“Higher Ed as a Weapon” Revisited

Below is a diplomatic cable that was leaked in the spring of 2008 by someone working for the US Embassy in Hanoi. I became aware of this document when it magically appeared in my inbox. Keep in mind that this was in the pre-Wikileaks era. Obviously, someone wanted the world to know (thank you, someone!) – in black and white – what many of us knew to be the case regarding US foreign policy in general and its implementation in Viet Nam in particular.

From an official US perspective, using education as a tool (or weapon) of soft power was a no-brainer. Who better to exploit this weakness for red, white, and blue political gain than Michael Michalak, who liked to be known as the “education ambassador.” (Michalak was the US ambassador to Viet Nam from August 10, 2007 to February 14, 2011. As fate would have it, Michalak now works for another former US ambassador to Viet Nam, Ted Osius. The former is senior vice president and regional managing director and the latter is president and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council, Inc.)

Mike and I spending quality time together at the July 2009 VietAbroader StudyAbroad Conference in Hanoi. Photo: Kenh14

An article of mine that was published in 2011 is entitled Higher Ed as a Weapon (editor’s title) It was introduced this way: International educators need to be aware how their work can be used — and misused — for political purposes, writes Mark A. Ashwill. Viet-Studies published the cable. which came to be known as the US-Vietnam Education Memo. The Embassy never received the additional funding it requested but the beat goes on in oh so many other ways.

It’s worth noting that International Educator magazine, the official mouthpiece of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which had published my work in the past, refused to run this article. I later heard from a senior staff member, perhaps in an unguarded moment, that then executive director, Marlene Johnson, didn’t want to “poke the bear” – in reference to the US State Department. (Shame on her – then and now.)

That’s how censorship works, folks, in societies that pay lip service to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. No need for the heavy hand of the state. Internal censorship is the result of adherence to narrowly defined parameters of discourse. Everyone who’s part of the system knows what lines not to cross. It’s true – attempted color revolutions are not figments of the imagination of ideologues.

Why am I revisiting this issue 13 years after the cable was leaked and a decade after my article was published? In the immortal words of the US writer, William Faulkner, with whom I’m proud to share a few strands of DNA, The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

US-Vietnam Education Memo

April 2008

1. Summary: Vietnam’s educational system is in crisis, and the lack of qualified human resources is one of the biggest factors limiting Vietnam’s development and economic growth. Top Vietnamese officials, including Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, are aware of this challenge, and have explicitly asked for U.S. assistance in changing how Vietnam educates its people. Moving from today’s failed system, protected by a hide-bound and largely unqualified hierarchy of educators, will not be easy, but the United States has a unique opportunity to make a big difference and put its stamp on Vietnam’s education system well into the future. As a start, Prime Minister Dung has offered to pay for a “brick and mortar” American University, with the United States providing the institution’s president, plus key administrative and teaching staff. He has also asked for our help in launching the Ph.D studies in the United States of at least 2,500 young Vietnamese, on the understanding that these men and women will return as the core of the nation’s political and academic elite in the decades to come. Many of these students would be funded by Vietnam.

2. I believe that responding positively to these requests, perhaps in conjunction with the meeting this summer between President Bush and the Prime Minister, is strongly in the U.S. national interest. In responding to Vietnam’s call, we would ensure not only that Vietnam’s tens of millions of students, but also their education-obsessed parents, see the United States as a key partner in their personal and collective futures. The United States is seen as the model of “Global Standards” that Vietnam seeks to emulate. Positive engagement now will create windows of opportunity for the Mission to influence both Vietnamese attitudes toward the United States and domestic support for democratic, participatory government. Using existing resources, we are already engaged in many programs and initiatives to help Vietnam modernize its educational system and educate the next generation of Vietnam’s decision-makers. Adding new foreign assistance resources now and supporting the creation of a wide range of strategic public-private partnerships will maximize American influence on Vietnam’s educational system and thus on the future shape of Vietnamese society. Specific requests for new State, USAID and FCS education initiatives are listed in paragraph 18. End summary.


3. Vietnam is facing a crisis in its education systems at all levels that jeopardizes its pursuit of economic progress and global integration. Officials lack training in education administration, teachers are poorly trained and underpaid, and corruption plagues the system at every level. In addition, opportunities for higher education are limited, as the system can accommodate only a fraction of those seeking admission. In 2007, Vietnamese universities had places for only 300,000 of the 1.8 million candidates who sat for university entrance exams. Although the number of university students has doubled since 1990, the number of teachers has remained virtually unchanged, a statistic disturbing to experts. Even with the increase, however, Vietnam ranks last regionally in the percentage of college age students enrolled in tertiary education, with only 10% in universities, below China’s 15%, Thailand’s 41%, and South Korea’s 89%, according to World Bank statistics. Even those students lucky enough to attend a university face a system in which instructors are paid on a strictly piece-work (by the class) system with no effective mechanisms for ensuring quality of instruction. Ph.D’s are purchased, and being named a professor is a bureaucratic process, not an honor linked to a career in teaching.

