US-backed university in Vietnam cements diplomatic ties

Plans for a United-States-backed university in Vietnam reached a milestone on Friday when Vietnamese officials granted an operating licence to the US non-profit organisation that is spearheading the initiative.

A ceremony to award the licence for the new institution, to be called Fulbright University Vietnam, capped off a week of events in the United States and Vietnam marking the 20th anniversary of renewed diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The university, to be established in Ho Chi Minh City, is to be designed around key principles of US non-profit higher education, including self-governance and academic freedom – an unprecedented step in Vietnam, which is transitioning away from a centrally controlled system toward a market-oriented one.

“We are pioneering a new kind of Vietnamese university, a learning-focused community that is rooted in Vietnam’s rich cultural traditions,” says a fact sheet prepared by the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam or TUIV, the Boston-based non-profit organisation that is helming the project on the US side.

Fulbright University Vietnam builds on a partnership established in 1994 by the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City, that offers educational programmes related to Vietnam’s economic reform agenda.

Today, the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, which receives core funding from the US State Department, is led primarily by US-trained Vietnamese scholars.

The new university

The operating licence allows TUIV to mobilise resources for the university, which is projected to launch in September 2016 with graduate-level degree programmes in law, public policy, finance and related disciplines.

Working with a consortium of US colleges and universities, TUIV hopes to launch engineering, applied sciences and liberal arts oriented programmes and courses in 2017.

TUIV has set targets to enrol 2,000 students and raise US$100 million in the university’s first five years. About half of the US$40 million pledged to date comes from the Vietnam Education Foundation, or VEF, Act of 2000, through which the Vietnamese government has been repaying debts to the United States incurred during the war years.

In January, the US Congress approved a transfer of about US$20 million from VEF to TUIV with the understanding that Fulbright University Vietnam “achieves standards comparable to those required for accreditation in the United States… establishes a policy of academic freedom and prohibits the censorship of dissenting or critical views”.

Higher education and educational exchange have played a prominent role in the normalisation process as the two countries strengthen diplomatic ties.

Through VEF fellowships, more than 300 Vietnamese have earned graduate degrees from US universities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. The US State Department’s Fulbright educational exchange programme in Vietnam is among the most active.

Last year, more than 16,000 Vietnamese students were enrolled in American colleges and universities, the eighth largest number of students sent by any country to the United States.

Learning and owning

Although Fulbright University Vietnam is still in the planning stage, participants at an academic conference last week in Hanoi said it offers a welcome next step for the two countries – as long as its creation is shaped by local debate.

“This has been a long-term dream,” said Phuong Nguyen, country director at VEF Hanoi. “We can learn from [the United States] and [then] turn it into our own.”

That point was underscored in a keynote address by University of Melbourne education Professor Fazal Rizvi, who said US higher education offered no national blueprint for developing countries to replicate.

“People around the world think there is some secret, some model of success. But that model doesn’t exist,” he said.

About 250 people, including scholars, Vietnamese policy-makers and US embassy officials attended the 7th annual Engaging with Vietnam conference, organised by the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Portland State University, USA, and Hanoi University of Business and Technology, Vietnam.

The Hanoi university hosted the event, which drew participants, mostly Vietnamese, from about 30 universities in 14 countries.

This year’s conference featured an inaugural Vietnam-US Higher Education forum, which founder Phan Le Ha said aimed to “tease out” the complexities facing Vietnam as it reforms its higher education system in a global context.

“We’ve been able to create a playground where people come and the ideas are dancing,” said Phan, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Let’s do it together, and not just wait for a Prince Charming to come from a faraway land.”