Vietnamese math genius calls for education overhaul at US Consulate conference

By Ha Anh – Dang Nguyen, Thanh Nien News

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Math Professor Ngo Bao Chau (R) discuss Vietnam's university problems with other participations at a conference in Ho Chi Minh City July 31, 2014. Photo: Dang Nguyen Math Professor Ngo Bao Chau (R) discuss Vietnam's university problems with other participations at a conference in Ho Chi Minh City July 31, 2014. Photo: Dang Nguyen

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Vietnam’s universities have dipped to a regional low due to poor hiring practices, cronyism, and low professor salaries and research funding, Professor Ngo Bao Chau said during a recent conference in Ho Chi Minh City.
The highly-decorated mathematic genius, who is a recipient of the Field Medal which is considered the Nobel prize of mathematics in 2010, said the protocols for building faculties and promoting research in Vietnam run contrary to international best practices.
Schools in Vietnam focus on bringing their own graduates back to lecture, while western countries seek new blood, said the French-Vietnamese professor who currently teaches at the University of Chicago.
Professor Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a senior language lecturer from Vietnam National University in Hanoi, backed the point and described the country's academic recruitment practices as "incestuous."
“When you train your own masters and doctors, how can those people teach new things to your students?” Prof. Thuyet asked.
Chau said Vietnamese universities do not welcome foreign professors and noted that when insiders are coddled, fair competition is impossible, he said.
“The top criteria in recruiting university lecturers and professors should be their ability to conduct scientific research," he said, noting that the selection of teachers is more academic in western universities and more administrative in Vietnam, Chau said.
If this culture continues, Vietnamese schools could fall behind institutions in Laos and Cambodia, which are quickly moving forward, he told nearly 200 representatives from local and foreign universities during a two-day conference which wrapped up last Friday at the the US Consulate General's American Center in Ho Chi Minh City.
Dr Phan Thanh Binh, director of Vietnam National University (VNU) in Ho Chi Minh City, said Vietnam's approach to higher education has been disdained as “backward” throughout the region.
Chau said universities are “the darkest and most complicated” piece of the education picture of Vietnam, which requires a “basic and overall renovation.”
For example, he said, there should be a transparent pool of teacher candidates, with public résumés, that all universities nationwide have access to.
He also stressed that the appointment of professors should represent the schools’ academic independence instead of the current practice of handing them out like "tokens of honor."
He also said Vietnamese teacher salaries are far too low and receive far too little support (e.g. rigid, complex and unclear policies) to do a good job.
A university lecturer needs to be paid (at least) as much as a middle-income earners in the community he teaches in" -- Professor Ngo Bao Chau


“A university lecturer needs to be paid (at least) as much as a middle-income earner in the community he teaches in,” the professor said.

Professor Duong Nguyen Vu, who spent many years working for European organizations and is now the director of the John Van Neuman Center of Excellence in Applied Science at VNU said he had “yet to solve the puzzle of finance in education in Vietnam after 17 years of being back.”
He still doesn't know, he said, how professors are supposed to be compensated for their work.  
“If the financial problem cannot be solved, there can be no solution for any remaining issues of scientific research. It won’t be able to grow,” he said at the conference.
An unidentified representative from a university in Hanoi received wide support from others at the conference when he said he had to tell lies every year to secure research funding.
“Scientists are not supposed to tell lies, but honestly I do every year -- otherwise I’d have no money to do anything.”
Dr Nguyen Quan, minister of Science and Technology, admitted at the conference that financial policies for researchers remain “problematic.”
Quan tried to prove that by saying neither he nor the education minister could determine Chau's salary on their own.
He said research funds remain very low and changing that would require much more than his ministry to fix -- without specifying what he meant.
He said the dearth of funds discourages teachers, most of whom are too busy teaching to find time to create.


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