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Challenges of Higher Education in Vietnam: Possible Roles for the United States

University of Hawaii’s Shidler College of Business Executive MBA Program Ho Chi Minh City August 6, 2007 - 10:30 a.m.

Dr. Augustine Vinh, MBA candidates, friends and colleagues, good morning.  Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. As you all probably know, this will be my last visit to Ho Chi Minh City as the United States Ambassador to Vietnam. I cannot think of a better way to mark the occasion than having an opportunity to exchange ideas on education, perhaps the key to Vietnam’s future.

As I was preparing these remarks, I did a little research on the University of Hawaii. The University has a motto which is included on its official website – in the original Hawaiian; it is quite lengthy, and virtually unpronounceable. But I learned that it means “Above all nations is humanity.” This seems a perfect guiding principle for an institution devoted to education, because the goals of any school should extend to the highest ideals of service and community. Dr. Vinh and the professors of the Shidler College of Business exemplify that commitment, and I thank them for the important role they play.

In my three years as the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, I have seen great changes taking place here. The bonds between our two countries have grown broader and deeper than perhaps any of us might have envisioned only a few years ago. While there are many reasons for this deepening relationship, I believe the two most important factors are a fundamental convergence of Vietnamese and U.S. interests in ensuring stability and security in this part of the world, and the growing exchanges between our governments and our people.

This is an extraordinary time for Vietnam. When the United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1995, we found ourselves engaging with a nation that had struggled through decades of war, and that was just emerging from decades of poverty and limited interactions with the global community in areas of trade, investment, education and people to people interaction.

How our relationship has changed in twelve short years! Today, Vietnam is the 150th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and enjoys Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the United States. Last year, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC summit hosted by Vietnam, brought leaders from twenty-one nations together, including President Bush. And in June, President Nguyen Minh Triet visited the United States, the latest in a growing list of high-level visits.

Economically, Vietnam is making major strides forward. The value of U.S. – Vietnam two-way trade will exceed $10 Billion dollars this year, up from $1.5 billion in 2001. The United States is Vietnam's top export market and its fourth largest foreign investor.  The newest Asian Tiger, Vietnam expects to attract at least $15 billion in foreign direct investment commitments this year.

All around Vietnam, one sees energy, enthusiasm and hope. But set against its many successes, Vietnam faces significant challenges, not the least of which is its education system. While this country’s sustained economic growth has exceeded expectations, and the Vietnamese people continue to place an extremely high priority on education, the human resource infrastructure here has simply not developed sufficiently to support the growing demands. While this is true at all levels of the system, the state of higher education in Vietnam poses particular concerns.

The fundamental role of universities is to provide socially and economically beneficial education, and to generate knowledge and innovation. By all accounts, Vietnamese universities are failing to fulfill these critical obligations. According to a 2006 World Bank “World Development Report”, Vietnam lags well behind other countries in the region with only two percent of its population having received thirteen years or more of education. The same report notes that Vietnam placed last regionally in the percentage of 20 to 24 year olds enrolled in tertiary education, with only 10% in universities. By contrast, China has 15% of its college age students in college, Thailand enrolls 41%, and South Korea boasts an impressive 89%. 

One reason for the low number of Vietnamese college students is the alarmingly limited capacity of the universities themselves. Last month, 1.8 million university candidates sat for exams here, competing for one of the 300,000 spots available nationwide.  Though small, this number does represent a dramatic increase since 1990 when the number of student enrollments in universities nationwide was just over 150,000. What makes these statistics disturbing to experts, however, is the fact that the number of teachers has remained virtually unchanged in the last 17 years.  Clearly, this is a system under strain.

The second role of a university is to generate knowledge and innovation. Here again, Vietnam is failing to keep up with its neighbors. In 2006, Seoul National University professors and students produced 4,556 scientific publications. Peking University produced close to 3,000. In comparison, both Vietnam National University and Hanoi University of Technology produced just 34 such publications.

The number of resident patent applications is a useful indicator of a country’s capacity for innovation. The 2006 World Bank report showed that 40,000 applications for patents were made in China, as opposed to two in Vietnam.

