Engineering Education in Vietnam Through Private Sector Engagement
Building a Skilled Workforce One Step at a Time
Until recently, Vietnam had an agricultural-based economy, with a higher education system catering to a small percentage of the population. In recent years, the country has experienced rapid growth, as manufacturing and technical jobs have flowed in from China and the west. Engineering soon emerged as a field which could play a key role in supporting further growth and development.
The 2018 edition of the Global Competitiveness Report, published by the World Economic Forum, says that an “inadequately educated workforce” is the second biggest inhibitor to doing business in Vietnam, with the country ranking 85th in math and science education.
Arizona State University, which has one of the largest engineering programs in the U.S. and is an established partner with USAID and universities around the world, estimates that Vietnam’s employers face a shortage of several hundred thousand engineers. Only 30,000 engineers graduate annually from university programs and their skill sets are not as competitive as they could be.
Working with the Private Sector to Accelerate Country Self-Reliance
In 2005, the Intel Corporation decided to build its largest semiconductor assembly and test plant in Vietnam. This facility demanded a highly skilled engineering labor force, which Intel struggled to find. For several years, the company thought about ways of supporting the engineering workforce development in Vietnam. In 2009, Intel partnered with Portland State University to offer engineering scholarships to Vietnamese students to study in the United States. More than 73 students benefitted from this program.
At the same time, Intel sought ways to build the engineering capacity locally, which is when the company approached USAID. In 2010, they joined forces and funded Arizona State University to establish the Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program, or HEEAP, in 2010.
Vietnam’s HEEAP refers to a series of Global Development Alliances initiated by Intel Corporation with Arizona State University as the lead implementing partner. It’s supported by USAID and has in-kind support from the private sector. HEAAP Vietnam is one of many USAID Global Development Alliances with the private sector. The series of activities — HEEAP 1.0 (2010-2013), HEEAP 2.0 or VULII (2013-2016) and HEEAP 3.0 or BUILD-IT (2015-2020) — is collectively known as “the HEEAP Alliance.”
HEEAP accelerates economic development by preparing an engineering workforce to boost the growth of high-tech industries in Vietnam and beyond, while supporting the country’s transition from an agricultural economy to a private sector-led, manufacturing-driven economy. Since 2010, HEEAP Vietnam has added partnerships with Siemens Corporation, Cadence Inc., Danaher Corporation and others.
Building Trust One Step at a Time
HEEAP chose a phased approach to build confidence and trust and to eventually be allowed to address curriculum and quality assurance issues. As part of this process, the HEEAP Alliance worked with five core university partners with graduate electrical or mechanical engineering programs: Da Nang University of Technology, Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, Ho Chi Minh City University of Technical Education, Can Tho University and Hanoi University of Science and Technology. The Alliance also worked with three technical colleges with electronics programs: Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh Vocational College of Technology and Cao Thang Technical College. The program was implemented over three phases:
- HEEAP 1.0 (phase one from 2010 to 2013) focused on improving the engineering pedagogy by training engineering faculty on best practices to promote active learning. The program launched a website, identified “champions," established a technical scholarship program for women through Intel Corporation, organized an annual engineering education conference, and leveraged World Bank open-source networks.
- HEEAP 2.0 or VULII (phase two from 2013 to 2016) focused on building the capacity of university deans and rectors through establishing the Vocational and University Leadership Innovation Institute (VULII) and building broader institutional and curriculum improvements aligned with international accreditation standards.
- HEEAP 3.0 or BUILD-IT(phase three from 2015 to 2020) followed almost five years of trust-building and has been able to directly address institutional policy, quality assurance, curriculum, faculty innovation and accreditation.
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Lessons Learned from HEEAP
HEEAP has been particularly successful at transforming engineering education in Vietnam by fully integrating leading Vietnamese universities into an independent, international accreditation system. Sixty programs are expected to be accredited by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) University Network by 2020, and 20 are expected to gain accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) — the “gold standard” of engineering education — by 2022. By then, Vietnam could have the most regionally- and internationally-accredited university and technical college engineering programs of any country outside of the U.S.
But like in all journeys, some challenges exist. Success achieved by the five academic partners of the HEEAP Alliance has not spilled over to other local institutions. To ensure more effective partnerships with local universities, there is a need to get high-level administrators and public officials involved at the beginning. This strategy will make it easier to align strategic plans and performance indicators with the project’s overall goals.
The Alliance has been efficient in deploying large in-kind donations from leading global companies and focusing on skill needs of the global manufacturing sector. This includes Amazon’s support for incorporating cloud-based services into academic programs and support from Microsoft, Oracle, Autodesk, IBM and others to promote their industry-based certifications or credentials. This approach, however, did not favor local entrepreneurs and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Project participants agree that the HEEAP Alliance could have worked harder to engage Vietnamese companies — particularly SMEs — and Vietnam’s emerging (and increasingly youth-driven) entrepreneurial sector.
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HEEAP promotes women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) through several vehicles, including a biannual conference that brings female students together with female corporate leaders from the STEM fields, engineering scholarships for women, and various interventions designed to change perceptions among female students about how engineering can positively impact communities.
Despite these initiatives, partner universities reported difficulty in meeting the 10% enrollment target for women in STEM programs, noting longstanding cultural barriers and a lack of on-campus resources to support women in these fields. Future support would need to consider how to address the need for long-term changes in both on-campus and cultural practices in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s centrally managed higher education system required lots of coordination with various government authorities. In this respect, USAID played a crucial role in helping the HEEAP Alliance work effectively with government ministries.
Overall, the HEEAP Alliance has been effective in building a competent engineering workforce. These efforts will ultimately make Vietnam more self-reliant and competitive in the global marketplace.