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MaRIHE Master thesis reader e-book 2016

Developing Government-Initiated Cross-Border Collaboration in Higher Education in Vietnam: The Example of Vietnamese-German University

Thanh Binh Ha

Research background

Systems of higher education (HE) across the globe are going through a decade of significant transformations. Under the influence of globalization, competition and isomorphic forces, policies and practices in HE are increasingly adopting an international dimension. As higher education institutions (HEIs) across the globe are competing to become leaders in the global knowledge economy, the need for internationalization has become paramount. International activities in HE systems across the world have augmented considerably in recent years. Manifested either through international curricula, mobility programs, joint degrees, or capacity building projects, institutions of HE worldwide are growing to be more internationalized. From the drive to become more competitive, to the moral responsibility to respond to societal challenges, HE is expanding beyond the limits of national borders.

As a result of rapid economic growth, the Asia Pacific region nowadays attracts a great span of attention, since it has the fastest growing HE market on an international scale (Shin & Harman, 2009). Vietnam is an emerging center of initiatives for internationalization of HE (Altbach & Knight, 2007). Under the growing demand for higher education from the middle class, Vietnam’s leaders reviewed the experience of other countries in the Southeast Asian region and decided to open up the education sector to foreign providers (Dang, 2011). More recently, the government has announced an initiative to establish a series of new institutions with international partners and has expressed a willingness to commit funds borrowed from multilateral lenders like the WB. In 2006, MoET announced the establishment of New Model University (NMU) Project, stating to open four state-of-the-art public universities by 2020 with the support from the Vietnamese government and an overseas government. Aiming at creating world-class universities, Vietnamese – German University was established in 2008 in Ho Chi Minh City, and University of Science and Technology in Hanoi in 2009, as a result of a partnership with the French government (Clark, 2013). Most recently, Vietnam – Japan University has been established in 2014 in Hanoi.

NMU Project’s universities are facing multiple challenges. Being very young universities with almost no dyed-in-the-wool history, not only are there no best practices to learn from, but also the availability of channels to share knowledge and experiences is relatively rare. Moreover, these universities have not been able to map themselves in the Vietnamese HE system, or introduce their institutions as an attractive destination for prospective students, researchers, and sponsors. Most importantly, there has been no research to show the main characteristics of this model of university, acting as a strategic collaboration between Vietnam and a partner country, rather than solely being an example of educational export from a developed country to developing country, which is similar to the model of branch campus.

Utilizing the Collaboration Theory which comprises of general principles derived from observing the development of intentional, inter-organizational collaborative by Gajda (2004), the thesis scrutinizes the why, the what and the how of cross-border collaboration in the case of the Vietnamese – German University (VGU), the first pioneer of NMU Project. Moreover, it is intriguing to answer the question whether VGU is truly an innovative type of institution, or merely a practice of German offshore education in Vietnam. Therefore, central to this thesis is the endeavor to answer the main question:

How to conceptualize and foster cross-border collaboration in higher education in Vietnam from a stakeholder perspective?

Within the specific context of New Model University Project, the research targets to answer the following sub questions:

  • Why is there a need to establish cross-border collaboration?
  • What forms of cross-border collaboration are being implemented?
  • How can the level of integration and relationship among stakeholders in the collaboration be assessed? 
  • What stages does the cross-border collaboration go through?
  • How to foster cross-border collaboration in the future?

This research will contribute to the discipline of theory to explore the reality of CBC in HE. Existing researches prove that collaboration is often examined through the perspective of resource dependency theory, corporate social performance/institutional economics theory, strategic management/social ecology theory, microeconomics theory, institutional/negotiated order theory, and political theory (Gray & Wood, 1991). Some theories identify preconditions for collaboration and predict its outcome, others place the paramount concerns on the process and relationships between stakeholders and the environment. As a result, none of the theories offers a comprehensive model of collaboration, or is able to capture all general aspects of collaboration (Elliott, 2016). More importantly, CBC in tertiary education is prevalent in practice, not yet in theoretical framework. For this reason, the literature review of this research reflects on various practices to provide a typology of CBC in HE.