The Government of Vietnam has made very clear that it understands the importance of education to its citizens, and that it recognizes the urgent need for change. There is genuine social and political desire to effect major improvements at every level of academia in Vietnam, and the Government has passed a number of important legal resolutions – on universal education and governance in the educational system to name just two – that would have significant impact if and when they are fully carried out. While resources and implementation efforts have been insufficient thus far, it is apparent that, at the highest level of this government, there is commitment and will. The United States wants to be a part of this important transformation.

The Vietnamese education system has a real champion in Dr. Nguyễn Thiện Nhân, the Minister of Education and Training who just named to serve concurrently as a Deputy Prime Minister. A former Fulbright Scholar with an MA from the University of Oregon and several post-graduate study programs from Harvard and a former Vice Chairman of Ho Chi Minh City’s Provincial People’s Committee, Minister Nhân has enumerated specific goals to transform the scholastic environment in this country.

These objectives include offering universal access to education, with a particular emphasis on enrollment of girls, minorities and the disadvantaged who are underserved under the existing system, revamping teacher training programs, and overhauling the national curricula for all subjects at all levels. His plan also calls for the development of a consistent and formalized accreditation and assessment process, a new emphasis on vocational training to equip Vietnam’s workforce for the 21st Century, new partnerships with German and U.S. academic institutions, and the upgrading of several of Vietnam’s universities to top-tier and internationally recognized status.
As the World Bank report shows, Vietnam desperately needs more PhDs for its overburdened universities, so the Ministry of Education and Training aims to train 20,000 new doctoral graduates by 2020. Ideally, 10,000 of those will receive their doctorate degrees abroad, with at least 2,500 of them to be trained in the United States.

Beyond these specific goals, government leaders recognize the importance of foreign language acquisition – especially English - for students beginning at the primary school level, as well as increased competence in Information Technology.

In all of these areas, the United States not only can help, but wants to work as a partner with the Government and the people of Vietnam to address the deficiencies and create an academic environment and system of which every Vietnamese citizen can be proud.

One of the premier U.S. academic exchanges is the Fulbright Program. Designed to increase mutual understanding between people around the world, this program was established in 1946 and has since expanded to 140 countries. The program was set up in Vietnam in 1992 and today it receives one of the largest financial contributions from the United States Government of all Fulbright programs worldwide. This is an unquestionably successful program, but with a contribution from the Government of Vietnam, it could be expanded to provide graduate level training to even more Vietnamese scholars, thus creating some of the 20,000 new PhDs this country needs to teach its growing number of university students.  I hope this will happen soon.

Here in Ho Chi Minh City, we are proud to support the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, or FETP. The Fulbright Economics Teaching Program was established in 1994 with the twin objectives of supporting Vietnam’s burgeoning economic transition and market liberalization process by providing economics training in Vietnamese while also advancing our bilateral relationship through academic exchange.

FETP is a joint project between Harvard and the University of Economics here in Ho Chi Minh City. This groundbreaking level of cooperation has been an enormous success. FETP’s flagship course is its one-year program in applied economics and public policy. Currently, the FETP management is working with decision-makers in Washington D.C. and here in Vietnam to examine opportunities for expansion of its programs.

Another important American partner is the Vietnam Education Foundation, or VEF.  Since it began its operations in March 2003, VEF has enjoyed many successes in its mission of educational exchange and capacity-building in science and technology for Vietnam. Over 200 VEF Fellows have been placed in graduate programs in top-tier U.S. research universities.  One hundred and three leading U.S. research universities now participate in the cost-sharing VEF Alliance which assists in educating Vietnamese students, and VEF has also sponsored 48 scientists and experts from renowned U.S. institutions to deliver lectures and seminars at numerous Vietnamese host institutions. The dividends from the work of the VEF will benefit Vietnam’s educational system for decades.

