In 2014 Professor Gael McDonald was appointed president of RMIT University, Vietnam. AsiaLIFE caught up with Professor McDonald to see how the campus, and her vision for it, have changed over that time.

Initially the focus was on student growth and to achieve that we introduced a number of new programmes in, for example: languages, digital marketing, tourism and hospitality, software engineering, as well as robotics and mechatronics. We are continuing to introduce new programmes while also strengthening the quality of what we offer particularly in regard to teaching, staffing, the student experience and our infrastructure. If you have been on any of our campuses you would have seen a lot of changes as we have upgraded our premises, student and teaching spaces. The vision has sharpened in recent years as we focus on the employability of our graduates, which is excellent, and international exchange opportunities.

What differentiates RMIT and its degrees from other Universities here in Vietnam?

I think what differentiates us is the educational process, the opportunities for students and the graduate outcomes. As most people know, our programmes are grounded in the RMIT quality structure so a degree from RMIT Vietnam has RMIT University across the top. It doesn’t matter if you studied with RMIT in Australia, Singapore, or Hong Kong; it is the same degree.

At RMIT Vietnam we pride ourselves on our teaching innovations as we move away from standard examinations to more authentic assessment where students work with companies to solve real problems. We have replaced textbooks – which quickly become dated – with more contemporary, and media-rich material which prepare students for a more digital world. In addition to global experience opportunities we also have a co-curricular program called Personal Edge where students acquire the soft skills needed for future work environments. As a consequence, our students are ready for both life and work.

RMIT recently opened up in Danang what was driving that move?

With campuses in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we were very conscious that we needed to have a presence in the central part of Vietnam. So this year we opened a small campus in downtown Danang which at this stage is largely delivering English language IELTS preparation and testing as we ready the market for other higher education programmes in the future.

RMIT Vietnam has recently been asked to take on a broader role in the region what does this mean? Why the change?

Previously the focus at RMIT Vietnam was, not surprisingly, on Vietnam and also growing the number of international students on our campuses. However, recognising the potential of growing economies across the region, and with a foothold already here in Vietnam, RMIT University has recently initiated a strategy to expand into Asia. RMIT has overcome the tyranny of distance by utilising RMIT Vietnam for this expansion and as the springboard into neighbouring countries particularly around alumni relations, industry engagement, internships and student recruitment.

RMIT has just signed an agreement with the Saigon Innovation Hub to help foster start-up initiatives and entrepreneurialism. How important is it for universities to work with industry and what are the benefits of this for the wider community?

In today’s educational environment, where we are focusing on future employability, having close collaboration with industry is imperative. The benefits of this collaboration include having key industry people on our advisory boards giving us advice about curriculum, guest speakers, and company visits. Industry partners also support us with projects for authentic assessment, as well as internships, scholarships and ultimately jobs for our students.

We are also aware that increasingly our students are starting their own businesses. To encourage this, we are active in promoting entrepreneurship, hence our recent memorandum of understanding with the Saigon Innovation Hub. We have undergraduate and postgraduate courses in entrepreneurship such as a four-unit Postgraduate Certificate in Business Start-ups. These units can be cross credited to our MBA program. In addition we have just completed building an incubator, pitch room, fabrication lab and digital laboratory which will support our students.

You were featured on the cover of Business Woman magazine in 2014, what are the challenges and opportunities for women in business in Vietnam and how has that changed in the time that you have been here?

I am continuously impressed with the quality of female businesswomen in Vietnam. They are of an extremely high calibre and incredibly hard working, successfully managing to juggle jobs and family responsibilities. Recognition of this effort is changing, albeit slowly.

Are there unique challenges for a woman rising to the top of a large organisation like RMIT in a developing country such as Vietnam as distinct from a place like Australia?

Nope. I think the challenges are the same for all senior managers whether they are male or female. RMIT University has a very strong commitment to women in leadership so there are heaps of great role models.

You’re expertise is in business ethics, how has this function evolved over the years, particularly with the rise of the internet and a global economy?

Obviously a more digital environment is presenting ethical challenges as we balance the need for data with the need for privacy. We are also seeing significant ethical shifts as the entire supply chain is now considered to be accountable. Naturally another area of interest for multinationals is the consideration of the extent to which ethical standards are similar across cultural boundaries.

RMIT was invited by the Vietnamese government to establish the country’s first international university campus. What is the benefit to Vietnam and to RMIT in having this presence in Asia?

I think it has been recognised that international universities operating in Vietnam provide a number of benefits such as a wider choice of education, a teaching approach that emphasises critical thinking, and also our experience in academic governance. At RMIT we have hosted a number of Vietnamese universities as they are pursuing greater autonomy. We have also established the Centre of Digital Excellence (CODE) which has been active in training and development, and raising the capability in Vietnam in digital teaching and learning.

What is the price difference between sending your kids here compared with sending your kids to RMIT in Melbourne? And the price difference between sending your kids to RMIT Vietnam or a Vietnamese university?

It depends very much on what programmes students will be taking. In general, the tuition fee at RMIT Vietnam is about one third of that in RMIT Melbourne, not to mention other costs that international students have to pay when living in Melbourne such as accommodation, transportation and higher living expenses. Fortunately, students on Vietnam campuses have the option of going on an exchange program to Melbourne without paying the extra tuition fee. They can also choose to study from one-to-two semesters at one of our 200 partners around the world and continue to pay the fees here at RMIT Vietnam.

Average tuition fees of Vietnamese universities are not very high as the universities are subsidised by the government. For example, local public universities are approximately US$700-US$1,000 per year and local private universities are about US$2000 – 3000 per year.