By Trọng Kiên
Whatever the merits or demerits of the recent brouhaha over a PhD dissertation, the time is opportune to take a seriously critical look at some post-graduate academic practices and “traditions” in the country.
While this topic merits a PhD thesis (and more) on its own, it is pertinent to highlight some problematic salient features, given that a failure to address them urgently will have far-reaching negative consequences.
It would qualitatively weaken Việt Nam’s efforts to further its international integration process, not to mention deepen a crisis of confidence in the nation’s higher education system.
The doctoral dissertation that attracted the latest controversy was titled “Letter Art in Book Cover Designs in Việt Nam in the 2005-15 period (literal translation).” It was authored by a post-graduate researcher at the Việt Nam Institute of Culture and Arts Studies.
When the photographs of the dissertation defence, with a huge board mentioning the thesis’s title in the background, were posted online, the reaction was swift and brutal, as knee-jerk reactions tend to be.
Netizens piled on, calling the dissertation “ridiculous,” “complete waste of the State Budget,” and other things in the same vein.
The author has responded by saying that the thesis committee completely accepted his work, and the head of the institute has waved off the criticism, saying people need to “read it first before commenting.” However, the call for more reasoned debate and criticism has largely fallen on deaf ears.
While a case that can be made that the topic is indeed frivolous, given the many grave crises facing the country and the world today, culture and art very often find abstract expression and dismissing any work out of hand without a closer look is unfair.
This controversy reminded of time I did my graduation thesis on the combative interruptions during three rounds of presidential debates between US presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. My instructor was an associate professor who’d studied overseas for several years and I was thankful that I was led to an interesting topic. While its relevance to Việt Nam can be debated, and it was not a full-fledged thesis, I got a taste of conducting a research by international standards, from suggesting practical utility of the research topic to proper citation of sources in different styles.
My research question would probably receive the same contemptuous, dismissive treatment from those who don’t know the complex linguistic issues and social implications contained in the act of interruption, which is seen as rude, most of the time.
The problem is real
That said, there has been enough material produced in recent years, including media exposes and statements by senior officials, showing there is a lot that is wrong with the nation’s educational system. And a big part of it is declining credibility of degree holders, especially at the post graduate level.
A PhD degree usually denotes vast scholarship and extensive research by students with excellent academic results. In general, the society holds PhD degree holders in high esteem, especially in Việt Nam, South Korea and Japan, where long-standing Confucian influence has led to an almost unhealthy obsession with degrees and diplomas.
However, this obsession has, ironically, depreciated the academic recognitions.
In the job market, a degree certificate has become a minimum requirement, and the higher the position sought, the higher the academic qualification required. Sometimes, this becomes a deciding factor in hiring and promoting, although the certificate may have little to do with the holder’s capacity and performance on the job.
When demand for degrees escalates, in the workplace or elsewhere, supply responds correspondingly. In a market economy, a degree certificate ends up being a commodity to be paid for with cash.
There are other factors at play, too. A PhD supervisor or guide wants to see his or her student pass, and the committee also adopts a relaxed, non-taxing approach towards dissertations because their interest is not in being too critical or making life difficult for the students, especially when the latter hold full-time jobs and a Masters or PhD degree to put on their resume to bolster future prospects.
When someone is working full time, how can he or she dedicate time and energy to do proper research, rather than just deliver “a synthesis of previous works and superficial study,” goes the argument. A member of the “typography” thesis committee actually made this argument when talking to the media after the controversy erupted.
We have seen an extension of this situation with fake diplomas or illegitimate degrees from low-quality institutions being used by Vietnamese officials. Most recently, a few weeks ago, the Đà Nẵng Party Secretary – a young “rising star” in politics, was discovered to have used a PhD degree from an unaccredited school in the United States.
Several factors have to be set right, then, including the current mindset and obsession with academic achievements and degrees. Then, we should maximise the returns from obviously scarce funding by prioritising the target of producing a high-quality scientific force to serve undergraduate education and scientific research.
Equating ability with academic certificates has also led to this belief that leaders, even in Government agencies and business firms, should hold PhD or even higher degrees. Are the most successful businesspeople anywhere in the world the ones with business administration degrees from Ivy League universities?
Isn’t the answer to this question a resounding NO?
However, we can also look at the spate of Nobel Prizes that academics in the US win almost every year, and see how much value quality educational institutions with proper research projects and facilities can deliver.
It seems as though we are light years away from this position, although individually, Vietnamese scientists and scholars have made their mark in several foreign academic institutions. This shows what we are capable of doing.
First, we have to drastically change our thinking about education and accordingly, our long-term vision for the education sector. Then we have to exercise the political will to realise it. — VNS