Fulbright is about to launch its Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, a place for students to further their technological skills, to learn to be effective entrepreneurs and gain real-world experience, President Dam Bich Thuy told in a recent meeting with a group of senior Singaporean managers at our campus.
Dozens of government officials and business leaders led by Senior Minister of Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat were eager to learn about the technology landscape in Vietnam and how Fulbright University will contribute to the nation’s shift toward an innovation-driven economy.
Innovation key to escaping middle-income trap
Professor Nguyen Xuan Thanh from the Faculty of Public Policy and Leadership opened the meeting with a brief update on the Vietnamese economy. Thanh said that accelerating long-term growth is the key to escaping poverty and the so-called middle-income trap, in which a country gets stuck at a certain income level.
Over the past 30 years, Vietnam has been the second fastest growing economy in Asia with an average annual growth rate of 6.7 percent. However, Vietnam is significantly behind East Asian economies that achieved rapid growth during the same period. Even though Vietnam has been aggressively transforming from a primary to a manufacturing export-based economy, its manufacturing sector still creates very low value added (counted as contributions to GDP).
For example, Intel Vietnam exported $3.5 billion worth of computer chips in 2015 but its value added was just over $100 million, accounting for only 3 percent of its total export value. Hence, there is increasingly concern Vietnam will get stuck in the middle-income trap, particularly as the economy is heavily burdened by a dominant but inefficient state sector, Thanh said.
Given that tech companies have become key drivers in fostering economic growth and helping developing countries to increase productivity, the Vietnamese government is shifting its policy focus toward supporting the development of tech firms and laying the foundations for an innovation-based economy. Nonetheless, little action has been taken to realize this new-found dream of an innovative Vietnam.
Innovation starts with a quality education
Dam Bich Thuy, Founding President of Fulbright University Vietnam, believes that innovation will be unable to grow without a quality education that provides people with not only technology-based skills but more importantly, the ability to think critically and solve problems.
“While knowledge is easy to access nowadays, we’ve found that it’s challenging to achieve the ability to frame issues and ask questions, particularly in Vietnam and Asia. The moment you ask the right questions, you are probably halfway to solving the problem,” Thuy said.
At Fulbright University Vietnam, Thuy said, students are intermingling skills-based learning with coursework that also dips into liberal arts. Thanks to this integration, students engage in critical thinking by debating, articulating their thoughts and asking questions.
Thuy also acknowledged that liberal arts, however, might be not deep enough for students who want to go further in their careers, particularly in the technology-based sector. That’s why Fulbright is going to launch the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (the CEI), which will play a key role in the students’ journey at Fulbright.
It will not only facilitate those who want to learn more about top technical skills in STEM fields (such as Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics) but also create opportunities for them to realize their innovative ideas into practical solutions and products that can help to address the myriad of challenging issues in Vietnam.
That center, Thuy said, will bring industries, experts, successful entrepreneurs, top tier professors to work with students so they can gain much needed real-world experience, and some of them might even be successful in building marketable solutions.
Although many institutions have focused on equipping technical skills as a major part of creating competitive technical workforce, it is not the key long-term issue for most Vietnamese graduates, according to a Fulbright market survey.
Nam Tran, Fulbright Chief of Staff, added that most of tech companies in Vietnam are concerned about the supply crunch of product managers, i.e. those with the ability to develop concept and manage deployment of new products, as large number of coders fail to make the transition. That is why we are taking a different approach at Fulbright’s CEI.
“What we try to do at CEI is to create a nurturing and competitive environment where students can learn to create their own products, be the product manager and potentially grow to be an entrepreneur with the ability to tackle emerging challenges in Vietnam.
We do not expect every idea to succeed, but we believe the students can learn a great deal through getting their hands in “the mud”. Even if they fail with their products or ideas but at the end, they can benefit greatly in the long run with a unique 21st century skill sets in entrepreneurship and innovation”, Nam said.
Cultivating entrepreneurial spirit
Senior Minister Chee Hong Tat said he was impressed with the way Fulbright is innovating higher education.
“What you are doing at Fulbright is so pioneering. That’s the start-up spirit, the spirit to try new things. That’s exactly what we would like to encourage young generations of Singaporeans to embrace: an entrepreneurial mindset,” the senior leader in charge of education policy said.
He also noted that Singapore is willing to collaborate more closely with Vietnam in education. China, in its early period of 80s economic reform, sent senior leaders to Singapore in order to learn how to manage an open economy. Similarly, as the leading regional incubator of new ideas, Singapore can help Vietnam to train its public servants how to facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation.
Dr. Michael Li, Academic Director at Nanyang Business School, added that the Entrepreneurship Summer Camp provided by top Singaporean universities will be pleased to welcome Fulbright students.