4. Even worse, corruption has spread like a cancer through the system. Poorly paid administrators and teachers purchase their positions, then shake down parents, who pay for admission to schools, then pay extra to have teachers grade their children. Until recently, cheating led by teachers on nation-wide tests was common, especially when the poor results would reflect badly on “the system.” Predictably, Vietnam is falling behind its neighbors in generating knowledge and innovation. In 2006, Hanoi’s top two universities – Vietnam National University and Hanoi University of Technology – produced just 34 scientific publications, as compared to 4,556 at Seoul National University and nearly 3,000 at Peking University. Vietnam also scores low in another measure of capacity for innovation, the number of resident patent applications, having filed only two patent applications in 2006 compared with 40,000 in China.

5. Failures in Vietnam’s educational system also result in universities being unable to produce the number of educated managers and skilled workers needed by Vietnam’s modernizing economy. This lack of qualified human resources is the single biggest factor limiting Vietnam’s future development and economic growth, a fact reiterated by the mayor of Ho Chi Minh City during his April 17 meeting with visiting HHS Secretary Leavitt. To cite one example of this shortage, an American high-tech company that interviewed 2,000 recent graduates, all considered to be among Vietnam’s “best and brightest,” found only 40 applicants that met minimum hiring requirements. The situation is not the result of insufficient public spending on education, which at 4.3% of GDP, is higher in Vietnam than in neighboring China, Korea, The Philippines, or Thailand. This all is sadly ironic, as many parents in this Confucian society would mortgage their souls to ensure their children get a good education. If all outlays are counted, parents here actually spend quite liberally to advance their children’s education, but to depressingly little effect.


6. Vietnam’s top leaders recognize these problems, and wants to improve its education system. Prime Minister Dung’s point person in leading change is Nguyen Thien Nhan, Deputy Prime Minister, concurrently Minister of Education and Training, and a Fulbright scholar. Nhan has designed an ambitious program to restructure the national educational system and address its grave deficiencies. Priorities include completing the universalization of education (with emphasis on enrollment of girls, minorities and the disadvantaged, many of whom are still not in the system), revamping teacher training programs, overhauling the national curricula for all subjects at all levels, developing a formal consistent accreditation and assessment strategy, establishing a top-tier and internationally recognized university and improving quality standards for teachers through continuing education and competition. He has also emphasized the importance of foreign language acquisition – especially English – for students beginning in primary school, as well as increased competence in Information Technology. To make these changes possible, he is also emphasizing management training for school principals, rectors, and deans and has requested that greater government resources be invested in academic institutions at all levels and that teachers’ salaries be significantly increased.

7. Minister Nhan has expressed unprecedented openness to U.S. participation in restructuring Vietnam’s educational system. He has proposed reforms modeled on a number of U.S.-style practices, including mandatory enrollment, establishment of minimum quality standards, national accreditation, curriculum development programs, and a credit-based system for general education at the tertiary level. In addition, Vietnam National University administrators have identified as their top goal training for its officials and young professors, especially in the areas of higher education management, teaching methodology, and English. The Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has described similar goals for all university and high school leadership. Officials have explicitly told us that they would like much of this training to take place in the United States.

8. As an example of Vietnamese openness to American education practices, the Ministry of Education and Training has authorized ten departments at nine universities to adopt American programs lock, stock, and barrel, including curricula, course design, teaching materials, and student-oriented teaching methods, with all courses taught in English. For instance, Can Tho University has replicated Michigan State University’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program, and the National Economics University has modeled its Finance Department after the program at California State University, Long Beach. In addition, a new law degree program that will open its doors at Can Tho University this fall will represent a radical departure from the purely theoretical and rote-based approach used by the existing Vietnamese law schools, by adopting the case study approach common to nearly all Western law schools. The Can Tho law program will come into existence thanks to three years of unceasing effort by a law professor with degrees from both Harvard and a university in the Netherlands. Another innovator is Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City (VNU-HCMC), which has opened an “International University” at which the standard medium of instruction is English and all majors are based on American, Australian and other Western models. VNU-HCMC employs numerous expatriate (including American) faculty members in addition to Vietnamese professors with foreign degrees.


