In 2019, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management’s Master of Public Policy degree (MPP) became fully-accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) in Washington, DC (NASPAA) (https://www.naspaa.org/).
NASPAA accreditation is the most prestigious award a public policy and management school can receive. The School became one of only 11 non-US schools to be accredited worldwide: only 187 schools in total have to meet NASPAA’s rigorous standards. There are nearly 400 public policy graduate programs in the US seeking this accreditation. No other Vietnamese or ASEAN school has achieved a western accreditation at this level.
Whereas nearly every school usually fails to achieve accreditation in its first year, and most candidate schools have not yet attained NASPAA standards, the School did so on its first try. Not only that, but NASPAA found no major deficiencies, but cited many best practices that might be employed by others.
Earlier in 2008, the School became the first graduate school in Vietnam to offer an MPP degree. In 2016, the School was authorized to award the MPP under its own imperator. Prior to this, the School awarded the MPP under the National University of Economics in Saigon, with which it had partnered for two decades.
NASPAA accreditation is daunting.
The NASPAA Process
NASPAA requires approximately two years of intensive work to complete the accreditation process. The first step is for schools to submit detailed information and statistics, demonstrating that they are eligible to undergo the process.
Next, schools prepare a report demonstrating that they have met NASPAA’s rigorous standards that reflect state-of-the-art best practices, innovations, and performance characteristics of the world’s most prestigious universities.
NASPAA is evidence-based, looking at a school’s mission, goals, and objectives; faculty qualifications and performance; student achievement academically and in the job market; infrastructure and financial resources; classroom facilities; strategic plans, and curriculum.
Some, but not all, of the evidence developed by the Fulbright School included…
- Surveys of alumni; employers; and government and business leaders.
- Surveys of current students upon enrollment and graduation; student class evaluations; and student opinions on student services.
- Outside expert evaluations of course curricula; student exams; student homework; and graduate thesis evaluation.
- Verification that students had mastered the policy and management curriculum.
- Studies of alumni jobs (types and salaries) obtained after graduation; program satisfaction; use of knowledge on the job.
- Analyses of admission practices, enrollments, grading, marketing, and counseling/advising.
- Assessment of the School’s website, brochures, and marketing materials.
- Comprehensive program evaluations.
The School chose several exemplar universities in the region to see how closely it mirrored their best practices.
A report documenting evidence is then prepared and submitted to a panel of 20 or so NASPAA members who are experts in all aspects of administering policy and management schools. The panel reviews the report and requests additional information or documentation as necessary. The School also employed outside experts to review the report before submission to NASPAA.
School leadership and faculty met with NASPAA leadership in Beijing to here presentations on state-or-the-art practices. For example, how to succeed in employing video conferencing and online classes.
Next, a site-visit team is sent to the school to verify the claims in the report to NASPAA in a four-day visit. The team consists of two senior faculty persons from NASPAA accredited schools and a public administration practitioner. All three must have expertise in theory and practice. Site visitors may review any data, reports, student exams, and theses, or documentation they like. This usually includes confidential interviews with faculty and students.
The site visit team then reports back to the panel who thoroughly review their findings against claims and achievements in the report.
NASPAA insists on in-depth faculty and student participation in preparing the report.
The faculty gathered data, prepared sections of the report, and voted on any changes in School policy, procedures, or data gathering. Students and alumni participated in focus groups to offer their opinions about the School.
In addition, the School enlisted internationally-recognized experts in policy and management to help the faculty think about best practices, options, and strategies necessary to become a world-class program. Part of this effort included “in-service” capacity-building opportunities for faculty to stay abreast of the latest learning in public policy and management. For example: developing and writing up case study materials geared to the Vietnamese experience, but based on the Harvard University case study model.
Why Pursue Accreditation
NASPAA accreditation has numerous advantages.
Students graduating from the School can rightly claim that they received a world-class education, recognized everywhere. This helps in applying for jobs, seeking a doctoral degree, or transferring course credits to US and western universities.
Faculty can burnish their credentials when changing jobs, seeking grants and contracts, or competing for academic rewards.
The School can attract visiting professors and guest speakers to embellish the program. Accreditation helps attract outside funding.
The School has numerous partnerships made possible through accreditation. For example, the School recently partnered with the National Academy of Public Administration (www.napawash.org) in Washington to pursue joint projects, exchange faculty and fellows, and offer courses and seminars. NAPA is an organization, chartered by the US Congress, whose members are elected for their lifetime contributions to public policy and management. It is considered the highest honor for practitioners and academics.
