HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM – Fulbright University Vietnam (Fulbright), the first independent, non-profit liberal arts university in Vietnam, announces today the inaugural members of its Founders Circle. The total commitment of $40 million from these eight Founders and their families will support the first phase construction of Fulbright’s flagship campus in Saigon High-tech Park, Ho Chi Minh City.
This commitment highlights one of the largest philanthropic gifts to a higher education institution in Vietnam. The eight inaugural members include:
- Henry Nguyen & Mrs. Nguyễn Thanh Phượng, Phoenix Holdings
- Lê Văn Kiểm & Family, Chairman of Long Thanh Golf, Investment & Trading JSC.
- Lê Nữ Thùy Dương & Family, Vice-Chairwoman of Long Thanh Golf, Investment & Trading JSC
- Trần Trọng Kiên & Family, Chairman and CEO of Thien Minh Group
- Cuong Do & Family, Former President of the Samsung Global Strategy Group
- Lê Hồng Minh & Family, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of VNG
- Vương Quang Khải & Family, Co-Founder of VNG and President of Zalo
- Lương Tuấn Nghĩa & Family, CEO of Evergreen Invest
“Fulbright is incredibly honored and tremendously fortunate to receive this extraordinary gift from our inaugural Founders. This significant support would help us turn our bold dream of a green campus into reality, a permanent home for the leaders of tomorrow where innovations, sustainability, creativity, and public service will always be nurtured and thrive,” says Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam.
The announcement of the Fulbright Founders Circle also represents a significant development of philanthropic work in Vietnam. While charity is widely practiced in Vietnam, private philanthropy, particularly in higher education is still limited. “Our Founders believe in the transformational power of education, and it is their faith in Fulbright’s relevance to the future of Vietnam that motivated this historic act of giving. As the beneficiary of such generosity, it is Fulbright’s responsibility to continue fostering impact not only in Vietnam but also in the world. We hope that this kind act of our Founders will inspire Vietnamese people to continue giving to education, a long-term investment that benefits generations to come,” she adds.
Fulbright’s flagship campus will be built in the Saigon High-Tech Park on a 15-hectare parcel of land donated to the University by the Vietnamese government. It will be the most environmentally advanced education complex ever built in Vietnam, committed to net-zero carbon emission. The campus will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty, and the interested public.
In conjunction with the Founders’ gift, Fulbright University Vietnam is also the beneficiary of the $37 million via a 20-year direct loan from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to support the Phase I construction of accommodations, academic buildings, and dining and recreation facilities for up to 1,500 students. Fulbright University will continue its fund-raising efforts to complete the whole campus in the years to come, which is expected to accommodate up to 7,000 students across Vietnam.
This largest private gift in Fulbright’s history is announced together with the visit of the U.S. President’s Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry to Fulbright. As a veteran senator, Mr. Kerry has been playing a pivotal role in the normalization of the two former adversaries as well as the establishment of Fulbright University Vietnam.
Fulbright is honored to receive long-term support from the US and Vietnam government in forms of finance and land. These extraordinary gifts and support signify the public-private partnership approach to finance and build Fulbright University Vietnam. They enable the changes that not only better Fulbright but also benefit generations of Vietnamese people now and in the future as originally envisioned by the US and Vietnamese governments when they agreed to establish Fulbright University Vietnam as the first independent liberal arts university in the country.
About Fulbright University Vietnam
Fulbright University Vietnam, a new Vietnamese university with Vietnamese and American origins, serves Vietnamese and global society through teaching, research, and impactful engagement with the world. Fulbright develops highly educated, globally connected citizens prepared and inspired to engage with the challenges and opportunities facing Vietnam and the world.
The university traces its roots to a 1991 bill sponsored by Senator John Kerry to develop an exchange program for Vietnamese students and government officials. Following the success of this program, in 1994 the Department of State funded the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to partner with the Vietnamese university to establish the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, Vietnam’s first center of public policy. Both the exchange and graduate public policy programs are still in operation today and have trained over 2,000 public and private sector decision-makers.
