'Vietnamese education needs to focus on the practical everyday needs of the economy, experts said, eschewing the long-held belief that the country must strive to create an "American-style" or "world-class" university.
There is no perfect model for building an international university in Vietnam, said the experts at last week's US Ambassador Conference on Higher Education in Vietnam.
Instead the country should focus on improving its universities' research capabilities and students' creativity while also focusing on skills training to address the shortage of skilled labor at the middle level, they said.
The experts called for more academic freedom and autonomy for Vietnamese universities and for the government to create more preferable policies for the private sector to get involved in reforming universities.
As a senior expert in the Ministry of Education and Training's Higher Education Department since the 1990s, Mai Van Tinh has watched the country's decades-long effort to reinvigorate its higher education system.
Early on, he was sent abroad to consult experts and develop the perfect model for Vietnamese universities. Tinh said a group of Vietnamese experts studied multidisciplinary model campuses of the US, leading to the creation of Vietnam National University in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
But there was a fundamental difference in the two models, he said.
Most major universities in the US took years, even hundreds of years, to develop into prestigious institutions offering majors in various disciplines while also focusing on research activities.
"What we did with VNU Hanoi and HCMC was merging a number of existing universities. We think that's all it takes for a quality education?" Tinh said.
He said Vietnam should think of an international university model that best suits the current needs of the economy with more investment put into developing technology alongside the creation of better teaching and study materials.
According to a presentation at the conference by Professor Pham Vu Luan, standing Deputy Minister of Education and Training, Vietnam had plans to renovate the management of universities nationwide during the 2010-2012 period.
But Tinh said all the talk about renovating higher education had been too often focused on goals such as building "world-class" universities or training a certain number of doctors in foreign countries (most recently 10,000) - and far less on things such as improving the management culture at institutions of higher learning.
Kathryn Mohrman, director of the University Design Consortium at Arizona State University, suggested that the country develop "signature" or "world-class" programs at its existing universities to best serve Vietnam's national priorities. Vietnamese universities should also think about forming networks with their counterparts in ASEAN countries because these nations have a lot in common.
"Every country is crazy about having a world-class university and I don't think Vietnam should follow any single model," she said.
The mission of higher education isn't just about training people for jobs, but also about "citizenship and social responsibility" and creating "independent thinkers who can analyze situations," she added.
Two women, one mission
Though the debate over which model to base international universities in Vietnam is far from over, both Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh and Tan Tao Group Chairwoman Dang Thi Hoang Yen are already well on their way to building private international universities in Vietnam.
A well-known diplomat, Madame Ninh's ambitious project is the Tri Viet University, which is expected to open in 2013.
Among the richest women in Vietnam, Yen's project is the Tan Tao University, which is expected to start recruiting students this fall.
Both schools aim to offer classes in English, faculty members recruited from overseas and the US and modern campuses.
While Tri Viet University's mission is to be the first green university in Vietnam, Tan Tao University wants to offer an American-style university with all programs accredited by US accreditation agencies.
The women spoke at the conference about the difficulties of setting up such ambitious projects.
Both called for the government to give greater autonomy to schools such as theirs to design the curriculum and establish governing structure.
"We must have the right to decide our own curriculum," Yen said on the sidelines of the conference.
"In America, no one controls the quality of its higher education but often it's considered the best in the world. In Vietnam, why do we control the quality and it is still not as good as we expect or wish for?"