Accordingly, the empirical research provides a comparison between theory and practice by utilizing the Collaboration Theory to analyze CBC at VGU. Examples from the establishment and management of VGU as a result of CBC between Vietnam and Germany in HE will shed lights to improve understanding of the phenomenon of CBC with a comprehensive approach that considers perspectives of all key stakeholders involved in the collaborative efforts. The compare and contrast will suggest adjustment of the typology of CBC in HE resulted from the literature review. For the HE field of research in Vietnam, the research can be served as a preliminary reflection with individual feedbacks from stakeholders on their participation and engagement in the collaboration endeavors.

Theoretical framework

In tertiary education, both demand for and delivery of HE activities are crossing borders more and more frequently. Affected by globalization and internationalization, people, provider and services are moving across countries to enroll in or deliver HE services. Scholars have been paying a great attempt to describe the dramatic development of cross-border HE, or transnational education under various potential forms and benefits (Knight, 2005, 2008; de Wit, 2011). Cross-border education is defined as the second dimension of internationalization, besides internationalization at home, referring to “situations where the teacher, student, program, institution/provider or course materials cross national jurisdictional borders” (OECD, 2004, p.19). Knight (2008) categorizes four forms of cross-border education based on who or what crosses the border: people mobility – a person can go abroad for educational purposes; program mobility – an educational program can go abroad; provider mobility – an institution, organization or company can go or invest abroad for educational purposes; and project mobility – academic projects and services can cross border for educational linkages. This research focuses on the cross-border characteristic of HE; however, instead of exploring the broad realm of cross-border HE in general, central to this thesis is the collaboration that makes these cross-border educational forms mentioned above happen, by presenting a case study.

Taking into account the cross-border nature of HE in recent years, along with the purpose of understand the multidimensional meanings of collaboration that would be investigated throughout this research, a preliminary definition of cross-border collaboration guiding this research is presented below:

Cross-border collaboration is an innovative, interactive process among internal and external stakeholders that transverses national jurisdictions. The parties involved support the achievement of mutual goals by working together to communicate their knowledge, resources and competences throughout all stages of the collaboration activities. In the context of higher education, cross-border collaboration supports the enhancement of teaching, learning and research experiences for the university community.

Academic interest in developing a systematic, deep understanding of the theoretical issues involved in forming and maintain collaboration has been growing for the last three decades. A comprehensive approach, the Collaboration Theory, is introduced by (Gajda, 2004) to enhance the development and assessment of international and inter-organizational collaborative. Gajda’s experiences show that collaboration, despite being “a catchall to signify any type of inter-organizational or inter-personal relationship” (p.66), can be examined and understood as an intervention and as an outcome. Major functions of Collaboration Theory are to demystify the meanings underlying collaboration, to describe and assess level of collaboration, and to engage stakeholders in a dialogical process of formative evaluation, which should result in powerful information regarding the goals, strategies, and structures most appropriate for decision making by leaders, members, and stakeholders. Through observing the phenomenon of multiple individuals or entities working together to develop a strategic alliance, Gajda (2004) generates the Collaboration Theory comprised of the following five generally accepted principles:

Principle 1: Collaboration is imperative

Individuals, educational authorities, governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, community networks, and business groups are increasingly required to come together to address complex issues that the society today is facing. By working together, individual entities can pool scarce resources and activity duplication can be minimized in order to achieve a vision that would not otherwise be possible to obtain as separate actors working independently. This principle describes the preliminary stage in which the needs and rationales that encourages parties to participate in the collaboration are strongly emphasized.

Principle 2: Collaboration is known by many names

Its meaning is described as “working together,” “a joint venture,” “working jointly with others,” “joining forces,” “working in partnership,” “pooling resources,” “acting as a team,” and “cooperating with one another”. The terminology used to describe collaboration is extensive: consolidation, network, partnership, coalition, alliance, consortium, association, councils, task forces, and groups. With this principle, it is possible to have multiple types of collaboration within one endeavor, depending on stakeholders’ needs and their actual capability.

Principle 3: Collaboration is a journey, not a destination

There are varying degrees and types of linkages that develop between agencies that seek to work together in some capacity. Most collaboration theorists contend that collaborative efforts fall across a continuum of low to high integration. The level of integration is determined by the intensity of the alliance’s process, structure, and purpose.