In 2016, the public policy center incubated by Harvard transitioned to Fulbright University Vietnam, becoming the university’s first academic program. Today, Fulbright offers three academic programs – the Undergraduate Program in Engineering and the Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, and a problem-focused research program.
In many developing countries around the world, school fees and related education costs pose a significant barrier to children’s education, and are often linked to non-attendance, dropout, and the entry of children into child labor. In Vietnam, the situation is not that much of a difference.
According to Circular number 86/2015/ND-CP issued by the government, the school fees for a child to go from pre-school to university in the public-school system is, on average, VND112,550,000 (USD4,826.33). This means that, for one child, an average Vietnamese family needs to pay roughly VND75,000 ~ VND155,000 (USD3.22 ~ USD6.65) per month for K-12 education and VND2,200,000 (USD94.34) per month if their child makes it to university.
It may not look a lot but for such a developing country as Vietnam, that number can be a fortune for many families. On average, the Vietnam GDP per capita is USD2,566. In other words, for a nuclear family with two children, the school fees alone can cost up to 25-45 percent of the total household income. In addition to school fees, costs associated with uniforms, shoes, books, transportation fees and extra classes are obstacles to education for children.
To exacerbate the problem, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, economic inequality is worsening in Vietnam. In 2010, the top 20% make 9.2 times more than the bottom 20%. This increased to 10.2 times in 2019, said former Deputy Prime Minister (now National Assembly chairman) Vuong Dinh Hue. The growing economic inequality means that the educational achievement gap between the children of the wealthiest and the children of everyone else is widened even further.
Many poor families pull their children out of primary school because they cannot afford the cost of the school fees and education materials, or because they need the child to work in the fields or to earn money. Those who are lucky enough to stay in school may find it hard to catch up with their classmates from wealthy families because they cannot afford to go to extra classes or language classes. Those who complete high school are less likely to attend college than students from higher-income families. For some children, the effects of poverty on education present unique challenges in breaking the cycle of generational poverty and reduce their chances of leading rewarding, productive lives.
This widening educational achievement gap may threaten Vietnam’s economic growth. With only a select few individuals receiving the best education and enrichment, Vietnam cannot effectively develop the economic potential of its future workforce. To grow the economy, there exists a need to provide educational and enrichment opportunities for children across the income spectrum, rather than only a select few at the top. The important question is how.
There are ample proposals and rich debate on how to combat educational achievement gap and ensure more low-income students can get access to proper education. One of those proposals is scholarships, especially scholarships for higher education. Scholarship supporters argue that by offering scholarships to low-income students, schools and universities can target specific audience, widen opportunities and improve outcomes. However, most scholarships in Vietnam are merit-based, meaning students with high academic achievements have higher chance of getting a scholarship.
This brings us back to the discussion on academic opportunities. Wealthy families can more likely afford a variety of positive adolescent activities, such as prep-school, language classes, sports participation, school leadership, extracurricular activities and volunteer work, for their children. These activities broaden their experience and academic achievements, make them more well-rounded and place them at the top of the merit-based scholarship recipient list.
Moreover, low-income students, especially those from the provinces, do not have much access to the scholarships available to them. Due to this information gap, high-achieving low-income students do not even apply to the scholarships for which they are qualified. Thus, some may argue that scholarships, instead of solving the problem of inequality, only worsen it if they are not properly designed and implemented.
In Vietnam, to ensure specific aims of equity of and access to tertiary education can be met, some key policies have been created and implemented. For example, students from special groups will enjoy extra points for their National High School Exam. These groups include: students from remote and mountainous areas (namely Region 1), from rural area (namely Region 2-NT), and students whose parents are ethnic minorities or veterans with disabilities.
Another example is the University Entrance Nomination policy, in which every year a number of students from disadvantaged provinces may be nominated to enter the assigned public universities without participating in any university entrance exams. The number of students is proposed by the provincial governments based on their socio-economic development level. These students, however, are still required to pass the national upper secondary exams as well as pursue an intensive one-year education before entering normal university courses. Ethnic minority students are given preference when the provincial governments make their selections.
