Universities take lead role in Vietnam-U.S. relations

(This article appeared in The Hill, June, 2010)

With Vietnam’s economy one of the most vibrant in the world, young Vietnamese today have more opportunity than any generation before them. The transformation of this coun¬try of 88 million has been breathtaking. In the last two decades, Vietnam has transformed its economy from one where eight in ten families were poor farmers to a humming manufacturing hub.

Vietnam attracted $15 billion in investment last year, with the United States topping the list, but human capital is lagging. Althoughthe government has done extremely well with basic education, at university level, Vietnam suffers from the Confucian legacy of rote learning and excessive deference to teachers. A review found that many graduates have poor skills in analyzing, summarizing and presenting information. They need retraining in the job, and many firms shy away from hiring recent graduates. The World Bank placed Vietnam last regionally in the percentage of 20 to 24 year olds enrolled in tertiary education, with only 10% in universities. One reason is limited capacity. For 1.8 million candidates sitting for entrance exams, only 300,000 spots are available.

Not surprisingly, the national software giant FPT has entered the tertiary education system and opened FPT university, to train anew generation of creative thinkers and problem solvers. After Vietnam opened its doors to foreign colleges, several have opened up satellite campuses that do brisk business, but the government realizes that quality standards are not yet fully developed.

Vietnam’s cultural background has always placed a high emphasis on education. It is no surprise that in this nation, where one quarter of the people are under 15 years old the future of the education system is on top of the leadership’s mind. Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan, who holds an MBA from the University of Oregon, sees in education Vietnam’s greatest challenge, but also abridge between his country and the United States. Nhan says he thinks that “education is the strongest link in bringing our nations closer together.”

Opportunity for U.S. institutions
During his 2007 visit to Washington, President Nguyen Minh Triet declared that Vietnam needs to train 20,000 PhDs by 2020, at least half of whom should be trained abroad. Then-Ambassador Michael Marine added that 2,500 of them should study in the United States.

This goal, and existing flows of students from Vietnam to the United States, represents a huge opportunity for the U.S. education sector. In October 2007, 73 US colleges and universities large and small attended an education fair in Vietnam. The number of student visas issued has risen to 13,000 in 2009, from 1,735 in 2005. And the Vietnam Education Foundation, which gives science and technology students the chance to study at high-tech hubs in the United States, was just placed under the control of the State Department, where it is supposed to receive more direct attention than when it was run by Congress.
But studying abroad will always remain limited to a small number. To give more students the chance to earn a U.S. diploma, the United States and Vietnam are cooperating, through a bilateral Education Task Force, to bring top-quality tertiary education to Vietnam. The Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, run by Harvard University, already has a campus in Vietnam where it trains students for the new market economy, and more such cooperation is to follow.
As Vietnam’s economy grows, more and more families have the means to afford their children a modern Western education, even without scholarships or grants. And students prefer U.S. colleges over the competition. Han Giang, a high school graduate who is applying for psychology programs in several U.S. universities says that she has a couple of colleges in Singapore and Australia on her list, but her preferences are stateside. Like many Vietnamese, she likes the freedom of choice in the U.S. liberal arts education.
“I like how we are allowed to take so many subjects from different disciplines other than our major, or how we don’t even need to declare our majors until the second year,” Giang said. “I believe at my age I can only grow if I truly open up my perspective.”
Vietnam’s economy is bound to benefit from the exposure to the world-class American university system. Tran Luong Son, a software entrepreneur, credits his business success to his first exposure to American management books and his MBA at MIT. “It changed my career, my thinking, it opened my mind to problem solving” he says. “We never spoke about intangible value, about strategy. That came with people who got to go abroad, especially the United States.”
It is no surprise, then, that on his web site, the button for the English language version sports the stars and stripes.