Vietnam in need of better universities and laboratories


Pièrre Darriulat


            Some time ago, the editorial staff of Vat Ly ngày nay, the journal of the Physical Society of Vietnam, had called for contributions from foreign scientists commenting on what they may know of Vietnamese research and university education. I had taken this opportunity to write a paper from which excerpts and arrangements have since appeared in various publications[1]. Recently, Professor Hoang Tuy has written an excellent article in Tia Sáng[2], which perfectly summarizes the Vietnamese situation and clearly identifies the problems requiring an urgent solution: there is nothing to add to what he has written. Yet, as several friends have asked me to summarize again, in an updated version, my views on the subject, I do it briefly below.

            For brevity, I shall take it as granted that Vietnam does not have the universities and laboratories that it deserves and that its current rapid development calls for a significant improvement of the quality of university training and of research in order to catch the delay due to the loss of two generations of scientists caused by thirty years of wars. This is amply documented elsewhere and should not be controversial. Hence, I shall concentrate on actions that, in my personal and possibly wrong opinion, might be undertaken in order to progress.

            I hate criticizing what I may witness in Vietnam. I know well how much the country has suffered from recent history and that many of its wounds have not yet healed. I know that, to any of the criticisms I may formulate, one can easily find causes and excuses in the hardship of the recent wars and of their sequels. I am shocked when I see United States institutions pretending to give here lessons of human rights and I am a priori allergic to any interference of that kind. How could I dare to criticize the Vietnamese University system when I have enjoyed in Europe, all along my scientific career, particularly favorable working conditions? and when in Vietnam, where I retired and run a cosmic ray laboratory while teaching astrophysics, I have no material problem thanks to my pension? while my colleagues, university professors and research scientists, have wretched wages and very difficult working conditions. My only excuse is my wish to see the students whom I am training here enjoy a future at the level of their talents and not emigrate, as many of their friends have done, into countries which know, better than Vietnam, how to appreciate their competences, skills and attainments. This worry is very close to my heart.


            1. The need for general guidelines

            Some very basic questions need an answer in order to define the frame within which universities and research might develop. Such questions are Why does Vietnam need universities? and Why does Vietnam need research? These are not trivial questions; their answers differ from country to country and, within a same country, from time to time in its history. Only when they are answered can one hope to answer their corollaries: Which universities does Vietnam need? and Which research does Vietnam need? Such answers reflect the kind of society one wishes the country to have, they are major choices that governments make on behalf of their people; needless to say that it is completely out of question for me to even suggest possible answers. I simply wish to stress that Vietnam should not blindly copy what has been made or is being made abroad, as it seems too often to be the case. Boundary conditions are different as are the aims one is after: what is good elsewhere has no reason to be good here; not to mention the many errors and dysfunctions experienced by numerous foreign universities: of course, one should know about such experiences and, as much as possible, learn the lessons; but rather than simply trying to reproduce what is being done abroad one should give clear answers to the basic questions which I have just listed, make them well known and use them as the general framework in which to progress and from which to define broad guidelines. At a time when the country, with doi moi, is elbowing its way between communism and neoliberalism, such guide lines are badly needed. 

            Reference is too often made, in Vietnam, to international standards, as if there were no solution to the Vietnamese problems other than copying what is being done abroad or asking foreign so-called experts to save the Vietnamese situation. Most problems can be solved internally; they mostly require honesty, common sense, courage and determination. The old refrain that Vietnam is a poor country is a bad excuse: much too much money is spent by Vietnamese families in sending their children abroad to study; this money would be much better spent at home to improve the higher education system and to fight against the catastrophic brain drain which shows no sign of decrease. I remember a movie[3] showing the case of a young Hanoi girl who was sent to the United States to study and was landing in the deep South, in a completely cultureless environment: what a waste of money! I also witnessed cases of brilliant Vietnamese postdocs returning to Vietnam, usually for family reasons, after having earned a PhD abroad and being offered no decent job in the standard university system: what a waste of talent and what a waste of the money invested by Vietnam in their training! We do not need to make constant reference to international standards, but simply to correct the main major diseases of the current system and stop, or at least slow down, the current brain drain. Comparisons with international standards would then quickly evolve, spontaneously, in favour of Vietnam.

            A few examples will illustrate my point.

            Fifty years ago, western countries decided to democratize their universities, namely to open them widely to a much larger number of students than before[4]. It was in principle a generous idea, and I believe that globally it has been a success. In detail, however, many failures have been experienced which have made it necessary to revise the original idea. Many students have been entering university, who were either unable or unwilling to make the effort implied by such studies. One had to invent short cycles, one or two years, to redirect them to professional schools when it was still time (this shows, by the way, that one cannot think university in isolation but only within the broader context of higher education). Lower level students, who could not obtain a degree, had to face major problems of finding a job after having “lost” a few years at university. The questions that are asked here are very basic choices of society, such as democracy versus justice (everybody should have the right to study but the better students should have the right to progress at their faster pace and not be slowed down by their less gifted colleagues).

