VIETNAM: Young academic talent not keen to return

Young Vietnamese academics have a number of options for studying abroad. The '322' programme, for instance, has been administered by the Ministry of Education since 2000. Some 500 talented students and young faculty are sent to the US, UK, Australia, Japan, Europe, Korea and other countries every year. So far, several thousand Vietnamese have benefited.

There are also international programmes such as Fulbright, the Vietnam Education Foundation (US), AusAid, AIA (Australia), Eiffel (France), Erasmus Mundus (Europe), the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Because of a shortage of scientists in Western countries, many young Vietnamese scientists are hired directly on completion of their studies to work overseas. And according to education observers in Vietnam, few want to come back after graduating and people who do return are in the minority.

Even when obliged to return under the conditions of their scholarships, many simply dodge the rules and go to a third country. Of those who do come back, not everyone is able to continue teaching at a public university or a state organisation.

This suggests that Vietnamese universities may not yet be ready to welcome back scholars from the diaspora.

However, along with the government's policy of 'socialising' education (which is in fact commercialising education), within the two decades after the Doi moi (Renovation), Vietnam's higher education has made great strides.

The number of students has risen 13-fold (from 133,000 in 1987 to 1,719,500 in 2009) and the number of universities has more than tripled (from 101 in 1987 to 376 in 2010). In 1987, there were only public universities; in 2009, there were also 81 private institutions, accounting for 21.5% of enrolments.

Private institutions include RMIT University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, a campus of the Melbourne-based institution; FPT University in Hanoi, set up by the technology company of the same name; and Tan Tao University, following the model of Western private universities that belong to corporations.

Since Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2006, it has witnessed an explosion of cross-border programmes within local universities.

There are several projects to set up world-class universities in Vietnam. Two national universities (in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) and three regional universities (in Thai Nguyen, Hue and Da Nang provinces) are receiving more government investment and aim to reach Asian and world-class standards.

Viet Duc University in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City and the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi are cooperating with foreign universities in Germany and France respectively to achieve education ministry status as 'excellent institutions', with an initial investment of hundreds of millions of dollars loaned by foreign partners.

In early 2011, the Asian Development Bank pledged US$200 million to the Hanoi University of Science and Technology to accelerate its development as a world-class institution. Two other universities are planned in cooperation with the US and UK, employing the same strategy.

This expansion of higher education ought to provide more opportunities for young academics. But why do people still find it almost impossible to get a chance?

One reason is the limited autonomy of Vietnamese universities. Following a Vietnamese parliamentary committee review of the new education law last February, the education ministry was harshly criticised by the media for restraining university rectors' decision-making powers.

Rectors in Vietnam are considered to have their 'hands tied' while running institutions. The university entrance exam, which determines admission, is still a national exam; training programmes must be approved by the education ministry; and the ceiling on tuition fees is set low, at about US$10 per month per student.

Higher education investment has been increased. But it is still low in comparison with neighbouring countries at 3% of Vietnam's gross domestic product, compared to 4.2% in the Philippines, 5.4% in Thailand and 6.7% in Malaysia.

University revenues come mostly from training (including formal and non-formal training) and more recently from cross-border training programmes.

University professors are unable to earn a living from research and knowledge transfer - the prime function of scientists as recognised by the international science community. Young Vietnamese scientists, if given the chance, prefer to live abroad with higher living standards and better working conditions. A modest number of returnees are attracted to the private and industrial sectors.

But these are not the main barriers to Vietnamese universities' seeking elite human resources. The barrier is cultural. In a country where 'seniorism' has taken root, and universities suffer excessive bureaucracy, young scholars have to compete with their senior colleagues, are unable to withstand the limited academic freedom, or become impatient with the bureaucratic grind.

Paradoxically, Vietnam restlessly reforms its higher education system while its educators are warning about a shortage of the next generation of scientists. While top professors, trained in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, are now approaching retirement, young scientists feel they do not receive enough support to develop their careers in Vietnam.

Vietnam is aware of the importance of higher education to the country's socio-economic development. However, questions remain over how Vietnam will reform higher education.

Should it expand to meet the increasing demands of society, or shrink to improve training quality? Should it import training programmes and foreign brainpower, or adopt appropriate policies to attract the young, foreign-trained elite to return? Should it open up decision-making powers for academics or retain its centralised system of management?

Unless these problems are resolved, Vietnam's universities will simply be providing 'post-high school education' - as Vietnamese often sarcastically refer to higher education quality.

* Having graduated in physics from Université Paris-Sud 11 in France, Hiep Pham is now an administrator in charge of human resource management at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. Since 2007 he has been a freelance commentator on education in Vietnam.