While the United States is home to many of the world’s top “name brand” universities, our education strength lies in the remarkable depth and breadth of American academic institutions. With over 4,000 accredited colleges and universities to choose from, there is quite literally a school for everyone. A number of excellent schools – like the University of Hawaii and Harvard – have already made important inroads in cooperative education, and many others are exploring prospects for working in Vietnam.

The great school that organized tonight's event, the University of Hawaii’s Shidler College of Business, is a perfect example of the benefits of cooperative efforts in education. The University of Hawaii’s Executive MBA Program was first established in Vietnam in 2000 as a collaborative effort with Vietnam National University’s Hanoi School of Business. The University’s Shidler College of Business is a top 25-ranked school for international business and has a network of over 25,000 alumni world-wide. The program, a two-year, executive format program, allows participants to maintain full-time management positions while earning an MBA degree by offering classes in the evening and on weekends, all of which are taught by University of Hawaii faculty. Eighty-one Vietnamese students have graduated from the program to date, and thirty-one more will graduate in December 2007.

Shidler graduates have done very well, moving on to top jobs with global companies represented here in Vietnam, including Ernst and Young, KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Here in Ho Chi Minh City, the University of Hawaii Development Center opened just last year and plans to offer the Executive MBA program beginning this October. Not only do the joint efforts of Vietnamese and American universities such as these add to their own reputations and expand their resources, but more importantly, they offer a previously unavailable opportunity to Vietnamese students who, in turn, can gain the skills needed to become powerful business leaders in any environment.

There are other examples as well. This past April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Institute of International Relations signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Texas Tech University. Their agreement created the first exchange program for Vietnamese graduate students that will enable them to complete the second year of their Master’s studies at Texas Tech and earn a U.S. degree. Agreements such as this one between Vietnamese partners and U.S. institutions will open the door to the enormous bounty of the American higher education system to more and more Vietnamese young people.

Each year, the American Association of Community Colleges co-hosts a conference here. They can now do so in partnership with the Vietnamese Association of Community Colleges, just established in September 2006. In March, the American – Vietnamese Community College Conference drew more participants from each country than ever before.  This year, conference priorities were to share new information on the U.S. Community College model with Vietnamese counterparts, and to focus on teacher training and curriculum development, emphasizing computer and other science skills. In addition, educators from both countries examined ways of improving English language levels for teachers and students.

While Vietnam’s economy is moving ahead quickly, the government recognizes the urgent need of raising the English language level of its citizenry. English is, after all, the lingua franca of commerce and this represents a particular challenge to Vietnamese businesses. In too many cases, English is taught by instructors who do not speak the language themselves and have received scant training in how to teach a foreign language. However, this fall, in yet another indicator of our growing relationship with the Government of Vietnam, the Ministry of Education and Training will host a U.S. Government-funded Senior English Language Fellow. For a full year, this Senior Fellow will work with a special team at the Ministry to completely revamp the English language curriculum for the Vietnamese educational system. This curriculum will be used from primary school up through university level, and will include network training for teachers as well to enhance the quality of their efforts.

Finally, the United States and Vietnam are working closely to establish a Peace Corps program in this country. I hope all of you are familiar with the Peace Corps and its many outstanding programs. Since its creation in 1961, over 187,000 Americans have served as volunteers in 139 countries around the world. Volunteers work in education, agriculture, health and HIV/AIDS, Business and Environment sectors. One of the Peace Corp’s strongest programs is in English Language Teaching, and a Peace Corps presence in Vietnam could have a significant impact on how effectively English is taught throughout the country. We remain hopeful that we can swiftly reach an agreement with the Government to begin this wonderful volunteer program that more than seventy other countries have found so beneficial.

William Butler Yeats said that, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  As we look forward to the future of education in Vietnam, it is my fondest hope that the flame of learning will burn ever brighter and that its light will illuminate every corner of this beautiful and fascinating country.

The United States is proud to work with its Vietnamese partners to develop an educational system that will serve every student better, and light their way forward as they prepare to take their places with even more confidence and stronger competitive skills on the world’s stage.

Thank you, and with that I would be happy to take your questions.