So, with this foundation, the School now has the potential to become a leading institution in the Asia-Pacific region. It is already well on its way to doing so.
Evidence of Success
Receiving accreditation is the ultimate indication of a successful program. The most important indicator in my view is the 1,300 alumni. Whenever the School offers a program, the alumni show up. Whenever the School needs help or support, the alumni respond “whatever you need.”
Other indicators are that 90% graduated from the program, and 95% are employed in public policy and management positions.
When the school held an information session for this year’s class, several hundred potential students showed up, and another 10,000 viewed the event online.
Dr. Terry Buss (NAPA Fellow, Fulbright School’s Senior Advisor on international accreditation)
Over the 25 years of development since establishing the Fulbright Economic Teaching Program, and its successor Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), we have always given precedence to the growth of the Vietnamese faculty members and teaching program.
For the first 15 years, Harvard Kennedy School actively assisted FSPPM with technology transfers to ensure it met the strictest academic standards. Built on this foundation, FSPPM continuously developed and reformed its teaching program, a relentless effort that was recognized in July last year, as the school was accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administrations (NASPAA).
The road to accreditation began in May 2017, as FSPPM Director Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh met over Skype with NASPAA chairman David Birdsell and other experts to learn more about the international accreditation process of NASPAA. 9 months later, in early April 2018, Dr. Tu Anh and Prof. Terry Buss of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration and chief strategy advisor at FSPPM arrived in Beijing, China, to attend a conference held by NASPAA.
The aim of the conference was to exchange ideas and establish relations with the network of more than 300 member schools within NASPAA. FSPPM leadership and faculty prepared a special document called a Self-Study Report to be reviewed by NASPAA leadership. This is when Dr. Tu Anh and Prof. Buss met with Prof. Jeffery L. Osgood, chairman of NASPAA’s Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA) in Beijing, and directly presented the document.
Prof. Osgood and other COPRA experts seemed surprised as they perused it on the spot. As they mentioned, the report was impressive, comparable to a final report as it would be submitted before qualifying for the accreditation.
Once returned to Ho Chi Minh City, FSPPM leadership received an email from COPRA asking the school to submit an Eligibility Report to COPRA before their mid-April deadline. COPRA also recommended that FSPPM send a proposal asking for permission to send their Self-Study Report in August the same year.
FSPPM members involved in the process only learned recently that our school was the only one in the world to receive exceptional permission. Indeed, under NASPAA regulations, Eligibility Reports and Self-Study Reports must be submitted one year apart; accordingly, FSPPM was supposed to submit our Self-Study Report in summer 2019, with an expected accreditation date in summer 2020 at the soonest.
Four months after the Beijing event, FSPPM’s file was put in NASPAA’s waiting list, joining around 400 public policy graduate programs in America alone.
In late July 2019, FSPPM was officially accredited by NASPAA for a period of 7 years, the highest possible accreditation outcome. FSPPM is the only public policy school in Southeast Asia and one of 11 public policy institutions outside America to be accredited. Among 300 NASPAA members, only 187 met the strict standards demanded by the accrediting board.
Looking back at FSPPM’s history, we realize NASPAA’s accreditation is not an overnight victory for the school. It is the result of relentless efforts to improve teaching quality, forging onwards for over two decades.
When the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) started in 1995, American founders wished to equip Vietnamese policymakers with modern economic management knowledge to support Vietnam in their transition to a market economy. The project was assigned to Harvard Kennedy School with the aim of creating a mini version of HKS’s teaching program in Vietnam.
FETP’s first professors came from leading American universities. They were very excited to lecture on neoclassical economics at FETP the way they lectured at Harvard, with the curriculum compiled from those of American universities.
Looking back at those days, Dr. Tu Anh claimed this Harvard legacy was a precious foundation for FSPPM. Vietnamese managerial officers did not only absorb economic management knowledge from a modern curriculum but also received direct academic assistance by dedicated professors from Harvard and other American universities. Some professors stayed in Vietnam for a whole semester, some traveled back and forth many times in a year.
After a while, American professors realized Harvard’s curriculum should be localized, rooting deeper into a Vietnamese context. Based on their research, observations, and experiences, they started to incorporate Vietnam’s current issues into their teaching framework.
