At his final press conference on 6 January, Michael Michalak, US Ambassador to Vietnam, began his prepared remarks with these statements:
I arrived in Hanoi in August 2007. Over the past nearly three and a half years, we have together witnessed many milestones. In trade, education, security cooperation, we have made truly amazing progress.
It’s no coincidence that education followed trade. In fact, there are times when it seems that the two have traded places, an indication of just how high education and educational exchange are on the list of US government policy priorities in Vietnam.
There is little doubt in my mind that Ambassador Michalak’s successor, David Shear, will continue to focus attention and resources on education, perhaps not with the same enthusiasm and panache as Mike Michalak (time will tell…), but most certainly with the same persistence and seriousness of purpose.
With the high esteem in which US higher education is held and the US’ status as a preferred destination for overseas study among the rapidly increasing numbers of young Vietnamese whose families can afford such a hefty investment, it is seen as a potentially potent tool of soft power. (See a recent post entitled Wikileaks and Vietnam for some elaboration of this point.)
About 20% of the remarks focused on education:
I am particularly proud of our education exchanges. In 1995, there were fewer than 800 Vietnamese studying in the U.S. I’m very pleased to report that there are now more than 13,000 Vietnamese students studying in the United States! They are not only getting a great education, but they are teaching their American classmates and teachers about Vietnam, strengthening bilateral ties and making a real contribution to Vietnam’s economic and political development. Our unwavering commitment to academic integrity and freedom of expression has helped the United States develop what I believe is an unparalleled education system. I hope to see more Vietnamese students take advantage of its many opportunities, and I am committed to working with the Government of Vietnam to strengthen Vietnam’s own education system.
Actually, relatively few Vietnamese make it to the US courtesy of educational exchange programs, one of which is a scholarship-for-debt program funded indirectly by the Vietnamese government (Vietnam Education Foundation or VEF). The overwhelming majority of the 17,500+ Vietnamese students in the US are self-financing. (Note: I’m using SEVIS quarterly snapshot data, which is up-to-date, not the IIE Open Doors data, which are always a year-old.)
And, yes, while academic integrity and academic freedom contribute to the overall quality of US higher education, there are other far more influential factors such as the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on universities and colleges.
On a personal note, it was a pleasure working with Ambassador Michalak. I met him for the first time shortly after his arrival in August 2007 at the 15th anniversary of the Fulbright Program in Hue. I will remember his ability to connect with people, his down-to-earth nature, his sheer excitement about education and his joie de vivre. I know I join many others in wishing him, his wife, Yoshiko, and the rest of his family happiness and the best of luck in the years to come.