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

Monday, 2017-04-03 17:45:23
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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.


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