Discussion and Implication for Policy

The case study provides several meaningful lessons to understand the way the Western-style performance management is embedded into a socialist performance evaluation system which gives great importance for the opinion of the majority. The three-phase implantation process and the social view of measures construction provide lessons for managing stress and resistance of academics in the transition process.

Lesson 1: Slow and Culturally Sensitive Process for Mental Adaption and Stress Management

The first lesson relates to the way university management manages resistance from academics in transition to a new performance management practice and the stress from the subjective use of objective measures. Similar to what was reported in literature, academics at GU also came under multiple stressors: research targets, student evaluation score, and subjective performance evaluation. At GU, the weight of subject evaluation is even greater than reported elsewhere due to the voting practice. Academics felt more anxious and frustrated when they invest great effort in achieving quantitative measures, which are designed to measure their performance, yet still be uncertain of the outcome for their performance evaluation. As the legal-based evaluation process cannot be changed, the only solution to reduce stress from ambiguous voting is to make sure that people use similar quantitative criteria in evaluating peers’ performance. However, changing people’s evaluation criteria cannot be done quickly. Thus, a slow implantation process can create a mental adaptation process by which academics learn to use new measures to evaluate themselves, and slowly, to evaluate others, and eventually to vote. They may have resistance in the first place, due to concern about the construction of the measure, but the introduction phase stretches their resistance over a period and effectively reduces its intensity'.

As seen in this case, GU had difficulty of implanting student feedback scores into performance evaluation due to the cultural value of teacher-student relationships. Thus, the strategy was that the student evaluation score is allowed to be omitted from the evaluation meeting. In my view, this is a sensitive and necessary strategy, when the consumerism nature of student feedback goes directly against the Confucius values held by Vietnamese academics for thousands of years. A direct confrontation with a thousand-year-old value, which is still being politically and socially embraced, is unwise and can lead to unmeasurable stress and resistance from academics.

Lesson 2: Social View on Measure Construction Helps Increase Engagement and Reduce Peer Competition

The second lesson relates to the construction of performance measures, which also contributed to reducing the level of stress and resistance among academics. Different from the narrow approach on research measures elsewhere, at GU, research hour covers almost all research activities that academics can do, and each activity is given some research hours. This creates a sense that one can always find the types of research activities that are suitable to his or her time and intellectual capacity. The design of the research hour measure has an impact of increasing academics’ engagement in research activities than just to promote everyone to publish in top journals. As the university strategic goals cover all aspects of university operation,6 there needs to be someone who writes learning materials, organizes conferences, and produces other non-publishable products useful for building strong research and teaching ecology. My reading of university management’s intention is that they want to develop a team of leading researchers in each discipline who have the passion and intellectual capacity for exploring new research direction, for providing high-quality public comment on national issues, for contributing in policy construction, and for developing young researchers. And these leading researchers do not just research to meet research hour target or to get a promotion. These academics would standout regardless of what measures are used and are entitled to an exceptional monetary and non-monetary reward. So, the way research hour is calculated, and the way it is embedded in the performance evaluation process and linked to performance ranking can reduce the competition among academics, eventually avoiding damage to collegiality and self-confidence of other staff, who in other ways also contribute to university’s successful operation.

Lesson 3: The Potential Negative Consequence of Overextended Implantation Strategy

The last lesson points to the pros and cons of the slow implantation strategy, especially the use of extended introduction period. The introduction process was flexed and extended with the assumption that even behind-the-scene pressure can motivate academics to improve performance to sustain their self-image and self-respect. However, one needs to carefully assess whether the assumption can hold. Evidence in this case points to a possibility that the introduction phase, when being extended, can create an inertia attitude among some academics that it is good enough to not have student evaluation scores below average. Thus, being aware of the possible side effect of this culturally sensitive practice on academics’ attitude of the importance of teaching performance will help to determine an appropriate time to move to the next phase in the implantation process.

Implication for Future Research

The long-term and social view of building up research motivation, passion, and capability for academics, as well as improving teaching quality is competing with the increasing influential Western ranking culture and consumerism in Vietnam’s higher education and society. Together with the stronger enforcement of financial independence for all public universities, the university managers’ understanding of performance may shift toward shortterm productivity of research publications and student short-term satisfaction to improve individual university performance against that of competing universities. In this context, it would be interesting to have more understanding about the emergence of outcome-based performance management in developing countries whose social and cultural contexts are very different from those of Western countries. In the early phase of this emergence, we can still see some effort from senior leaders, like those at GU, to hold on the social view of research and teaching outcomes, and to protect traditional values of education. Nevertheless, more research is needed to have a better understanding of the performance management practice when it invades more deeply into the academic life of developing countries’ universities.

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