While affirmative action such as these policies may improve diversity in the university, Professor Michael Sandel, the author of the famous book Justice, argues that it brings two problems – one practical, the other principled. The principled objection reasons that affirmative action causes unfair in admissions and violates the rights of applicants who are qualified but belonged to the majority group. These students may have higher academic achievements than the affirmative-action students but are put at a competitive disadvantage through no fault of their own.
The practical objection claims that affirmative action may “damage the self-esteem of minority students, increase racial consciousness on all sides, heighten racial tensions, and provoke resentment” among the majority group. This view is also shared by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of David and Goliath. According to Gladwell, students benefited from affirmative action may not really benefit from it. Being among peers who are more academically equipped, these students may feel insecure, left-out, and unsuccessful. It may even result in drop-out for some.
In Justice, Professor Sandel mentions that to bridge the inequality gap, “a politics of the common good would take as one of its primary goals the reconstruction of the infrastructure of civic life.” This includes investing in top-quality, free public schools to which rich and poor alike would want to send their children.
In a perfect world, free education can help to reduce the financial burden from the students and encouraging them to get enrolled into higher education more actively. However, the world is not perfect and there are limitations to this solution.
It is undeniable that, managing higher education without taking any tuition fees is difficult for the schools. These schools have to get support from the government to maintain their academic and infrastructural costs. Such substantial public financing results in higher tax and cannot be easy to come by in the near future.
Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century argues that free education leads to “spending more public money on students from more advantaged social backgrounds, while less money is spent on university students who come from the modest background.” One of the reasons for this outcome is that free education does not include free cost of living. Most universities are located in big, urban cities where the cost of living can pose as a barrier for low-income students. Since tuition isn’t the only driver of college affordability, simply eliminating tuition expenses would still leave low-income students with unmet need for living expenses—the real cost of higher education for the majority of students.
So what can be done to reduce educational inequality and promote access to higher education for poorer households? While free education can be a great policy, it takes time to be implemented, tested and perfected. Educational disadvantage has built up over decades and it will take decades to fix it.
In the meantime, it requires a combination of effort, financing and skills to address the short-term solution: Aid.
In order to improve diversity and offer more opportunities for low-income students to access to education, schools and universities should consider providing the appropriate form of aid prior to, during, and after admissions. This is also the practice that Fulbright University Vietnam (Fulbright) follows in the hope to fulfill its mission to the Vietnamese society.
To bridge the information gap, Fulbright conducts outreach activities to high schools across the country. The objective of this program is to put Fulbright within the reach of any student no matter how financially unattainable a goal it may seem, by giving them the right information and guidance needed to understand the opportunity and the application process.
Fulbright also provides buses for schools in the provinces to come to its admissions events, which are organized in key cities of Vietnam, and at Fulbright campus. These activities give the students a taste of the life at Fulbright, extra-curricular activities, and demo classes instructed by the University’s undergraduate and graduate faculty.
The Fulbright Admissions team also provide help to interested students who indicated an existing interest in studying at Fulbright but were not sure about acting on that interest due to lack of knowledge or financial resources to attend university and/or not being familiar with the steps involved in applying to Fulbright and for financial aid.
Fulbright’s admission process is inspired by prominent American institutions, but mindful of the Vietnamese cultural, social and educational background. Taking into account the imminent educational achievement gap, Fulbright University has designed an application package that is unique and exciting. It allows every student to demonstrate who they really are. Fulbright’s evaluation process is also designed in a way that every student is considered fairly, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Fulbright is also the first university in Vietnam to offer a need-based financial aid, which is solely awarded based on a family’s financial circumstances and does not take into account a student’s academic merit. This need-based financial aid package covers not only the tuition fees, but also the living expenses to mitigate the barriers for low-income students to attend Fulbright.
