US agency finds Vietnam's higher science education improved

Thanh Nien News

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The Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), an independent US Government agency, released an updated evaluation, last week, of Vietnam's science-related higher education system. 
Eight prominent US professors visited 14 universities in four cities (Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho, Hanoi, and Thai Nguyen), in July 2013 to identify changes in teaching, learning, and research methodologies in the fields of agricultural sciences, civil engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, environmental sciences, physics, and transport and communications.
The visit was meant to follow up on an initial study conducted in 2006. 
The study, known as the STEM report, sought to gauge Vietnam's education system in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
After the site visits, the researchers described Vietnam's education system as hampered by "regionalism”--a term they coined while conducting research here.
The visiting professors found that Vietnamese students tend to seek out universities that are closest to their homes and then spend the rest of their lives either teaching there, attending graduate school there or recruiting graduates there to serve as their employees. 
The researchers speculated that the phenomenon results from the strong role that home and family play in the culture. During interviews, some Vietnamese students indicated that they relied on support from their families, financially as well as emotionally, while others made it clear that they had responsibilities to their families and so they do not wish to study too far from home. 
The report stated that, in the United States, seeking multiple degrees from the same university or hiring one’s former classmates is disparaged as "in-breeding" as the practice is thought to limit the exchange of ideas and new approaches, and to be detrimental to the individual, the institution, and research in the specific fields of inquiry. 
Given the strong cultural basis for regionalism in Vietnam, the report suggests other approaches to bringing researchers, scientists, and academics together, such as semester-long student and faculty exchanges, national conferences in specific disciplines, or summer courses sponsored by several universities that invite international guest speakers and presentations made by graduate students. 
Positive changes 
The 2014 report noted that Vietnam's higher education system has made some positive changes since their first visits in 2006 and 2007.
The professors noted that Vietnamese instructors now utilize more student-focused and active learning methods, such as group work, individual presentations, independent study, class discussions and more laboratory work. 
A higher percentage of faculty members now hold Ph.D.s and Master’s degrees, and more conduct research that they share with their students. Some instructors include students in their research. 
Most students have their own computers (even those who commute to the university from remote areas) and most enjoy high-speed Internet access. 
More undergraduate students are engaging in lab projects, research, and theses. They also enjoy more face-to-face interaction with instructors than was noted during the last VEF study. 
The previous reports expressed concern that students were required to complete too many credits in order to earn a degree, leaving them with too little time to internalize course content. It seems that the number of contact hours for students has not decreased, and that the number of contact hours for instructors has increased for many, according to the 2014 report. 
According to the report, the standard salary for a Vietnamese higher education instructor is exceedingly low compared to the cost of living. 
Respondents to the project revealed that instructors with a Bachelor’s degree reported an average monthly salary of US$183 while those with a Master’s degree received $254, those with a Ph.D. received $368.
On average, administrators earned $407. 
However, these salaries cannot be considered equal to “income,” the report says.
Instructor salaries in Vietnam are often tied to the number of courses taught, which encourages them to teach too many sections. Many also teach at other colleges or universities in addition to their full-time jobs. 
Researchers concluded that the system ultimately leaves instructors with little time to pursue research, improve course materials, advise students, and grade papers. 
Salaries for instructors in the Advanced Programs are substantially higher, but there are only 34 such programs in the country. No one disputes that the average salary is low, but there is strong consensus that funding is limited. 
The report suggests that the situation could be greatly improved through creative support mechanisms--such as reducing teacher course loads, hiring more teaching assistants, or providing additional research support and opportunities for instructors to attend national and international conferences.

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