Five years ago, Ms. Dam Bich Thuy departed from ANZ, where she had served as the first Vietnamese CEO of an international bank in Vietnam, to become President of Fulbright University Vietnam and undertake the challenging task of advancing the country’s higher education. In celebration of Vietnam’s Teachers’ Day (November 20), Vietnam Finance recently sits down with her for an insightful conversation about the transformative power of education and her inspiring journey at Fulbright. (*)

Are you currently happy with your job at Fulbright? What would you consider the most gratifying moment in this 5-year journey with the university? 

I was born and raised in a family of educators. Both my parents used to teach at universities, while my younger brother also followed the family trade and became a researcher. Wanting to become a teacher myself, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Pedagogy. But you see, life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned, as my career had taken different turns. However, I think deep down inside, I still carried with me the love and passion for education, so that when the time came, the decision to join Fulbright University Vietnam as one of its founding members, and then as its first President, was something completely natural to me.

The quest to build a university from the ground up, especially one that’s based on an education model relatively new in Vietnam, certainly entails many challenges. Yet the boundless joy, the rewarding moments are truly beyond compare. I still remember the early days of a newly formed Fulbright, when our entire project team worked together in a cramped office at Bitexco [Financial Tower], tirelessly preparing for our first school year’s admissions. It didn’t matter whether you’re an academic, a communication officer, or a finance specialist, each and every one of us pitched in with one mission in mind: how to convince students and their families of our vision, to earn their trust and confidence so they’d join us in this journey of building and co-designing Vietnam’s very first liberal arts university, together.

Nor can I ever forget the first meetings we had with a group of students and parents on the educational model at Fulbright. There were many questions, even doubts and skepticisms, raised about the practicalities of liberal arts, since it goes against a traditionally held belief of Vietnamese families that “higher education is vocational education”. Some people couldn’t understand why our students have to spend a minimum of one year at Fulbright to learn the basics of humanities and arts, social and natural sciences, before deciding on a specific major. Or when we talked about our need-based financial aid program that takes into consideration each family’s financial situation, not a few parents expressed misgivings about the fairness of this model, fearing that there might be people providing false statements to gain opportunistic advantage.

And so, you can imagine how gratifying it’s been, for all of us at Fulbright, to see more and more students and parents in Vietnam nowadays recognize the values of liberal arts education, while our society as a whole has embraced it as one of the creditable alternatives when it comes to higher education in our country. Or I was moved to receive a letter from a mother whose kid had been awarded full financial aid at Fulbright. She said that had the university not offered her child this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they might have to abandon their dream, for the family simply couldn’t afford it. The mother also shared with me her intention of notifying the school immediately once the family’s financial situation has improved, so we can pass this opportunity on to other students in need.

How important is higher education in providing a high-quality workforce for Vietnam’s future development? 

In his seminal work on human capital theory, the Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker pointed out that human capital constitutes 70 to 75% of a nation’s capacity to reach prosperity. He illustrated how Asian countries from Japan to South Korea to China have come to recognize the critical role of education in economic growth. Despite having fewer natural resources, those countries invest heavily on their education systems, in particular higher education, to improve human capital which in turn, contributes to their transformation into global powerhouses.

Vietnam is no exception if we want to replicate their success stories. The matter at hand, however, has become increasingly pressing as we now live in a period of uncertainties and accelerating technological change. Automation and artificial intelligence, while enabling seismic shifts in society, have brought about concerns regarding the rapid disappearance of jobs across industries, from assembly lines to retail to law.

These trends will exert grave impacts on Vietnam, whose economy primarily relies on light industry and agriculture. The labor market of those manufacturing activities will exponentially shrink due to automation and technological advances, while our agricultural production is extremely vulnerable to climate change. To sustain our development and attain greater socioeconomic accomplishments, we must ensure a successful transition of our economy into knowledge and high value-added industries. Therefore, a skilled and high-quality workforce will serve as an important prerequisite.

In your opinion, what needs to be changed so Vietnam’s higher education can catch up with the higher education systems in developed countries? 

Despite the fact that Vietnam’s higher education has made significant strides over the years, in reality, we’re still confronted with the gap between the demand for skilled labor and educational opportunities in the country. While Vietnamese students perform well on standard academic tests, employers consistently report that students lack the skills needed to excel, as reflected in the high underemployment rate of college graduates.

At the same time, young people are now faced with a future of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, also known as the VUCA world. A report has estimated that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030, less than 10 years from now, haven’t been invented yet. In large measure, a university curriculum that adheres strictly to the confines of traditional career paths has become outdated.

In the end, I think we need to come back to the ultimate, if not original, role of higher education, which is to help students manage and adapt to an ever-changing world. From our hands-on experience at Fulbright over the past 5 years, I believe that higher education in the 21st century must teach students to “learn how to learn”, so they will be able to continually develop new skills and reinvent themselves. The focal point of any educational model should be on providing students with the fundamentals of interdisciplinary studies which synthesize knowledge across different fields, while honing essential skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, curiosity and creativity.

Recently, I’ve got to hear from a human resources director of a tech company. She said to me their CEO thinks very highly of Fulbright students who currently intern at the company, for they demonstrate excellent critical thinking, problem solving, presentation and collaboration skills, even better than some of their full-time employees. I’m not sure if she exaggerated it, but it’s still a great encouragement for all members of Fulbright to keep going and have faith in our mission.

