Vietnam’s outstanding academic performance at odds with its innovation

The growing number of achievements claimed by Vietnamese students at international science competitions is doing little to boost the country’s limited scientific progress

Members of Team Vietnam participating in the 2017 International Mathematical Olympiad take a group photo outside Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi after returning from the competition, July 25, 2017.

Vietnam erupted in celebration last week when its student competitors at international Olympiads in math and physics posted their highest scores in history, outperforming the country’s previous records at both competitions and bagging several gold medals in the process.

At the 49th International Chemistry Olympiad in Thailand earlier this month, Team Vietnam tied China for second place, taking home three golds and one silver, the best Vietnamese performance in the competition since the country’s first appearance in 1996.

Over the past three years, Vietnam has consistently ranked among the top performers at these three major science Olympiads, claiming a total of 44 medals, half of which have been gold.

However, Vietnam’s scientific achievements in competition are proving to be a poor indicator of actual scientific advancement within the Southeast Asian country.

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Vietnam’s medal count at three previous international Olympiads in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Graphic: Tuoi Tre News

According to Prof. Dr. Le Tuan Hoa, director of the Vietnamese Institute of Mathematics, a country’s performance at international student competitions should not be taken too seriously, as living under the illusion that success in competition leads to success in reality can put unnecessary pressure on students.

“Winning international prizes proves that these students are smart and capable, but it doesn’t mean that their entire lives will revolve around the subjects in which they’ve won,” Hoa said. “It’s perfectly normal for medal-winning students in math and physics, for example, to pursue higher education in law, economics, or medicine.”

The math professor also dismissed the suggestion that high rankings at international competitions are an accurate measure of a country’s actual potential in a respective field of science, calling it a delusion.

“Equating competition results with advancements in actual science is a horrendous mistake, since the two have nothing to do with each other,” Hoa stressed.

Brain drain

Meanwhile, Prof. Ngo Bao Chau emphasized the importance of improving teaching standards in universities across Vietnam if the country actually seeks progress in fundamental research.

“Most [Vietnamese] students who have claimed prizes at international contests have opted to pursue a research career in their respective fields of fundamental science, often with success owed to their innate talent and passion,” Chau said. “The problem is that most Vietnamese with talent in basic science have achieved success abroad. They have furthered their study in a foreign country, and decided to stay for work and research.”

Chau is no stranger to that situation. In his junior and senior high school years, the Hanoi-born professor participated in the 29th and 30th International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) and became the first Vietnamese student to win two IMO gold medals.

He later pursued higher education in France where he earned his PhD and French citizenship, making him a dual-citizen of the European country and Vietnam.

In 2010, Chau became the first Vietnamese national to receive the Fields Medal, a prize awarded by the International Mathematical Union to distinguished mathematicians under 40 years old, and viewed as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics.

“[Their decision to stay abroad] is understandable, as there’s still too big a gap in working conditions between researchers in Vietnam and researchers in foreign countries,” Chau explained. “Maybe that’s why we have an abundance of human resources but still find ourselves struggling to find innovators capable of moving the country’s fundamental research forward.”

According to Prof. Chau, Vietnam has yet to make any significant scientific contributions to the global discourse.

“There’s even an opinion that our [approach to] fundamental science hasn’t changed for the past 10-15 years,” Chau said.

Students engage in a lesson at the Hanoi University of Science. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phan Bao Ngoc from the Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City asserted that inadequate remuneration policies for fundamental researchers have been a pivotal factor in the country’s brain drain.

“There’s only a handful of talented students each year, but if they follow a career in fundamental research in Vietnam, their monthly income will only hover around VND10-15 million [US$440-660], about the same as an Uber or Grab driver,” Ngoc pointed out. “That’s nowhere near attractive enough for them to stay.”

Even Hoang Huu Quoc Huy, a Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province student who posted the highest individual score at the 2017 International Mathematical Olympiads in Brazil, has revealed his intention to pursue education abroad.

“I plan to study computer science at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Science,” Huy said. “During my time there, I can gather enough knowledge and experience to apply to a foreign institution. In the future, I see myself working in applied mathematics, for that has always been my passion.”

“That was the plan whether or not I was successful at the IMO,” Huy said. “My vision has always been to enroll in a university in Vietnam and eventually seek opportunities to go abroad.”

Hoang Huu Quoc Huy at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi after returning from the 58th International Mathematical Olympiad in Brazil. Photo: Tuoi Tre

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