French Professor of Physics Pierre Darriulat has recently sent a letter to the Vietnamese Minister of Education and Training, pointing out shortcomings in doctorate training in Vietnam.
In his letter, the scholar who is former Research Director at the European Organization for Nuclear Research said that after a decade working in Vietnam, he has “witnessed a number of such flaws in our system that tend to be source of paralysis and sclerosis and prevent progress.”
He added that “emblematic of such dysfunctions is the regulation that governs the award[ing] of a PhD degree to young postgraduate students.”
He said that he has had opportunities to supervise and assess PhD theses in many European and American countries but never met regulations nearing those of Vietnam in complexity, after listing five main steps for a postgraduate student to get a PhD degree and expressing his wonder at why the Southeast Asian country has followed such a complicated procedure for years.
According to Dr. Pham Ngoc Diep from the Hanoi-based Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, Prof. Darriulat is a world-renowned physicist.
He has worked in Vietnam for 15 years and has not received any payment from the country.
Dr. Diep said it is an immeasurable contribution because many countries have to spend a lot of money inviting experienced experts to work for them.
Prof. Darriulat takes an avid interest in improving education and research quality as well as preventing the brain drain that Vietnam is suffering.
Thirteen years ago, he built up an astrophysics research group in Vietnam with the goal of establishing a research team which can compare with other research teams in developed countries.
Through the group, the professor hopes to create a good research environment for domestic students as well as students returning home after studying aboard.
Below is the original letter Prof. Darriulat sent to the Minister of Education and Training:
To His Excellency the Minister of Education and Training, Mister Minister,
Please, accept my apologies for taking some of your time.
While being a French national, I have now been resident in Ha Noi for some fifteen years during which, on a voluntary basis, I have dedicated much time and effort to the promotion of astrophysics in the country – university training and research – in particular by having gathered and trained a team of young astrophysicists that now includes three postdocs, two PhD students who should obtain their degrees at the end of this and next year respectively and one master student.
During all these years, I have been very close to many Vietnamese students and young scientists – in particular to those of our small research team – and very concerned about the ability of the country to offer them the future that they deserve having. I have done my utmost to help stopping the disastrous brain drain that the country suffers, and to help raising the level of our universities, which is much lower than what the country is worthy of.
I am of course familiar with the recent history of Viet Nam, the decades of suffering that the country has endured through wars and starvation, and I understand very well the reasons for the present situation. I am also conscious of the immensity of the task and I know how easy it is to identify weaknesses and to criticize, and how difficult it is to correct flaws and to progress.
Yet, during all these years, I have witnessed a number of such flaws in our system that tend to be source of paralysis and sclerosis and prevent progress, mostly associated with bureaucracy, less often with insufficient morality. It seems to me that a few of these could be corrected without too much effort. After all these years, I feel naturally concerned by the country giving abroad a bad image of itself, probably as much as Vietnamese do.
Emblematic of such dysfunctions is the regulation that governs the award of a PhD degree to young postgraduate students. I should like to take it as an example to illustrate my point.
My direct experience (of course I know of many more other cases) is with 1) three PhD under joint supervision between the doctoral schools of the Ha Noi Institute of Physics (IOP/VAST) or the Ha Noi University of Sciences (HUS) and prestigious French universities (Orsay and Paris 6-Jussieu); 2) one PhD, purely Vietnamese, with IOP; 3) two ongoing PhDs under joint supervision with the Paris Observatory and the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, both of very high level, and the Ha Noi IOP.
In spite of what had been agreed in very clear written agreements signed at high level in the participating universities, none of the three joint-supervision students has obtained his PhD degree in Viet Nam. The defence of their theses has taken place in France, obeying scrupulously the terms of the joint-supervision agreement, in particular concerning language and balance of the jury members. They obtained their French degree immediately after the defence, years ago, with very laudatory assessments of the jury.
The doctor who obtained her degree from Viet Nam (no joint supervision) had to wait one full year between the time when the thesis was printed and approved by the first jury and the final award.
Concerning the two PhD students under joint-supervision who are now in the mill, I decided to have their defence take place in Ha Noi, in the hope that it would make the procedure smoother. However, it does not seem to be the case.
As you well know, the main steps to get over in order to obtain the Vietnamese degree are 1. Presentation to a jury of 3 members of six subjects related to the thesis either directly (for three of them) or indirectly (for the other three). 2. Presentation to an evaluation jury of 7 members, which must recommend the thesis for evaluation at institute level for proceeding to next step. 3. Double blind peer review by two experts who must give a positive assessment for proceeding to next step. 4. In addition, the candidate must prepare some 50 copies of a short version of the thesis for distribution to a list of experts out of which at least 15 positive assessments must be collected. 5. An evaluation jury of 7 members including 3 referees will finally evaluate the thesis by ballot.
In the case of radio astronomy, on which we are working, there exist only two experts in Viet Nam, Professors Dinh Van Trung in Ha Noi and Phan Bao Ngoc in TPHCM [Ho Chi Minh City], both internationally renowned. It makes the idea of blind refereeing somewhat funny, not to comment on the 50 experts for step 4. Of the above list, in the case of joint supervision, step 2 alone is necessary and sufficient in the foreign country. Over all these years, I have wondered why Viet Nam is following such a complicated procedure. It cannot be in the hope to do better than so many other universities around the world that are so much higher in the Shanghai ranking than Vietnamese universities are. A possibility is the need to prevent frauds; as Dr Bui Anh Tuan, Director of the Department of Higher Education in your Ministry, said in a recent interview, there exist indeed a few frauds. But I am sure that Vietnamese professors, in their vast majority, are honest and, in any case, the way to fight against fraud is to severely punish its authors, not to make the life of the honest people more miserable. Having spent most of my scientific career in an international research centre, I have had numerous opportunities to supervise and assess PhD theses in many European and American countries. Never have I met regulations nearing those of Viet Nam in complexity; and never have I felt to enjoy as little confidence from academic authorities as I do in Viet Nam.
In the interview to which I already alluded, Dr Bui Anh Tuan commented on the need to reach 20,000 PhDs by 2020; he endorsed the views of Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam that in order to renovate the national education system, it would be necessary for the MoET to renovate itself. A simplification of the above regulations seems to me an obvious step in the right direction; it costs nothing; it will greatly improve the image that the country gives of itself abroad; it will help freeing academics from the dictatorship of administration which should be at their service rather than controlling them; it will make the honest supervisors, the immense majority of them, feel better trusted by their authorities than they currently do.
This motivated my letter, in the hope that it might bring your attention on a problem that seems to me easy to solve and that would help your Ministry in reaching its goal of 20000 PhDs by 2020. As you do not know me, you have of course no reason to believe me; for this reason I take the liberty to make my letter accessible to all those who are concerned by improving the level of higher education in the hope that they might support my statements. Conversely, if my views were not shared by many, I would of course retract them and ask for your indulgence. Be sure that my only motivation in expressing them is to serve Vietnamese science and higher education and to give better chances to the younger generation.
Very respectfully yours,
Ha Noi, August, 2014