Principle 4: With collaboration, the personal is as important as the procedural

Collaboration depends upon positive personal relations and effective emotional connections between partners. Trust is developed between partners only when there is time, effort, and energy put into the development of an accessible and functioning system for communication. Interpersonal conflict needs to be recognized as normal and even expected as the level of integration and personal involvement increases.

Principle 5: Collaboration develops in stages

The literature on organizational change describes the development of a strategic alliance as a process as the journey of “assemble, order, perform, and transform”, before achieving effective collaborative performance developed by Bailey and Koney (2000). “Assemble” stage implies the relationship at cooperation level, move to “order” at coordination, “perform” in coalition and collaboration, and finally “transform” and reach coadunation (Frey et al., 2006).
In order to understand the phenomenon of CBC in HE in Vietnam, this study attempts to apply the Collaboration Theory as a conceptual framework to review the current system of collaboration, evaluate its performance and suggests future improvement. It mainly analyses five topics: the increasing needs to establish collaboration, forms of CBC, level of integration, connection between stakeholders, and collaboration stages. Figure 1 below illustrates the conceptual framework of the study.

Figure 1: Conceptual Framework 


The qualitative strategy of inquiry is adopted in this study, because the objective of this study is to pursue an in-depth investigation of the contemporary CBC phenomenon in a complex environment – institutions of higher education, which requires multiple perspectives from a variety of stakeholders. The quantitative strategy is not suitable for this research purpose, as strategy of inquiry such as survey can only provide a numeric description of trends, attitudes, or opinions of population, or experiment research serves the purpose of determining if a specific treatment influences an outcome (Creswell, 2013).

Among various qualitative strategies of inquiry, case study is chosen because this empirical inquiry investigates a contemporary phenomenon in depth and within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident (Yin, 2009). Case study research can be a single case study or multiple case studies, both having a primary justification of exploring some contemporary issue in depth (Biggam, 2011). Preliminary research of the NMU Project suggests that the study can be conducted with multiple case studies, considering the fact that this project is a representative case of government-initiated CBC in HE with multiple initiatives. The case of VGU perfectly meets Yin’s criteria (2009) with the following justifications:

  1. The case is unique in Vietnamese’s HE system: It is the only public university established and supported by the Vietnamese and German government.
  2. The case is representative: Being a ‘product’ of collaboration between Vietnam and Germany, VGU provides numerous types of collaboration in tertiary education. It is also the pioneer project of NMU.
  3. The case is revelatory: there have been several researches discussing CBC in terms of people mobility (student, faculty, and/or researcher exchange), program mobility (twinning, dual degree, franchised, etc.), and branch campus as representative of provider mobility. However, no previous research which observes and analyzes the phenomenon of collaboration between governments to establish a university serving all the mentioned purposes.
  4. The case can represent the critical test of a significant theory: The Collaboration Theory has been commonly applied in research fields such as business, organizational management, health care, environmental studies, tourism, and the like. HE is also a field which encounters and practices a great scale of collaboration, therefore the single case can test whether this theory is useful in understanding CBC in the field.
  5. Finally, the case is not yet a longitudinal case, considering that VGU is only in its 8th year after establishment. However, future research at different points of time can provide approaches to see how specific conditions change over time, and answer the questions whether this university model can, and should sustain.

Due to the main purpose of collecting qualitative data, interview is the primary method of data collection to be used in this study. Interviews are carried out one-on-one, and face-to-face, because the researcher lives and studies in Germany, while having the convenience to travel to Vietnam, her country of origin. Firstly, the network of stakeholders involved in the CBC in the case of VGU is drawn to identify key participants for interview. VGU is the pioneer project of NMU, initiated by the Vietnamese and German governments. While on the Vietnam side, the main supports and guidance come from MoET, the German side includes a much more diverse combination of stakeholders. In 2010, the World Bank (WB) approved a loan for a new campus to be constructed in Binh Duong province. The negotiated volume of loan is approximately 200 million USD, of which Vietnam finances 20 million USD. Accordingly, MoET formed a Project Management Unit of VGU Development (PMU). Therefore, WB and PMU are also considered two main stakeholders in the venture.

