I recently joined several hundred other attendees at the 4th Education Conference on 9 April in Hanoi, organized by the US Embassy, the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) and National Economics University (NEU). Sponsors included the Henry Luce Foundation, the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, Johnson & Johnson, USAID, Pepsico, Citibank and Intel.
These conferences, each with a somewhat different emphasis, were initiated in 2008 by Ambassador Michael Michalak. (Look under Documents for links to the conference reports from January 2008-10.)
This year’s conference, entitled Strengthening US-Vietnam Higher Education Ties, included a group of US higher education colleagues who were participants in the US Department of Commerce’s first ever education trade mission to Indonesia and Vietnam. For information, check out this Chronicle of Higher Education article from 3 April entitled Commerce Dept. Takes Greater Role in Promoting U.S. Higher Education Overseas (PDF download) and a commentary entitled No Better Export: Higher Education by Francisco Sánchez, under secretary for international trade at the U.S. Commerce Department, who accompanied the group.
I asked a number of attendees, including presenters and moderators, how they felt about the conference. The consensus seemed to be that it was not as engaging as previous conferences and that there was too much rehashing, a paucity of new ideas and a lack of information-sharing about new and exciting projects. It might be helpful to provide the presenters with detailed guidelines and to ask the moderators to provide “their” presenters with advice and guidance regarding their presentations. One presenter told me that he “felt that the organization of my particular session was fairly haphazard, with little direction, and it would be great if we could actually get something meaningful out of the discussions and presentations next year.”
Some others had this to say:
- the same stuff over and over again…
- I sensed more head hunting for students and action than true forming of relationships
- what is it that we can relocate that is so special?
- what’s being done at a German or US or whatever university located in VN that could not, if there were the will, be done in a VN institution?
- a good place to meet friends – networking probably the biggest role
- hopefully, someday they will think about the format and try to find something productive
- I sensed a lot of presenters dusted off off what they had on their desktop, changed the title to try to make it fit into the session subject and gave that presentation
- needs more lead time and invite people who really have something to say
Food for thought in 2012, assuming there will be a 5th education conference.
There were also some Americans who relish the role of cultural missionary and never seem to tire of lecturing the Vietnamese on what they should do to improve their higher education system.
One of the more interesting presentations was the keynote speech entitled Five Observations About American Higher Education and Their Implications for Vietnam (PDF download) delivered by Kathryn Mohrman, Director, University Design Consortium and Professor, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona USA. The observations were:
- American higher education is a combination of English and German models
- U.S. colleges and universities have unique ideals for undergraduate education
- American higher education has strong links to society
- American colleges and universities are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary
- U.S. colleges and universities have significant autonomy
It might also have been useful to include some observations about US higher education as a negative role model – learn from its mistakes and shortcomings.
One of the more informative and relevant presentations was Cultivating Leaders for the Vietnamese Private Sector: A Case Study from the University of Hawaii’s Vietnam Executive MBA Program in HCMC (PDF download) by Lillian Forsyth.
Postscript (20.4.11): The Fourth Education Conference Evaluation was sent out to all participants today.