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Higher education: Is it wise for Vietnam to imitate the US?

By Neal Koblitz   March 28, 2017 | 10:00 am GMT+7
Higher education: Is it wise for Vietnam to imitate the US?
A student waits for registration before an important placement exam, trying to get into one of Hanoi's top universities in a photo taken in 2014. Photo by VnExpress/Quy Doan

Fresh arguments on how Vietnamese schools should move forward.

A careful examination of higher education in the U.S. will reveal many reasons why it would be foolish for Vietnam — or any other country — to imitate the American system. The cost of higher education in the U.S. is extremely high by international standards. At many private universities the average cost of one year’s tuition, fees, housing, and meals now exceeds $60,000. (Costs are roughly half that at public universities.)

One reason for the high costs is the cancerous growth of bureaucracy. Universities typically have as many administrative employees as faculty, and there are many buildings that house only administrative offices. 

These administrators spend much of their time going to pointless meetings, attending expensive unnecessary conferences, and producing a tremendous number of wasteful publications that almost nobody reads. The list of top administrative ranks includes: the president, many vice-presidents, the provost, several associate provosts, several assistant provosts, many deans, associate deans, and assistant deans.

The levels of bureaucracy in a modern American university are so numerous that the Vietnamese language does not have enough words for them; a colleague who translated an article of mine told me that he had to invent a new Vietnamese word for “provost.” To the best of my knowledge, America’s universities are more bureaucratic than those of any other country in the world, as measured, for example, by the ratio of administrators to professors.

American universities have had to lower the academic level of their undergraduate courses. My university attracts relatively good students, because the University of Washington is the leading university in the northwest part of the country. However, because of “grade inflation” (increasingly high marks being given for mediocre work) and “dumbing down” (removing difficult material from courses), these students are accustomed to getting top marks for very little effort. During the past 25 years or so the level of preparation of our entering students has been steadily declining.

Several years ago a colleague of mine who teaches an introductory course in Atmospheric Sciences was frustrated with his students’ inability to understand the mathematics that he was using. In order to identify the gaps in their mathematical preparation, he gave them a "proficiency test" in basic mathematics. When he asked them to divide 25 × 108 by 5 × 10-5, 63 percent failed to answer correctly; and 31 percent of his students were unable to give the formula for the area of a circle of radius r.

Since that time the level of preparation and the attitudes toward study of most of our students have continued to worsen. During a recent lecture in calculus, I was explaining how to solve a problem that required us to know when the derivative of some function is negative. I arrived at the expression (x − 1)(x − 2) and asked the class, When is this negative? After a long pause, I added, “Remember, the product of two numbers is negative if one of them is positive and the other is negative. For what values of x is one of the factors of (x−1)(x−2) positive and the other negative?” After another long pause, finally one student raised his hand and answered correctly.

Because of a combination of personal problems, financial pressures, and deficient preparation in math and other subjects, almost half of the students who enter four-year college programs fail to finish in four, five, or even six years. This has led many commentators in the U.S. to say that higher education in America is very inefficient as well as overpriced.

Among American professors there is widespread agreement that our universities have tremendous problems, such as excessive bureaucracy and poorly prepared students. However, U.S. officials who come to Vietnam convey a completely different impression of our universities. They have repeatedly urged the Vietnamese government to import American approaches to higher education.

In May 2006 a delegation representing the U.S. National Academies toured Vietnam for several days and later released a report containing a long list of recommendations for overhauling the administration of higher education in Vietnam. Some of the recommendations of these “leading American experts” (the term the authors use to describe themselves in the Executive Summary) were simply foolish. They urged every Vietnamese university to create offices of the administration called “Centers of Teaching and Learning Excellence” and “University Assessment Centers” to deal with pedagogy, and also an “Office of Institutional Research” to encourage faculty research. In addition, they recommended establishing much more elaborate institutional accreditation procedures, “as well as developing and implementing a system for course evaluation and annual review of faculty.” In other words, they called for Vietnam to imitate the current system in American universities, even though this would necessitate a vast expansion in the amount of paperwork at Vietnamese universities and a major increase in the size of the administration (without a corresponding increase in the number of professors).

This is wrong. Vietnamese universities do not need more bureaucracy. They need more funding and better conditions for professors and students.

In 2009 two Fulbright people, T. Vallely and B. Wilkinson, wrote an article about higher education in Vietnam that disparaged and insulted the nation’s scientific researchers and educators. The Fulbright people (with coauthors) wrote a second report that year, repeating the same intemperate criticisms of Vietnam’s scientific and political leaders. However, neither report had a single word of criticism of the university system in the U.S.

In addition to insulting Vietnamese professors and officials, the Fulbright people also insulted Vietnamese students. They recommended that an “apex” university in Vietnam at first should have only undergraduate and no graduate programs because, they wrote, Vietnamese students are at too low a level and are unprepared for graduate studies. Like other statements by the Fulbright people, this claim is false. In fact, Vietnam has been training doctoral students in mathematics and other areas for decades with considerable success. Even during the extreme hardship of the war years, Vietnam always had large numbers of talented, hard-working, and well-prepared students. When I was in Moscow in 1974-75 as a post-doc, I learned that among all the international doctoral students studying in Moscow at that time, the Vietnamese had the reputation of being the best. And many of them were studying under the guidance of top Soviet scientists and mathematicians.

Moreover, we can compare university students in Vietnam with their counterparts in the U.S. We need only ask: How many science and engineering students at a good Vietnamese university would be unable to divide 25 × 108 by 5 × 10-5, unable to give the formula for the area of a circle, or unable to figure out that (x−1)(x−2) is negative when x is between 1 and 2?

Of course, there are some things that U.S. universities do well that might be worthy of emulation, especially if the Vietnamese government starts giving adequate funding to its universities. Similarly, Vietnam could learn a lot from examining universities in Japan, China, India, and South Korea, all of which maintain some excellent universities with far less waste of resources than in American universities.

* Neal Koblitz is a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington, Seattle, U.S. The article does not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress