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The difference between instant evaluation and improving recognition

Raymond Cheng

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Justin Barclay's seminar on exploring positive social change in AEA. Dr. Barclay was both highly professional as well as very knowledgeable in terms of the various techniques and know-hows on the identification of purpose and approach for program evaluation, evaluation for social change, as well as ensuring accuracy to elicit, and hence implement, such changes. His seminar on social change in AEA led me to re-think some of the issues I encountered just earlier this month when I was lecturing to a class of some 20 business PhD students from Vietnam.

But before I start, I will need to make a point first. Maybe you'll find the following rationale of mine a bit weird but I have always believed that true learning has nothing to do with the degree that the student receives when he or she graduates. Instead, if a student does learn the good side of the material by heart to become (not his knowledge but) his virtues – I know you might think virtues cannot be taught but let's not debate on this for now – the virtues will change him to be a better man with better working relationships (as well as the personal ones) with people and which also in turn will bring him, in most of the cases, better and more prosperous results in his future endeavours. On the contrary, if he or she learned the material with an unethical intention, he might turn himself into one of those people who came up with freaking ideas like producing the melamine milk in China back in 2008 or those fake eggs, fake pork, fake beef (oh yes, the rat-burgers), toxic foods (see video), etc., not to mention those genuine yet dirty foods or the garbage-fed cattle (also see below).

Fake foods in China, 2013. Source: The Run List Channel

Food safety in China: Noodle factory's dirty secrets. Source: Apple Daily

China's garbage-fed beef scandal. Source: NTDTV

But why am I saying this? Think about the following. If you graduated from a 4-year government-funded degree program, studied and learned the stuff, passed the examinations, just to find out that your degree is not recognized anywhere, what would you think, especially when you might have spent the money and invested the time you have on your education? I am not saying that when people's degrees are not recognized they will turn bad. What I am saying, is that by denying people what they have struggled and fought for could be a very nasty way to disappoint them – and disappointed citizens in a socialist country is the last thing you would like to see, particularly if you are in power. After all, it's all about finding an exit for the talented: who would want to make fake foods if one could use his knowledge for the good of his people, or even the mankind?

Back to my PhD students. The issue they had was whether the Vietnamese government would recognize the academic programme in which they were enrolled. Well, I was kind of puzzled at first because the unversity is state-funded and the programme is properly accredited so how could the government not recognize it? But wait, it was the subsequent evaluation from the local authorities that they were worrying about. In fact, I can always understand why students are so nervous whenever it comes to evaluation of foreign credentials. Over the years, I have seen perfectly legitimate, quality academic credentials not being evaluated as it should be simply because of various non-academic factors, including but not limited to political issues, lack of reciprocal recognition, or even differences between education systems. I have seen honours degree level diplomas from world-class universities being downgraded to useless certificates, serious postgraduate studies in acute fields being label as non-academic practioner's training, master's degrees from a same university being evaluated differently as a result of local evaluation practices, and even doctoral level qualifications being ignored (or downgraded) merely because of differences in education systems [1] – so their worries were actually justified. And what's more is that even the locals (in Vietnam) were not very happy or confident enough with their own education system [2] despite continuous improvement being made over the years (see below) which means the evaluation outcome does seem to mean a lot to them.

Modern face of Vietnam education, dated Sept 14, 2010.

Improving education quality in Vietnam 2010. Source: Vietnam Television, VTV1

So the question I had in mind was what could I possibly do to help these worried students? The answer was simple because, obviously, the students were just a bit over-worried about the evaluation issue. What they were really unaware of was the difference between instant evaluation and improving recognition. Instant evaluation is what you get on the evaluation report at the time you filed for an academic evaluation. Results of evaluations (even with the same qualification) vary with the time of filing, socioeconomic factors, current trends, and even the political atmosphere. Think about the distance learning degrees back in the 1990s. If you have ever filed for an evaluation of any distance learning degrees (let alone online degrees) back then, you would likely be told that these degrees were not evaluated or simply not recognized unless one could provide proof of residency (which then makes the degree on-campus, not DL). But if you do so today, you will likely find that most evaluators will accept them. Evaluation practices evolve with time and by the time you have graduated things could already have changed – which is what improving recognition means. If you believe that what you do is on the right path, justified and correct, then it is just a matter of time that the evaluation report will "evolve and change" to what you anticipate, provided that's the global trend. What really matters is that the course of study should be properly accredited at a recognized institution. Take China as an example, who would ever, back in the 1980s, foresee that degrees from this country would be so widely accepted by universities worldwide?

Studying is an interesting investment. The longer you have graduated, the more prestigious your degrees become. Think about this – when was the last time you questioned your grandparents' degrees? You don't (even if you think it's completely outdated and obsolete). Not because the quality must have been better back then, but because we all evolve and value-add various other experiences on top of the knowledge we acquired. Had it not been for such a value-added effect, we would all have been constantly re-doing our degrees one after another, particularly when the pace of technological advancement is happening so fast these days that those who are doing a 4-year technical degree would already find what they have learnt in the first year quickly becoming obsolete even before they graduate.

November 20, 2013

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Note 1: Local equivalence of foreign credntials is normally not granted for degrees obtained in the field of medicine, nursing, denitry, homoeopathy, pharmacy, physiotheraphy, veterinary, animal husbandry, etc. and also for some engineering or technical degrees.

Note 2: See the Financial Times report, "Vietnam gets to grips with its business schools" by William Barnes, accessible at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/ebde8e0c-60c9-11e2-a31a-00144feab49a.html