Once admitted, Fulbright students also receive many other forms of aid to help them complete their four-year journey at Fulbright without feeling insecure about their capabilities. For those seeking added language support prior to starting the undergraduate program, Fulbright has a seven-week Bridge Program that runs the summer prior to the start of classes. Throughout the four-year, should a student feel struggle with his or her academic work or personal issues, the Learning Support team and the Wellness Center will provide them with appropriate aid, either in the form of private counseling sessions or mentorship.
At Fulbright, we believe knowledge is for everyone, and education must be accessible for the students from every status. Every person has the right to acquire knowledge as much as he or she wants. The journey to ensure equality in education is a long one, but it should not deter us to initiate the first step.
On 21stNovember 2018, Vietnam-U.S. Friendship Association organized the Conference “Vietnam’s education and lessons from the U.S. Education Crisis Management”. Madame Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam and Dr. Huynh The Du, Lecturer at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management jointly attended the Conference as expert panelists.
The conference examined the question whether Vietnam has been undergoing educational crisis. Dr. Huynh The Du presented empirical evidence to support his belief that large-scale crisis is not yet present in Vietnam’s education; however a faith crisis in education quality is prominent and exacerbated by recent scandals in high school exam cheating.
Considering some indicators such as Human Development Index, budget spending for education, and years spent in school, Vietnam shows great investment in education and ranks high on world’s education map.
Nonetheless, tertiary education quality is alarmingly degrading given high unemployment rate of graduates and increasing trend of parents and students’ preferences for international education.
From first hand experiences in administering an education model incorporating U.S. education excellence into Vietnam contexts, Madame Dam Bich Thuy – President of Fulbright University Vietnam shared Fulbright School ‘s initiative of Co-Designers Year during which students are active stakeholders in designing their curriculum.
Madame President explained: “This is Fulbright University’s choice of how we built our education after extensive review of other outstanding educations around the world. We believe that our choice helps us build a training program suitable to modern contexts. More importantly, both instructors and learners are accountable for their learning progress.”
I’m eating a bowl of bun cha by the lake in Tuyen Quang city and I’m amazed. Not because of the food in front of me, which is pretty tasty, but because of the student sitting across from me. One of my 10th grade History students invited me to lunch and is speaking English.
During classes at the gifted high school last year, I worked with 600 students with varying levels of English ability. Some were confident to speak up. Others were so shy trying to avoid making any mistakes that they rarely opened their mouths at all.
I had been in the city for 8 months and had never really heard this student contribute in class. But at Bun Cha, we were talking. We were laughing. There were some errors here and there, but I took a step back and thought whether it was more important that I correct every detail as we went along or allow this student to share his perspective with me for the first time?
The answer was simple.
To reverse the situation, whenever I went to the local market, I tried introducing myself to the vendors: “Em. Ten. La. Kyle. EM. TEN. (the vendor, confused, would stare at me.) Khong. Khong. TEENNN la Kyle.”A student guiding me at the market would impatiently add, “Anh ay da noi ten cua anh ay la Kyle.”
The vendor would laugh casually and offer me a kilo of dragonfruit for a “great” price.
During my year living in the north, I found something so basic, so common, as introducing myself to be a daily hurdle. I grew frustrated and sometimes refused to open my mouth at all. It’s easy to avoid being wrong in a language when you say nothing, right?? I was discouraging myself before I even began trying to improve. Yet, I was falling into the same trap as many of my students were when learning English.
For my students, I encouraged speaking. Period. Final. End of story.
Yes, pronunciation and grammar and vocabulary do play a part in the long-run of being understood, but I don’t think they do at the expense of general confidence and the willingness to say something at all.
In the same way that I need to speak up more often and possibly make mistakes when speaking Vietnamese if I’m going to improve my Vietnamese, then I hope my students continue speaking in English and possibly continue making mistakes.
If you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh and want to practice speaking without the fear of pronunciation judgment, let me know. We’ll grab a tra sua. I can make mistakes introducing myself in Vietnamese. You can make some pronunciation mistakes in English. We can learn together. It’s no problem. It’s No. Star. Where.