            From my Vietnamese experience, it seems to me that there is much to do in this domain. Many too many students who are not really at the level of completing university studies do pursue them until the end of their fourth year; not only do they strongly depreciate the value of the final degree, but they also prevent the better students to enjoy the higher level education that they deserve. So-called honour classes do not help, the selection being made much too early. It seems to me that one should seriously consider abolishing the current system of classes, which is excessively rigid and makes any change and evolution difficult, when not impossible. One should consider replacing it by the system in current use in nearly all universities around the world, where the students may choose, within some general rules and depending on their skills and ambition, which courses they wish to follow, which kind of degree they are after and how long they want to study. This more flexible system would ease the job of introducing short cycles for students who are not at the level of completing university studies and of rerouting them toward better suited channels, such as professional schools, when it is still time. It would also ease the introduction of new topics in the cursus, such as astrophysics which is currently not being taught in Vietnamese universities. One should have the possibility to stop one’s studies at different levels with a variety of different degrees matching the needs of the country. And, most importantly, controlling each student’s progress and delivering diplomas should be made with much more rigour than it is today.

            A second example: one hears today in Vietnam many debates about the desirability to create private universities. This is of course a major question, as is that of defining which part of the cost of university studies should be at the charge of the student and which part should be at the charge of the State. Such essential questions correspond again to a choice of society; their answers must come from high up. But one should refrain from thinking that Harvard is a good university because it is a private university and that all private universities are good and all public universities are bad (I have sometimes heard this kind of reasoning, even if in a slightly less caricatured form).

            A third example: the role of research in universities. It is generally recognized in most developed countries that universities hosting insufficient research are of a low level. Vietnam should have a clear policy in this domain. There exist other institutions that are doing research and their relations with universities need to be clearly defined (and, in my opinion, strengthened and encouraged). It is not always easy or simple. In France, for example, the normalization of the relations between universities and CNRS has been a major problem for many years (and still is to some extent). In Vietnam also the various partners need to collaborate closely to clarify the situation and clearly define their respective roles[5].

            A last example: fundamental research versus applied research. While Vietnam clearly needs to give a high priority to applied research in its current phase of rapid development, nearly everybody would agree, at least I hope so, that it must also free some room for fundamental research to blossom. Experience has shown that there is no good applied research in the absence of a high quality fundamental research. It is usually accepted that the essential criterion in selecting topics of fundamental research is simply excellence. But other scientific policy guidelines are necessary in order to define the directions in which the country wishes to support fundamental research. These are again decisions that can only be taken at governmental level.

            I have no doubt that the answers to such major questions exist in governmental circles, but they seem not to be known lower down, at the level where I have a chance to exchange views with my colleagues and students. It is essential, for the coherence of the progress and for preventing each individual from pulling the reins in whatever direction suits him best, that they be clearly spelled out and publicized in such a way that everyone is well informed of their content.


            2. What should be improved in priority?

            If I were asked to name a single action to be taken in order to improve the quality of university training and of research in Vietnam, I would not hesitate a second: I would say that the salaries of lecturers and researchers must be increased. It is well known that their current wages are typically one quarter of what they need to survive. The result is the need for them to have a second job that takes much of their time and effort and severely lowers the quality of their teaching and research. Moreover, such low salaries (in comparison with the rest of the Vietnamese society) are not giving them the dignity which one would think they deserve in a country having such a rich cultural history and such a strong tradition of holding education in high respect. Many feel mistreated, develop bitterness and find it difficult under such conditions to keep motivated to improve the quality of their teaching or research. The consequences of such low wages are catastrophic in many respects. They invite to bad practices that may go as far as corruption in some cases. Universities should give not only a good education to their students but also a good example of morality; they should teach them not only intellectual rigor but also intellectual probity, not to mention moral probity and a sense of justice; this ethical content of education is essential.

            I am not that naive to think that such an action is easy to take. I am well aware that it implies a very painful and time-taking restructuring of human resources, with a much more severe selection of lecturers, researchers and research projects than presently in practice and a rigorous assessment of their merits. It also implies difficult and costly transitory measures such as the implementation of an early retirement scheme aimed at rejuvenating the staff and improving its scientific level. Here again, general guidelines from very high up are mandatory. A clear policy and a well prepared plan are necessary prerequisites to the undertaking of such an action, allowing for precise and coherent guidelines to be spelled out and enforced. Many questions need to be answered, at least in broad terms, very high up. Increasing the salaries does not mean increasing all salaries in the same way but including this particular measure into a much broader restructuring plan: selection is necessary if one wishes to have justice and, as a corollary, some motivation and determination to give the country the high quality education and research that it deserves.  