Next, participants were identified using criterion sampling method. Criteria to select participants include managers with decision-making power, leaders with high involvement in the collaboration process, and members with major influences and responsibilities during the collaboration process. Convenient sampling is also in place, due to time and geography issues, as well as the access available to approach prospective participants. In total, eight key representatives from organizations and institutions within the network who engaged actively in setting up and running VGU voluntarily accepted to participate in the data collection process. They are interviewed in March, 2016 in Germany and in April, 2016 in Vietnam, addressed as listed in Table 1.

Table 1: List of key participants

All interviews use semi-structured questions, through which the respondent is not confined to a limited number of responses, thus can provide historical information, and at the same time, researchers have the control over the line of questioning (Creswell, 2013). There are two sets of interview questions tailored to VGU staffs and VGU supporters – stakeholders in the network. During the interview, memos are taken to ensure important messages are noted down. Eight interviews were voice-recorded in agreement with each interviewee. Secondary data, in the form of university documents and statistics, assist and compliment the data extracted from interviews, to provide a more comprehensive understanding of CBC. Secondary data are collected from various sources, such as VGU Master Plan 2015, VGU Website, and VMU Procurement Plan 2016.

The data analysis is proceeded hand-in-hand with data collection and write-up of findings, summarized in the following steps:

Data transcription

With the interview schedules divided separately into two periods, one in Germany and one in Vietnam, I could finish transcribing three interviews taken place in Germany thus accomplishing a data set of the German side before carrying out the remaining interviews in Vietnam. Interviews in Germany were carried out in English, while four out of five interviews in Vietnam were proceeded in Vietnamese, and later on the transcript data were translated into English.
Data reduction and grouping. In the first round of data reduction and arrangement, the raw data were first filtered into five topics based on the conceptual framework of the study. In the next round, in order not to limit the inductive approach when exploring a phenomenon and not let my thinking become too driven by the framework, I revisited all the data which did not fit into the conceptual framework to and found a common topic arose by the majority of participant. This will be discussed in detail in finding section.

Data coding

Together in the process of data grouping, useful data are hand-coded based on identified topics and themes. Secondary data collected from documentations are also coded accordingly. The coding strategy follows categories suggested by Creswell (2003): codes on expected topics based on literature review, codes that are surprising and not anticipated at the beginning of the study, and codes that are unusual and of conceptual interest. This process allows comparison of findings in the next section. 

Data interpretation. Finally, data will be interpreted, firstly though a comparison among data sources, namely between the Vietnam side and Germany side, and between stakeholders from the same side. The next approach is a comparison of the findings with information gleaned from the literature and theory (Creswell, 2003). In other words, it answers the question how to conceptualize CBC in Vietnamese HE, and how the Collaboration Theory is useful in understanding the phenomenon of CBC in HE. By using this theoretical lens, the study will also call for action agendas for future improvement of the framework itself, and related collaborative activities.

Key findings

The nutrients supporting the roots of collaboration in the case of VGU are response to social demand, knowledge sharing and transfer, strategic relationship enhancement, and a pathway to in the internationalization. Although motivations to collaborate is different from stakeholders, the major rationale behind is the political drive that urge Vietnam to build a strategic relationship with Germany through the establishment of VGU. On the other hand, the university first started with a ranking-driven motivation, which is a very challenging objective to be accomplished. However, upon establishing collaboration, partners agreed on a mutual goal of building a research public university in Vietnam utilizing the German HE model.

In term of collaboration forms, VGU is the center of a comprehensive network of collaboration with stakeholders from Vietnam, Germany and the World Bank. The Vietnamese governments support the university mostly through the Project Management Unit of VGU. On the German side, DAAD and WUS act as representative of the Federal Government and State of Hesse. The World Bank joined the network since 2010 to financially support VGU. Collaboration have been existing mostly in the form of instructional approach, somewhat in the form of non-instructional effort, both at operational, policy-making, and institutional level. Slowly but steadily, VGU is making positive and substantial contributions to stakeholders from three sides while working towards realization of the agreed mutual goal.

The study can be served as a preliminary assessment of level of integration and relationship among stakeholder. Three circles of network with different levels of integration and relationship can be seen in the case of VGU. With the university in the center, the inside circle of parties with the highest level of integration with VGU is the University Council and German universities within the VGU Consortium. Meanwhile, the outside circle with medium level of integration includes the DAAD, WUS and World Bank. Simultaneously, the whole project receives support and steering from the Vietnamese MoET, German Federal Government and the State of Hesse.

