Below is a recent exchange on the Vietnam Studies Group (VSG) listserv between a Vietnamese-American professor and a young Vietnamese who recently graduated from a U.S. institution of higher education. The original post is in reference to an article by Roy J. Nirschel, president of the American University of Vietnam (AUVN), entitled “Picking Up the Pieces: Vietnam’s Class War – Setting up an American-style university in Vietnam has got to be easier than winning a war, doesn’t it?”, which appeared in The American Interest on 19 December 2013.
I think Dr. Nirschel is quite optimistic. The US fought its last war with Vietnam on its terms and still lost. This time, Dr. Nirschel is fighting this battle on the Vietnamese’s terms. I wish him and the American University the best in its efforts. I wonder how one can have critical thinking when one is not permitted to be critical.
Trung Van Nguyen, Professor, Chem. & Petr. Eng. Dept., University of Kansas
Dear Professor Trung,
As a recent grad and thus still consider myself in the age range of college kids, I would like to answer your question, even though it is rhetorical. I have spent 16 years under the Vietnamese education, from kindergarten to high school and pass the university entrance exam (after which I studied abroad), how I can stay critical, and I know for a fact that many others also do, is through social media and attending groups/forums like VSG. Although me and my friends are from privileges positions and therefore could be said to not representative enough of the general population, to say that we are also the antithesis of it is wrong.
I agree wholeheartedly with the portrayal of the difficulty that Vietnamese education is suffering, however, I do not think that Vietnam as of right now is only Confucianist and Communist, it is also Buddhist, Capitalist and in a lot of way, Cosmopolitan, among others. Such diversity of ideologies that is held by all social strata is precisely how critical thinking can form: Vietnamese always strive to understand each other first, due to an emphasis on relationship and connection of everyday life, and thus discourses between these ideologies are constructed organically to inform the population of ideas other than the rhetoric of the Party.
The problem various higher education, and education in general in Vietnam, is that domestically, nobody care enough. It might be true that Vietnam spends a higher proportion of GDP on Education, but I do not think it speaks to the quality of education, or even the effectiveness of how the funds are spent. As a consultant in the field of human development, I can attest to the fact that the funds are not well spent and the quality is bad.
However, I am seeing a genuine interest in SOEs, especially in the petroleum industry where they now have to partner with MNCs frequently, for human development. This, in turn, have created demand for higher quality upstream, midstream and downstream employees, which, in turn, have prompted universities to reconsider their approach on educating the future employees. So I can also attest to the potential of Vietnamese higher education.