            3. More confidence in Vietnam, more opening to the world

            A major difficulty which Vietnam in general, and Vietnamese universities and research in particular, have to overcome is the catastrophic brain-drain that they have been suffering for now so many years[6]. Vietnam receives a lot of help and support from foreign countries in the form of fellowships making it possible for its students to study abroad. But only Vietnam can make sure that the brighter of these students will come back home; this is necessary for the resources that the country has invested in their education not to be wasted. Only Vietnam can offer such students a future that will motivate them to come back home. Vietnamese universities seem sometimes to be lacking confidence in their young graduates and not to be willing to offer them the responsibilities that they are able to assume. In the recent past, the revolution and the wars gave an opportunity to very young and bright Vietnamese to take major responsibilities in the edification of the country, and one knows how successful they have been. Why not trust the ability of the brighter elements of the Vietnamese youth of today to erect a peaceful and modern country? This is a question that is very close to my heart because I often fear that the effort I am dedicating to train my students as good scientists would be wasted if the country were unable to retain them at home; I know how motivated they are to help their country develop, I would consider it a failure if their country would let them leave. I often hear the comment, from the older generation, that the younger generation is only interested in money and has no other ambition but becoming rich. Even if it were true, they should not be blamed for it: it was the responsibility of the older generation to communicate them the enthusiasm and motivation required by more noble causes. It is still time to do so. The brain-drain will continue unless the country shows its strong determination to stop it, which implies visibly offering a dignifying future to the brighter of its students.

            This apparent lack of confidence in the abilities and skills of the Vietnamese youth contrasts with an apparent excessive pride when it comes to take the advice of foreign countries or foreign experts in defining options of scientific policy or in selecting research projects or even research and academic staff. It is common practice in most foreign countries to include outsiders in their selection boards, a practice that helps the impartiality of the assessments being made and that opens a window on the outside world, establishing very welcome links with foreign universities and research institutions. It seems to me that such practice should be encouraged in Vietnam, as should be encouraged any initiative that favours relations with the outside world. An example is the developing practice of training PhD students under joint supervision of two professors, one from a foreign university and one from a Vietnamese university. The thesis is written and orally presented in one of the two languages, or in English, abstracts being produced in each of the two languages. The student gets a PhD degree from each university. Such an opportunity is a chance for Vietnam to open a window on prestigious foreign universities at the same time as it is a guarantee of the seriousness and of the scientific quality of the work: it should be highly welcome and encouraged. Collaborating with foreign research teams should not only be seen as a way to get money, it should also, and even more, be seen as a way to open Vietnamese research to the outside world and to improve its quality.


            It is time to conclude. I have selected three topics which seem to me particularly important and I have expressed very frankly the reactions which they trigger in my mind. I am well aware of my ignorance of many subtleties that make these problems less simple than I seem to think: I apologize for my excessive naivety in addressing them. I hope however that I cannot be blamed, in saying what I say, for having any interest other than helping education and research in general and Vietnamese science in particular.

            There is little doubt in my mind that improving the level of higher education and of scientific research must be one of the top priorities of the country. It is also clear that this cannot be done adiabatically, step by step as I often hear, with a few reformations here and there. It requires a real revolution. For this to happen, a strong desire and determination of changing things in depth and of improving radically the quality of higher education and research should manifest itself in the population. Such a revolution implies a rigorous analysis of the current situation and a clear and honest identification of the main dysfunctions and bad practices. The younger generation must be given the opportunity of building up a new University which the country can be proud of.

            European scientists of my age are deeply grateful to the older generation who dedicated their career, in the wake of World War II, to the revival of science, giving us important responsibilities while we were still very young. Some time ago, I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with the Japanese chemist and Nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori who was visiting our laboratory. He described his own experience in the very same terms. May the new generation of Vietnamese students say the same of their professors twenty years from now! May Vietnam be proud, by then, to have been able to stop the brain drain by having offered its youth a future that can give them motivation and enthusiasm! Much remains to be done for the country to have the universities and laboratories that it needs and deserves.


[1] Vât Ly Ngày Nay, XVII 4-75 (August 2006) 14 ; Tia Sáng, 13 (5th July 2007) 16; Études vietnamiennes, 2-164 (2007) 35 ; Súc Khoe Ḍi Sông, 103-2052 (June 30th, 2007) 12; Van Hóa, 1394 (June 29th 2007) 11; Symmetry, 3-4 (May 2006) Fermilab-SLAC; Lettre de l’Académie des sciences(France), 18 (Winter 2006) 10.

[2] Hoang Tuy, New year, old story, Tia Sáng, 2nd February 2007.

[3] "Mai's America", a film by Marlo Poras shown at the Hanoi cinémathèque in May 2006.

[4] In France, the number of students grew from 29 901 in 1901 to 1 309 100 in 2005, a factor of 44 in one century. The number of PhD in sciences grew from 42 in 1901 to 5283 in 1999, a factor of 126. During the same period of time, in the United States, the number of students grew from 238 000 to 17 272 000, a factor of 73, and the total number of PhD, all fields together, from 382 to 48 000, again a factor of 126. Most of this growth occurred after World War II.

[5] I am mostly thinking to research institutes under the Ministry of Sciences and Technologies, in particular through the Academy of sciences and technologies.

[6] I learned recently that of the hundred or so brilliant Vietnamese students who have been selected to study at the French École Polytechnique in the past ten years, not a single one has returned to Vietnam.