At that time, FETP was the only school in Vietnam to have courses such as Investment Project Appraisal and Development Finance. In developed countries, these majors may sound familiar, but for a transitioning economy like Vietnam where the need for reforms was most urgent, those concepts were crucial to bringing fresh perspectives to Vietnamese policymakers.
For classical courses such as Microeconomics, Macroeconomics or Econometrics, FETP professors always tried to include practical cases from Vietnam in their lectures so that students could apply what they learnt to solving economic management issues in the country or analyzing Vietnamese policies.
Gradually, this localized teaching program became the hallmark of FSPPM’s identity and a legacy that the school is proud of.
Reaching for the highest international standards
In 2008, FETP’s one-year training program on applied economics was upgraded to become Vietnam’s first Master in Public Policy program. With an interdisciplinary approach and evidence-based teaching and research, it aimed to solve the problems facing Vietnam’s policy community.
Above all, FSPPM devised a more ambitious plan: to reach for the highest international standards as applied by leading universities in the world.
With the stable development of academic training and the rich experiences of honored Vietnamese faculty members such as professors Nguyen Xuan Thanh, Pham Duy Nghia and Huynh The Du, the Fulbright school set out to challenge and assess the quality and effectiveness of training. Before being accredited by NASPAA, our school invited outstanding lecturers from the University of California (US), the University of Washington (US), the University of British Columbia (Canada) and Duke University (US) to conduct two independent appraisals of the school’s training program, first in 2009 and then in 2016-17.
“Using thorough appraisals by partner schools with their own standards is how our school affirms our training quality. We do our best to give our diverse student community access to the globally recognized education they deserve. Through academic excellence, we can ensure they are equipped with the skills they will need, preparing them for various career opportunities in diverse areas after graduation,” Dr. Tu Anh emphasized.
Chau Ngo Anh Nhan, former student of the MPP2 class, said the outstanding feature of Fulbright’s training program was the provision of a basic theoretical framework for students that offered new possibilities to analyze real-world issues for consulting and policymaking. Additionally, Fulbright school focused on providing analytical methods and skills so that students could make effective decisions and have a positive impact on society.
Ho Quang De, deputy director of Phu Yen Province’s Finance Department and a former student of MPP2 class, highly appreciated how the training program intertwined theoretical work with case studies, keeping at the forefront the policies affecting the lives of Vietnamese people every day, and comparing them with what is happening in the world.
“This helps students to deeply understand and flexibly apply these theories to solve real problems or put forward the most proper solutions to a problem,” he clarified. Ở góc cạnh khác, học viên Nguyễn Chí Dân, lớp MPP21-PA chia sẻ, điều thú vị đó là chương trình được thiết kế để khai thác tối đa khả năng học tập, mà có thể xem là một thử thách về giới hạn bản thân của học viên.
“Với cường độ làm việc dồn dập, các học viên dường như luôn có cảm giác cần thêm thời gian cho việc học. Điều mà tôi thấy tâm đắc nhất đối với chương trình học đó là hầu như tất cả các kiến thức của các môn học đều có bài tập giúp học viên ôn lại và hiểu cặn kẽ hơn từng vấn đề được học”.
Do Minh Tam, a student of MPP21 class, agreed that in comparison with other teaching programs imported from foreign universities, FSPPM takes special care to tailor its program to the Vietnamese context. Along with readings from foreign sources and articles published in prestigious scientific magazines, FSPPM’s faculty always carefully prepare Vietnamese case studies for their lectures.
“These case studies are really useful and wonderful illustrations for students to better understand the theories. They also act as references for learners to understand about Vietnam and other angles of public policy issues,” she said.
Nguyen Chi Dan, a student of the MPP21 class with a policy analysis concentration, reflected that the training program was clearly designed to optimize learning within a relatively short time frame, challenging the students to test their limits.
“With the academic stress here, students always feel that they need more time to study,” he said.
Ngo Nu Huyen Trang, a student of MPP21 class with a Leadership & Management concentration, remarked that Fulbright’s professors gave their lectures new life in a creative way.
“The way they lecture always makes us curious and eager to know more about the course. The environment here with dedicated professors and classmates deepens our love for knowledge and motivates us to learn new things beyond the curriculum,” she explained.
Dr. Tran Thi Mien Chi, a former FETP student, is now a researcher and lecturer in Economics and Finance at Queen Mary University, London. She believes NASPAA’s accreditation is the first step for Fulbright school to join the international academic network and thus make bigger contributions to Vietnamese society.