9. Vietnam faces a deficit of perhaps $100 million per year in funding its educational plans, and is trying to close the gap by seeking international support in paying for and helping implement reforms. In a recent meeting with Ambassador Michalak, Deputy Prime Minister Nhan specifically requested USG assistance in two key areas, which he said would have a big impact on U.S.-Vietnam relations:
–Founding an American university in Vietnam; and,
–Training 2,500 Vietnamese Ph.D.s in the U.S. by 2020.

10. The American University would be American through and through, with an American management, curriculum, teaching methodology and teaching styles. American professors would identify what equipment would be necessary and oversee all other academic and management decisions to ensure that the university meets U.S. standards. The President of the University would be American for the first ten years, and all courses would be taught in English. The university would, at maximum capacity, accept 5,000 to 10,000 students per year, and would specialize in a number of fields (possibly seven), including business and public administration and biotechnology. In this plan, each field or faculty would be set up by a different American university. To create the American University, the Minister said that the GVN plans to borrow $100 million to fund the purchase of land, construction of buildings, and equipping of laboratories. He is looking to the United States to recruit and fund the faculty and administrators for the first ten years. In his plan, 80% of faculty would be American when the university opens, with the percentage dropping down to 20% at the end of ten years as qualified Vietnamese finish training. Rough initial estimates of costs for the American personnel are $100 million over ten years.

11. Training 2,500 Vietnamese Ph.D.s in the U.S. is part of a larger plan to train 20,000 Ph.D.s, half in Vietnam and half abroad. The United States, through the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), currently funds the U.S. study of about 70 Ph.D.s per year, but only in the hard sciences. Vietnam is thus asking for U.S. assistance in creating a system to identify U.S. schools and secure cost reductions or find funding for an additional 160 doctoral candidates each year in order to meet this ambitious goal. Current Vietnamese programs would fund some or all costs for some of these student.


12. The time is ripe to significantly expand educational exchange programs with Vietnam. The leaders and people of Vietnam agree that educational reform is critical to the nation’s continued development, they view the U.S. system as the world’s best, the government is receptive to U.S. assistance, and both U.S. and Vietnamese universities are eager to deepen partnerships. Success will pay both short-and long-term benefits to bilateral relations, as we replicate in the educational sphere the deep impact that tightly targeted aid has in reforming Vietnam’s system of economic governance.

13. There are hurdles to overcome. While the nation’s top leadership has strongly endorsed radical educational reform, there are those in the government and Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) who fear the openness and free exchange of ideas that are an integral component of any world-class educational system. If this resistance is to be overcome, however, there is no better way than through education. Another hurdle, which is currently bedeviling Deputy Prime Minister Nhan, is battling against the vested interests of today’s professors and administrators, the most powerful of whom purchased their positions with the promise of gain and will not be displaced quietly. Frankly, this is one key reason why the Prime Minister is appealing for an American University and U.S. trained Ph.Ds. In the face of fierce resistance, his strategy is to set up parallel, superior systems to prove the bankruptcy of the die-hards in command of schools today. Another unfortunate legacy of the central planning mentality is that universities tend to judge their performance solely on quantity rather than quality. Currently, it’s lectures delivered that count when paying and promoting instructors, not the quality of the educational experience.

14. In addition, one could argue that the Prime Minister’s goals of training Ph.Ds is well intentioned but misguided. A program that produces fewer Ph.D.s but more M.A. and M.S. degree holders could produce a more sizeable impact, with more professors targeted at the level Vietnam needs most. While Vietnam will eventually need to move into advanced studies and research, the educational system is so bad today that we believe the 10-year goal should be to reform the system so that it becomes capable of producing the candidates who will eventually become the class of inventors and innovators. A master’s degree is the right level for teaching engineering, English as a second language, accounting, agriculture and many other subjects. An instructor with a U.S.-issued master’s degree and an understanding of the importance of free thought and student involvement with education would represent a profound improvement over most of the current crop of Vietnamese professors. Once Vietnam has a large body of well-trained basic college grads, moving into research will make much more sense.

15. Still, these barriers and arguments can be overcome or modified in execution given the right targeted assistance. The important thing is that we seize today’s opportunity, and capitalize on both the Prime Minister’s requests and the general admiration of Vietnamese for American educational practices. If we walk through this open door, we will be engaging, with the explicit support of top leaders, in a unique opportunity to profoundly influence on Vietnam’s educational system. Through our own programs, and by seeking to develop private-public partnerships, we can further Mission goals by helping Vietnamese officials and educational institutions reach the following goals:

–incorporate American curricula in a variety of fields;
–implement American teaching styles, which emphasize creative thought, problem solving, and leadership skills rather than rote learning;
–increase knowledge of the United States and American institutions through internationally-oriented classes and in American studies courses;
–improve English language instruction, thus enabling students to acquire information about the United States and the wider world on their own;
–promote study in the United States, which gives future leaders first-hand experience of American society and values;
–expand and deepen cooperation with American universities, companies, and NGOs; and,
–acquire the training they need in educational administration.

