The importance of universities not being American

I recently wrote an article in VnExpress International on why it would be foolish for Vietnam – or any other country – to imitate the American system. A Vietnamese colleague criticised it for being too negative. It was a warning about what Vietnam should not do in higher education, but it said little about what Vietnam should do. So what should that be?

Vietnam must act quickly to improve the conditions at Vietnam National University or VNU, and the other government universities. The university system has the potential for rapid improvement if it is funded and supported adequately.

Vietnamese history and culture give grounds for optimism. Education is highly valued, teachers are respected; most students study hard and behave well in school. Vietnam has a generally good system of primary and secondary education that produces graduates that are talented and well-prepared by international standards.

Even during the most difficult times, education and research have been a top priority for Vietnamese leaders. At the height of the French war, the Viet Minh press published a Vietnamese-language geometry textbook by Hoang Tuy to be used throughout the liberated zones.

At the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi, the Vietnamese government has funded more than 30 research institutes in both basic and applied sciences. In 2010 it established the Vietnam Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics, headed by Fields Medalist Ngo Bao Chau.

But unfortunately, funding of government universities has been woefully inadequate. Conditions for students and faculty at VNU, for example, are far below international standards.

Salaries are so low that many faculty members have to either work at a second job or else teach extra hours in order to earn enough to support their family. Faculty have no suitable place to meet with students outside of class (for office hours or special projects), and have little incentive to engage in research.

Government funding should be used for the improvement of the well-established universities; this is much more cost-effective than constructing new universities. In order to transform VNU and other leading government universities into world-class centres of learning and research (sometimes called ‘apex’ universities), the government needs to increase both funding and oversight.

Priorities for funding should include: substantially increasing faculty salaries; improving the physical facilities for both formal and informal faculty-student interaction; providing fellowships for postgraduate students in both masters and PhD programmes in Vietnam; and providing incentives for research, such as research grants and sabbaticals.

In mathematics some initial efforts in this direction have already been taken by the Vietnam Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics through its visitor programme. This needs to be expanded to all fields, not just mathematics, and it should not be necessary to create new institutes in order to administer such programmes. Sabbaticals, grants, fellowships, enhanced salaries and better facilities should be supplied directly to the universities in all fields.

Brain drain

Vietnam must create the type of conditions that will encourage many of the best students to remain in Vietnam for their university studies and, if they go abroad for study, to later return to Vietnam in order to teach and do research in the universities. If Vietnam fails to do this, then the ‘brain drain’ of talent away from the country will become unstoppable.

In addition, the Vietnamese government, acting through appointed committees of leading scholars, has an important role to play in quality control.

It should establish government-appointed bodies of leading scientists and scholars to oversee all of the incentive systems (postgraduate fellowships, grants and sabbaticals) and ensure that the most qualified people are given these incentives; return to the two-round system of approval of PhDs by national committees of scholars; and require the national committees of scientists and scholars to approve all professorial appointments, so as to ensure quality control not only in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but also in the provincial universities.

Some of these quality control measures are not used in the United States, where, for example, individual PhDs do not need any approval from outside the university. But in Vietnam postgraduate education is relatively recent – not surprisingly, since in the modern era Vietnam has been a unified independent country for only four decades. Nor does Vietnam have any accreditation infrastructure of the type we have in the US and some other countries.

The Vietnamese leadership understood this when they instituted the ‘final round’ system that was in place until 2010, when it was eviscerated. The national committees, which had overseen the PhD approval, were abolished and power was handed over to the PhD-granting institution, meaning the process became a formality rather than a form of quality control. The direct result of the US and the World Bank pressure on Vietnam to introduce ‘autonomy’ has been the elimination of a crucial safeguard that had been instituted in order to ensure high standards for postgraduate degrees.

World-class universities

There has been some confusion in Vietnam about what a world-class ‘apex’ university is. A 2009 report written by Fulbright people recommended that Americans should be hired to build such a university. However, the description of the planned university – which six years later took form as the Fulbright University Vietnam or FUV – had little in common with the usual meaning of ‘university’, let alone ‘apex university’.

FUV reportedly will have two programmes. One will be vocational – undergraduate training in engineering and related fields that supposedly will qualify graduates for jobs in the multinational companies.

The other programme will give a postgraduate degree in economics and policy; that is, it will train people to advocate for an American approach to political and economic questions. Since most of the funding for FUV comes from the US, this component of the university will ensure that it serves US interests.

The Americans running this programme will encourage so-called ‘critical thinking’ in opposition to socialism, but will certainly not encourage critical thinking about the failures and shortcomings of capitalism as practised in the US.

The word ‘university’ is closely related to the word ‘universal’. It is a place for universal knowledge. In addition to programmes in practical areas, such as engineering, it must also give advanced degrees and conduct research in history, literature, the arts and basic science and mathematics. A great university is a place where the nation’s best minds can flourish; it is a place of national pride.

It is natural for a developing country to strive to have one or more such universities. Stanford University’s Professor Joel Samoff, a leading American expert on Africa, has said: “The conduct of basic research and the opportunity for original thought are in the last resort the only means by which societies can take control of their destiny. Such a function is not a luxury that can be dispensed with for a period, pending better economic times, but an integral part of the development process itself.”

I strongly agree with Professor Samoff, whose words apply as much to Vietnam as to African countries.

Structural adjustment programmes

It is a regrettable fact that in recent decades the US government, in conjunction with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund or IMF, has been pressuring developing countries not to establish such universities.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the central strategy of the US/World Bank/IMF was to impose ‘structural adjustment programmes’ as a precondition for eligibility for new loans or for flexibility in repaying old loans. ‘Structural adjustment’ meant a drastically diminished state role in many areas, including education.

In our day the ‘structural adjustment programmes’ as such no longer exist, but the same general philosophy – reduced state sector, increased privatisation – is still at the heart of US/World Bank/IMF ideology.

In recent times in Vietnam the pressure coming from the US and the World Bank is similar, although the words used have changed. The favourite buzzword now is ‘autonomy’. Whatever this word means in theory, in practice it means that the state should abandon its role as the principal source of funding and oversight in higher education. This would be a serious mistake.

A university that is controlled by Americans or by Vietnamese who are subservient to Americans must not be allowed to dominate the academic world in Vietnam. For Vietnam’s integrity and national security, it needs to have its own universities that are not controlled by any foreign power.

Those universities must be high-quality institutions that attract the best students and faculties. They must be centres of thinking and research that contribute to Vietnam’s scientific and economic progress and provide guidance in following an independent path free of neocolonial domination.

Neal Koblitz is a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, Seattle, US. The article was originally published in VnExpress International and does not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress.