitment

Technocratic element Cultural element

Tool and mechanisms to measure, Individual level: personal evaluate, assure, and enhance quality commitment to strive for


Collective level:

individual attitudes add

up to culture

Top-down Bottom-up


Figure 3: Quality culture developed by EUA (2006, p.10)

It is also worth noting that Tam (2001), Harvey (2009a, 2009b), and Huisman and Westerheijden (2010) tend to support transformative initiatives of quality as a crucial conceptualisation, and students' centrality in learning experience as an important underpinning principle for quality endeavours, which is viewed by Carmichael, Palermo, Reeve and Vallence (2001), and Harvey (2006a) as "the heart of quality" in education and training. Such a approach leads to the essentiality of research-informed, evidence-based and improvement-led practices for internal quality assurance in HEIs (Harvey & Newton, 2007), seeking more harmony between internal and external quality assurance relationship in order to reduce the academics' negative feelings of "feeding the beast" (Newton, 2000, Anderson, 2006).

In Vietnam, Westerheijden, Cremonini, and Empel (2010) state that without the stimulus of external scrutiny, internal quality assurance often does not develop at all. With this sense of understanding of accreditation and quality culture relationship, the accreditation is seen as a prerequisite for quality culture development in Vietnamese tertiary education, as opposed to what is seen as no clear answer for EUA's network (Harvey, 2007). However, they also point out that "the extent to which internal quality assurance actually contributes to a culture of quality and accountability rather than being superficial compliance depends partly on the characteristics of accreditation scheme" (p.184). Higher education policy, therefore, in Vietnam seeks to combine improvement through control (Westerheijden, Cremonini, & Empel, 2010).

K.D. Nguyen (2010) summarizes that during the last five years (2004-2009), Vietnam has made great attempts and has shown its desire to catch up with the developed education systems in the world, shaping its strong determination to shorten time and take a 'shortcut' for miracle improvements in education. Hopefully, Vietnam could learn some experiences from other countries for their higher education reform. Education, however, links pretty much to and also is the result of mindset, perceptions, and culture with their own roots, which are not easily to change (Nguyen, 2010). Nguyen argues that this process can take place step-by-step. Initially, all staff and students accept to voluntarily participate in the quality assurance activities, which is supposed to successfully form a culture of quality within HEIs, as many educators have realized that changes do come from the root rather than from the top. Top down policies have no significance on the quality improvement.

Quality culture in higher education as shown in the literature review is quite a complicated and multi-level concept resulting from the intersections between the two concepts 'quality' and 'culture'. Issues of context and culture are critical as they shape not only national but also institutional performance, and also the uniqueness of each country and each institution. Apparently, no research has been done to identify how structure and culture can inform quality assurance systems in higher education. Taken quality culture as the final goal of recent efforts from the government, MoET, and educational experts in Vietnam into account, the understandings of quality culture and possibility of building a culture of quality for Vietnamese HEIs will be critically examined in this study. The characteristics explored by EUA (Harvey, 2007) will serve as indicative of a quality culture.

In summation, the literature review of quality and quality assurance in tertiary education suggests that quality is a contestable, multi-dimensional, and stakeholder-relative concept, and there is always an accountability-improvement tension in the quality endeavour under the current quality assurance paradigms. Consequently, many practitioners and educators have frequently experienced a misfit between the reality and rhetoric of quality in tertiary education not only in western countries where these approaches were originated from, but also in other places with cultural differences that have been adopted them uncritically. Thus a quality culture concept emerges from the need to get all involved in quality dialogue, discussions and decisions. However, it is also noted that there is limited research that examines the compatibility of the two approaches: top-down and bottom-up in order theoretically to solve the accountability-improvement conflict that current total quality management or external quality assurance fail to address appropriately. The quality culture approach that the researcher has decided to use in her research will also serve as 'a tool to identify the potential challenges' as suggested by Harvey and Stensaker (2008, p.438) that may face developing countries with under-developed quality assurance practices like Vietnam. The research hopes to fill the gap in current literature of the compatibility to combine top-down and bottom-up ideas, also helps identify enablers to solve the tension between managerialism and collegialism through communication, participation and trust building (see Figure 4).