16. To better understand and facilitate current wide-ranging American educational efforts in Vietnam, Ambassador Michalak convened an Education Conference in Hanoi on January 24-25, 2008. That groundbreaking event brought together almost 200 American stakeholders in Vietnam’s education reform efforts – including more than 100 American universities, companies and NGOs with significant educational programs – to share information about their activities and challenges and to discuss how cooperation can help all parties realize their education goals more effectively. The Conference also enabled the Mission to enhance its knowledge of the breadth of American public and private sector organizations’ educational activities, and thus to plan a comprehensive and effective strategy to increase U.S. influence on Vietnam’s rapidly changing education sector. We also confirmed that, in serving U.S. national interests, we can also be responsive to the requests of Vietnamese leaders for U.S. educational assistance. A second Conference, planned for early in FY2009, is designed to bring together American and Vietnamese educators. In doing so, it will directly support a Foreign Commercial Service project to promote linkages between American and Vietnamese university information technology programs.

17. Using existing resources and additional information gained at the first Education Conference, the Mission education strategy includes the following components:

–The Fulbright Program in Vietnam: Each year, this program sends about 25 students of exceptional promise to the U.S. for Master’s Degree study in a variety of fields, including Higher Education Administration, and sends ten senior university professors to the U.S. for research designed to improve the quality of their instruction. In addition, several different Fulbright programs place up to twenty American professors and researchers at Vietnamese universities for programs to revise curricula, set up new courses and degree programs, and train faculty and administrators. To expand the Fulbright Program, the Mission is seeking first-ever contributions from the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), and is also about to launch a campaign to secure donations from U.S. companies operating in Vietnam in order to increase this flagship effort. (The Mission is working with State’s Fulbright Office and other offices to ensure that it adheres to all conflict-of-interest regulations.)
–The Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF): VEF currently funds about 70 Ph.D.s per year. The Mission is exploring ways to expand the scope of this program, both in terms of funding and the fields of study it supports.
— English language training for teachers: Better teachers will expand the pool of students able to study in the United States and increase the overall quality of English language instruction, which is now quite low. Building on the Mission’s current considerable efforts in this area through use of English Language Fellows (ELF) and programs involving the Regional English Language Officer (RELO) based in Bangkok, the Mission has requested and received ECA funding for ten Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), who will begin work at ten universities in September, 2008, for one academic year each. The Mission is also working with key Vietnamese officials and professors to jumpstart the creation of VietTESOL, which will provide professional training to Vietnamese English teachers.
–An aggressive Public Diplomacy effort: We are working on multiple fronts to encourage a larger number of highly qualified Vietnamese students to take advantage of the American higher education system. Surveys repeatedly show that Vietnam recognizes that U.S. schools provide the highest quality education, yet many thousands of students have, to date, sought opportunities in Australia and other countries, believing that U.S. standards are too high, particularly with regard to the visa process. We are working hard to correct the record through outreach. Presentations, webchats, and other outreach efforts – often undertaken by consular officers themselves – will thus continue to be necessary to ensure that increasing numbers of Vietnamese students are aware of and take advantage of opportunities to study in the United States. The results are gratifying, with the number of Vietnamese students studying in the USA growing at an exponential rate.
–Expanded Exchanges: We will leverage existing programs to enable university officials to observe American educational practices. Vietnam National University officials tell us that their top goals include training for VNU’s officials and young professors in higher education management, teaching methodology, and English, preferably in the United States. In addition, MOET intends to send every university rector and vice rector and every high school principal on training programs abroad. Post will seek ways to support these training programs, including use of International and Voluntary Visitor programs and American universities willing to host participants.
–USG support for public-private partnerships: Mission officers regularly meet representatives of American universities interested in launching or expanding cooperation with Vietnamese universities to provide guidance and advice and/or funds to facilitate exchanges. Currently more than 60 American universities have joint programs with Vietnamese universities, including two-way teacher exchanges, curriculum development, “2+2” transfer programs (in which Vietnamese students finish the final two years of undergraduate study at American universities and receive American degrees), and pedagogical training for faculty in specific fields such as English, nursing, engineering, and business.
–The Foreign Commercial Service Educational Initiative: USDOC is implementing an aggressive marketing plan, pending funding authorization, to continue to build interest among U.S. institutions of higher learning in the Vietnam education market. The program includes the establishment of the duhochoaky.vn (Vietnamese for “StudyInTheUS.com”) web-portal, virtual trade fairs and related matchmaking activities to connect U.S. institutions of higher learning with top Vietnamese schools and recruiters, and heavy marketing and logistics support for IIE’s annual education fair in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The marketing campaign is aimed to dramatically increase the number of Vietnamese students studying in the U.S. as well as the number of US. educational programs in Vietnam. Special focus will be on the intensive English, community college and undergraduate market segments.
–Working with State’s Trade Facilitation Office: This effort is intended to publicize the benefits that U.S. states can receive by being more active in education and business in Vietnam. We will cite the example of the state of Oklahoma, which was one of the first U.S. entities to seek business and students in Vietnam, and which is now the third largest recipient of Vietnamese students in the United States.
–Higher Education Summit: The Mission is sending two university presidents to attend the Higher Education Summit and follow-on regional event hosted by Secretary of State Rice, Secretary of Education Spelling, and USAID Administrator Fore at the end of April, 2008. Through their participation, we hope to see an increase in the number and type of exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnamese universities.


