Meritocracy and the Key to Good Governance


In late 2020, several Vietnamese civil servants were discovered among over 600 individuals accused in a scandal in which a Hanoi university, Dong Do University, had been issuing fake degrees. Some used the degrees to apply for postgraduate education or to defend their doctoral thesis, while others obtained them to participate in public servant recruitment exams or take part in an examination for rank promotion.

In Vietnam, and the world, meritocracy is believed to be the solution for an individual to achieve upward mobility by virtue of what are seen as their own innate talents and hard work, rather than any inherited wealth or privilege. This is particularly true for politicians and civil servants, who want to show the people that they have worked hard to deserve their positions in the system. Meritocracy, however, has its own problems.

The Tyranny of Merit

In his newest book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel outlined some inherent drawbacks of meritocracy. Mainstream discourse prizes meritocracy for giving the “underprivileged group” an equal opportunity to rise up the ladder of success and thereby, transcend the circumstances of their birth’ through their own efforts. Yet, “it has nothing to say about how far apart the rungs on the ladder should be,” Sandel disagreed.

Meritocracy assumes a level playing field for all participants and if one does not rise, it is because they have not tried hard enough. However, this is often not the case. Inequalities in education still exist in our society as a whole. Those who have better access to higher education tend to have more chances to translate their educational achievements into better jobs, wealth and generally more promising life chances.

As a consequence, there exists a diploma divide in our world today in which people with merits, the elites, are in charge of the lives of the rest of the population, be it in the business sphere, cultural sphere, social sphere, or political sphere. This gives rise to two deep-rooted problems.

The first problem, according to Sandel, is that the meritocratic elites “display little understanding of the discontent that is roiling politics around the world.” Politicians gradually become out of touch with the economic reality for those living in poverty, or even those struggling to stay out of it. However, the silver lining for this group is that they still work hard and sacrifice their time and effort to achieve their degrees. They earn their merits.

On the contrary, the second problem is one without any silver linings. Living in a society in which power falls into the hands of the few, sometimes the desire to become one of the meritocratic elites grows strong. Yet not that many people are willing to pay the price of lost time and effort. This group often resorts to either complete some short, easy courses without much merit, or obtain a degree illegally. The ramification of such action on the prospect of governance can cause great distrust and wariness among the population.

There exists a debate to redesign meritocracy in order to equalize outcomes. The solutions range from offering scholarship, aid, to affirmative action in education and employment to improve access to these opportunities among the less advantaged and make the most of the opportunities to narrow the gap. However, such solutions cannot be employed and utilized without a good system of government. We still need public servants with merits.

It is a chicken-and-egg problem: we cannot narrow the inequality gap without merit. The skepticism against meritocracy should not deter us from upholding good intentions and the practical demands of governing: to use power to achieve shared goals. People with merits should not be held back just because they are “the privileged ones.” Nevertheless, we as a society need to hold them accountable to ensure good governance.

They Key to Good Governance

Vietnam has a long history of using the meritocratic civil service examinations to fill its bureaucratic structure of government. This even preceded the emergence of a comparable system in Western Europe and Japan and is still in use today. Meritocracy is needed to help a society progress.

While the debate against meritocracy and technocracy is still without a good answer, as an educational institution, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) has our own belief of what the key to good governance is. Evidently, we need to choose the person best able and best equipped to govern; we also need one who has moral and civic virtue. Lacking either part of the equation, we will not have a fully functioning government.

At FSPPM, we try our best to design the curriculum of the Master in Public Policy program (MPP) to closely combine advanced theories and global knowledge with a deep understanding of Vietnamese context. The program is academically rigorous so that our students are well prepared to tackle regional and global challenges, and devise solutions that can work well in Vietnam. Without a knowledgeable generation of change-makers, Vietnam cannot prevail in the quest of great transformation.

It is meritocracy but not one without empathy and compassion. We are living in an era where growth is driven by the knowledge-based industry in which the top 1% gain more rewards than the rest. Rapid technological advancement only exacerbates the problem of inequality. These changes cause the worsening wage distribution and threaten to deepen the divide between higher-skilled and lower-skilled workers, where low-skill workers are at risk of losing their jobs forever.

Addressing inequality and maintaining social mobility are continuing challenges and we cannot tackle them without public servants who care. Policies need to be made to foster the right conditions for Vietnamese people to thrive. That is why the public values instilled by FSPPM – integrity, impartiality, inclusion, accountability, innovation and constructive criticism, become a pride of the Fulbright community, as well as an inspiration for researchers and policy analysts in Vietnam.

To make sure that more people are enabled to take advantage of the educational opportunities we offer at FSPPM, our tuition fee is quite affordable with grants and scholarships made readily available to students who are unable to bear the full costs of their degree. With a network of more than 1,400 alumni working across Vietnam, FSPPM also offer students various opportunities to gain invaluable knowledge and widen their career outlook.

Designed to best equip future public servants, the MPP program in Policy Analysis at FSPPM, though, is not for everyone. It is a program to stretch, test and groom the next generation of change-makers to become top public-sector leaders. As Sandel succinctly phrase it: “governing well requires practical wisdom and civic virtue – an ability to deliberate about the common good and to pursue it effectively.” It is, however, a long road that rewards those who have great commitment.

Thach Thao

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