Stakeholders in the same circle of networking with similar tasks and responsibilities in the collaboration have high level of integration. However, integration between three circles are not yet effective. Some issues to be considered are lack of communication leads to decision-making solely from one side at some points, and low response from the other partner while one partner requests to have better information sharing. However, compared with the continuum of integration suggested by (Gajda, 2004), it is clear that the collaborative efforts moved from “cooperation” where partners agreed on a mutual goal set, to “coordination” where specific tasks are aligned to parties with compatible goals, and now approaching “collaboration” stage. The notion that whether parties give up certain of independence in collaborating with each other was not observed.

One advantage of VGU is that the collaboration first started thank to a good relationship between individuals, Dr. Udo Corts – Former Minister of HE, Research and the Arts of Hessen State and Prof. Dr. Nguyen Thien Nhan - Former Minister of Education and Training of Vietnam in 2006. Moreover, the longstanding good relationship between two countries built up trust from stakeholders and opened the pathway to invite them into the collaboration. However, similar to level of integration, the relationship between partners of different circles except having VGU at the center is rather loose. Communication between these groups, or inter-professional collaboration remains a question, which makes it challenging to develop a close relationship between them.

Conclusively, a high level of integration and tight relationship among stakeholders working in the same circles around VGU is obvious. On the other hand, stakeholders do not have a high level of integration and close relationship with ones from the other two circles. However, it is important to note that rather than being three separate networking, these groups are concentric circles with VGU at the center. Hence, better interaction mechanisms to enhance the level of integration and relationship should be implemented to tackle the issues of not functioning as one united comprehensive network of stakeholders.

Stages of establishing and maintaining collaboration in the case of VGU were depicted in four stages described in the Collaboration Theory. Although developing accordingly to stages of the theory, the collaboration in the case of VGU is presently at the end of “perform” stage and the beginning of “transform” stage. With this current development, moving towards these transformation is challenging and clearly requires more time than scheduled. Clearly, the university is in need of developing strategic plan to receive support from the German “flying faculty” in adjusting the curriculum as well as providing training to Vietnamese professors in order to accelerate the “Vietnamization” process, rather than merely delivering the study programs in Vietnam.

Moreover, CBC at VGU has shown that intense communication is the sixth principle to develop a successful initiative. Frequent communication maximize both information-sharing and joint problem-solving arrangements and improve transparency in decision-making process, which has not been very effective in the case of VGU. Especially in a collaboration involving partners from multiple countries, intercultural communication competence is of importance with consideration of difference in partners’ languages and cultures.


As discussed above, the study suggests adding intercultural communication as an additional principle of the CBC theory in the context of HE. Moreover, the model suggests future research to testify and generalize a framework to understand CBC in HE with a more comprehensive approach in consideration of multiple stakeholder’s perspectives. Collaboration in HE examples are plentiful as witnessed in practice. It is a significant strategy institutions use to cope with the turbulence and complexity of their environments, yet “remains underdeveloped as a field of study to inspire creative conceptual contribution” (Gray & Wood, 1991). The need to construct an overall theoretical perspective to a more comprehensive collaboration theory is emphasized, especially in this era of globalization in which multi-national cooperation occurs daily.

Future research can start with applying similar research design for a multiple case study methodology. For Vietnam, it is of importance to conduct a research on four available universities established in the NMU Project to review and assess their impact. The study would contribute to government’s decision whether to further develop more universities under the same project. Moreover, an implication to the country’s HE system here lies in the fact that these international model should share useful lesson learnt to other institutions.

On the other hand, mapping universities in the world which were established under similar initiatives is also interesting to see a worldwide trend and its influences on the HE system. Germany is leading the process with the growth of “German-backed” universities, with at least 6 institutions with German-backed all over the world, both public and private, such as German – Jordanian University in Amman, Jordan; Turkish – German University in Istanbul, Turkey; German-Kazakh University in Almaty, Kazakhstan; German University Cairo in Cairo, Egypt and so on. Inclusive research of this spreading phenomenon would strengthen German HE’s internationalization profile, as well as evaluating and foreseeing a future possibility of this bi-national university’s expansion similar to branch campus model.


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