18. While we are already making progress, greater resources will allow us to advance this agenda much further. At a minimum, we can help Vietnam produce the managers and skilled workers needed to keep its economic expansion on track and to lift more of the population out of poverty. Looking more broadly, the United States has the opportunity to shape the Vietnamese educational system in a way that, in the long term, will result in a Vietnam that will be more democratic, more respectful of human rights and freedom of speech, and therefore more closely tied to the United States. Seen in this light, supporting educational reform is synonymous with our most fundamental Mission goals. Therefore, we have identified the following new initiatives requiring additional resources from Washington:

–$3 million fund for education requested in the recently completed FY2010 Mission Strategic Plan (MSP). Although decisions on how this fund would be used have not been finalized, we envision USAID bringing in an assessment team to look at options consistent with the ideas put forth by the GVN and flowing out of the January Conference. One possibility would be to develop a reform program to revamp national educational practices in such areas as English teaching and teacher training and assessment. This initiative could be modeled after USAID’s STAR Program, through which the U.S. has made a significant difference in Vietnam in the area of economic, regulatory and legal reforms. Targeted assistance in the area of education will similarly result in significant, positive changes that lead to a Vietnam better prepared to succeed in the global economy. In addition, USAID will look into ways to augment current projects, like the STAR program, in order to promote more executive and leadership training as part of the portfolio.
–Creation of an American University in Vietnam. As noted above, supporting the creation of an American University in Vietnam would require funding of up to $100 million over ten years to fund approximately 100 American professors and administrators.
–Increased funding to support study in the United States and the GVN’s goal of educating 2,500 Ph.D.s in the U.S. by 2020. USG support toward this goal could be channeled through expansion of Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF) programs, both by increasing VEF’s funding and potentially by broadening the fields of study it supports, as noted in para 11. In addition, funding might be secured by launching a Fulbright Presidential Scholarship Program similar to the one in Indonesia, which sends about 30-40 Ph.D. students to the U.S. each year. A similar program in Vietnam could focus on boosting the number of M.A. and M.S. students.
–U.S. Foreign Commercial Service Educational Fair in Vietnam. This idea, currently under consideration, along with other FCS export promotion activities, would build on current Mission efforts by bringing to Vietnam U.S. universities interested in recruiting students and in developing relationships with Vietnamese universities. Trade Development Authority (TDA) funding for initiatives related to recruitment of Vietnamese students for study in the United States has been suggested and would also be appropriate, as this “trade in services” area could easily generate hundreds of millions of USD per year to an industry central to American economic prosperity.
–Development of a program modeled on the USG’s new “Africa Education Initiative” (AEI), implemented through USAID. Over a period of four years, the U.S. is providing $400 million to train half a million teachers and give scholarships to 300,000 young people. A similar program, scaled to meet Vietnam’s objectives, would have very positive effects.


19. Many will read this message as a “blue sky” exercise, perhaps shaking their heads in wonder that a Chief of Mission would forward such a broad range of suggestions. Clearly, our proposals need to be considered within the universe of competing demands. I hope readers recognize, however, just how much we are already doing with current resources, and also grasp just how significant and unique an opportunity we face today. The innovative requests of the top leader of Vietnam, who will be meeting with President Bush in a matter of months, spurred me to draft this message. With just a fraction of spending now devoted to some of other programs and activities in the region, we can reshape this nation in ways that guarantee a deep, positive impact for decades to come. If we want the Vietnam of 2020 to look more like South Korea than China, now is the time to act.

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