The theoretical framework of the study:

Figure 4 below outlines the theoretical framework for the research. The main question 'How can structure and culture inform quality assurance/improvement in the context of Vietnamese higher education institution?' will be addressed in this study. The synthesis of the literature provides insights into the conceptualisation of quality, quality culture and the different policies and practices of assuring quality generally used in HEIs in the world, as well as the contextual factors that shape those policies and practices. These will help forming the theoretical framework of the study and shaping analytical implications for this study. The framework as in Figure 4 will guide how data would be gathered for individual case study and cross-case synthesis. The first implication concerns the accountability-improvement dichotomy established in quality assurance debates, emphasis on external or internal quality assurance. This is of considerable importance for understanding the logic underpinning quality assurance systems in so far as issues of institutional and programme quality improvement are concerned. The second concerns the tensions between quality management and quality commitment. It appears that standards, criteria, performance indicators or any mechanisms of quality assurance from top-down approaches are preferred by policy makers, administrators, leaders and quality assurance agencies because of its effectiveness in quality management and control, as opposed to academics' preferences: self-assessment, self-management, focus on improvements in core academic activities and transformation in student learning. This tends to establish an essentially artificial dichotomy whilst the issues of ownership and stakeholder participation from the bottom-up approach tend to be neglected. Internal stakeholders, who seems to be excluded from the development of these systems, have come to regard the quality assurance systems as being a system to be fed and a game to be played and as such ineffective for improving quality.

The study assumes that contextual variables have a very central role to play in shaping quality assurance systems in HEIs' performance including tertiary institutions' history, their cultures, hierarchical structures and specific socio-economic environments. The contextual particularities of any institution will vary the overall performance of that institution in quality assurance systems that are supposed to be unique to each university.

Additionally, this research will use Cultural theory inspired by Douglas (1982), outlined by Thompson, Ellis, and Wildavsky (1990) and then developed by Harvey and Stensaker (2008) in understanding and analysing an individual's involvement in quality assurance activities at three institutions, and underlying driving forces. In line with this theory, an attempt will be made to clarify current quality culture of HEIs in Vietnamese context under four possible Weberian ideal-types of quality cultures (Table 1).

Table 1: "Quality Culture" in a "Cultural Theory" framework

Degree of group control

Intensity of external rules









(Harvey & Stensaker, 2008, p. 436)

Enabling factors/ potential challenges

Top- down approach - extrinsic


Figure 4: Theoretical framework for the study

Compliance or defiance?

Potential challenges?

Quality commitment quality improvement




Bottom-up approach - intrinsic

Trust building

Quality management tools: set of standards

Cultural elements: values, norms, artefacts, symbols, beliefs

Quality management mechanisms: accreditation

Quality management quality control



Focus of the study:

This research will be located in the area of quality management and quality commitment of tertiary education. More precisely, the study will focus on identifying how culture and structure can inform quality assurance systems, policies, and practices in selected tertiary institutions in Vietnam. Analysis of current practices on quality assurance in different institutions can help reveal a wide variety of difference in ways of doing quality assurance. Furthermore, this study will explore the various quality assurance policies, structures, practices, and methodologies used by three different universities in Vietnam to enhance quality, and will also examine potential challenges to be overcome to involve tertiary teachers, students and employers in quality assurance activities. Enabling factors for mediating/ balancing top-down and bottom-up approaches will also be explored.

Aim of the study

The key research objectives are:

To critically analyse quality assurance systems and practices in selected institutions in Vietnam. It will explore the nature of the policies, structures and practices in compliance with different contexts and cultures of these institutions.

To identify whether there is a tendency of compliance or defiance from the perceptions of tertiary teachers, academic leaders and quality assurance staff responding to current measures or procedures to assuring / improving quality.

To determine any differences or congruencies in quality assurance policies and practices in these institutions.

To identify challenges to be overcome including any cultural obstacles and determinants for the simultaneous process between quality management and commitment.

In order to achieve the above objectives, the following research questions have been formulated:

How can structure and culture inform quality assurance/improvement in the context of Vietnamese higher education institutions?

with the following sub-questions:

What is the current quality culture of HEIs in Vietnamese context?

How is quality assurance managed in HEIs in Vietnam?

How do academic leaders, tertiary teachers and quality assurance staff respond to quality management?

What are the view of tertiary teachers, academic leaders (university rectors, faculty deans) and quality assurance staff about enabling factors and potential challenges to be overcome for a successful quality culture, i.e. for genuine quality improvement?