The last decade has seen the growth of private investment in education in Vietnam. How would you assess the nature and quality of these efforts?

It is an undeniable fact that over the past 10 years, the education sector in Vietnam has been vibrant and diversified thanks to a growing number of private investments. Universities have also changed to become more active and attuned to market’s demand.

But frankly speaking, we still lack high quality and internationally accredited universities. Whereas private investors might have spurred the formation of new universities in Vietnam, the priority set on profit maximization has hindered efforts to improve the quality of teaching and research.

I have an inkling that the concept of private investment in education has been, by and large, misinterpreted in Vietnam as the commercialization of education. Whenever education is excessively commercialized, the repercussions, chief among them an inequitable distribution of opportunities among students to get access to higher education, would be a serious cause for concern. We simply can’t stand by and let students with talent, passion and intelligence give up their dream, just because their families can’t afford tuition. This problem doesn’t affect only a few individuals, but in fact, it’s an important social issue directly linked to a nation’s social mobility. A large part of the world, Vietnam included, sees higher education as a decisive factor for its people to move up the social ladder.

I believe the solution to this problem lies in how we can gain a true understanding of the nature of investment in education, which we can certainly learn from countries with the best higher education systems.

It goes without saying that not-for-profit universities do need endowments to operate. In developed countries, especially the US, philanthropy is a time-honored tradition and has been instrumental to top universities’ long and successful history. Donations, charitable contributions, or capital funds gifted to educational causes have also become a common practice in Asia.

Although the mainstream media in Vietnam only highlights stories about billionaires’ hefty donations to universities across the world, such as the case of Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, Vietnam’s first female billionaire, and her £155m donation to University of Oxford’s Linacre College, in reality there are more and more middle-class individuals willing to give small donations to endowment funds or scholarship funds that support disadvantaged students. These are admirable gestures and should be widely popularized in Vietnam, so that education philanthropy can truly become an intrinsic value of our beautiful culture.

I’d like to reiterate that if we want to build a better, stronger Vietnam, collectively we must build and invest in good universities. I’m sure many of our readers carry in their mind the question of what we can do to help strengthen our country, so it can stand tall and proud in the world. I can assure you, making your contribution to the development of education in Vietnam is one such way. It’s the key, if not one of the most feasible solutions, to our concern.

What would you consider as the biggest challenge for Fulbright at the moment? How do you secure the financial resources need for the university’s future development? 

The hurdles that a 5 year-old university must overcome are numerous. Yet the biggest challenge for Fulbright University Vietnam is how to prove ourselves worthy of Vietnam, by rising to the particular demands of our society through ensuring an excellent teaching and research program, among other activities and initiatives aimed toward social good. Our development would mean nothing and won’t be sustainable if Fulbright can’t connect to Vietnam at a deeper level. That requires contribution from goodwill benefactors and financially savvy individuals in our country.

At the moment, Fulbright is operating from the generous funds provided by the US Government and its affiliated organizations, not to mention a 15 hectare parcel of land in the Saigon High-Tech Park, donated to the university by the Vietnamese government so we can build a new campus, envisioned as the most environmentally advanced education complex in Vietnam, and will serve as a living sustainability laboratory for students, faculty and the interested public.

We’ve also received financial commitments from generous benefactors as well as Vietnamese businessmen and women, whose contributions represent their fervent support and investment in the future of education in Vietnam. But above all, we still look forward to education philanthropy becoming a common practice in our society. As previously mentioned, a $10-20 gift donated to non-profit universities in America is not at all uncommon, for it can accumulate into a valuable resource that enables them to invest substantially in teaching and research. As a result, they have been able to cultivate generations of innovators, changemakers and leaders that form the nucleus of the advancement of their society. And in turn, those alumni always come back and make contributions to their alma mater in whichever way possible. At Fulbright, we would also want to build that “pay it forward” culture.

Do we have similar types of small donations at Fulbright? 

Absolutely. In fact, the endowment we’ve received so far has exceeded far beyond our expectations. Among our benefactors are individuals of middle income, who still manage to donate a small sum of money every month to support the university’s scholarship fund or endorse an initiative they believe in. Every donation, large or small, means the world to us.

Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao’s donation to Linacre College has captured the public attention in Vietnam. In your opinion, what can we do to incentivize private donations to universities in Vietnam? 

Although I’m just a casual observer of that story, I still hope her gesture will serve as an inspiration for other well-to-do individuals in Vietnam in making their donations to local universities.

But words are not enough to build a culture of education philanthropy in Vietnam. The reason it has become so successful in America is due to the US Government’s federal tax deductions for charitable donations, in which contributions made to non-profit universities can be claimed as tax deductions. In Vietnam, we do not have similar incentives to encourage wealthy individuals’ charitable giving. But I think it’s time our government should give it due consideration to mobilize the untapped resources of our society.

In that ideal scenario, it’s critical that endowment funds are allowed to marshal contributions from every part of society as much as incentivized for doing so. In the US, the number of university endowment funds has increased hundredfold since 1980, in particular, the size of those of elite institutions have risen to tens of billions of dollars. While still a novelty in our country, I believe it’s an imperative to attract more private investment in higher education and in turn, the future of Vietnam.

(*) The article has been translated from Vietnamese to English by Fulbright.