As in other societies, socially disadvantaged students in Vietnam confront additional barriers to educational and employment opportunities. These range from ethnic minority stereotypes to lack of disabled accessibility on campuses. The situation is compounded by the entrenched power structures of Vietnamese higher educational institutions, which make it difficult for staff to come forward with ideas and solutions to these problems.
“Cultural hierarchies within Vietnamese educational institutions are very strong,” explains Dr Howard Nicholas, Associate Professor in the School of Education at La Trobe University. “The challenges that various minority groups face aren’t necessarily acknowledged in institutional practices, and there remain issues of gender inequality and social disadvantage that need to be addressed.”
Between April and June 2018, Dr Nicholas and PhD candidate Le Nhu Thuy spent time in northwestern Vietnam working with lecturers from Tay Bac University and Thai Nguyen University of Agriculture and Forestry. Their work was sponsored by The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Dr Nicholas and his team met with ten staff members from each institution, who were then invited to a workshop in Hanoi. Participants were encouraged to identify, unpack and discuss the relevant workplace challenges that they faced in supporting disadvantaged students, and to brainstorm possible solutions to them.
“We wanted to help staff in Vietnamese universities gain a better sense of who disadvantaged students are,” says Dr Nicholas. “Once staff identify the intellectual strengths that students from vulnerable backgrounds bring, they can help bring their assets to the fore.”
A supportive environment was cultivated that fostered constructive criticism and led to encouraging and productive discussions among the group. Most participants had already heard about the relevant concepts, but the Hanoi workshop gave them a valuable opportunity to engage with them in practical ways rather than as abstract ideas. Working bilingually (with interpreters) was an important part of the process.
“In the Vietnamese language, two different words can be used to capture the meaning of accommodation and ‘adaptation to’,” says Dr Nicholas. “One (thích nghi’) conveys a sense of moving on and leaving behind, while the other (‘thích ứng’) implies recognition and a will to build upon. This linguistic difference prompted a discussion between the participants over which approach they thought better in the context of improving the educational prospects for disadvantaged students. They reached consensus that the latter term was the appropriate one.”
A fortnight after the Hanoi seminar, Dr Nicholas and Le Nhu Thuy travelled back to the participants’ home institutions for follow-up workshops. Here, the participants had the added responsibility of running elements of the sessions themselves. Their colleagues, and in some cases their superiors, were invited to attend these ‘train-the-trainer’ workshops, where each participant led activities with their colleagues centred around the participants’ ideas on how best to engage disadvantaged students.
“Participants discovered that you could make safe spaces, take risks and learn from them. That they took a risk to publicly show and reflect on their own pedagogical experiments was a great outcome – it demonstrated that they had built trust with the group and actively supported one another.”
At the conclusion of the sessions, reports with recommendations were given to the administrations of each university. They addressed several points, with a particular emphasis on soft skills such as employability, learning techniques, presenting and other non-disciplinary graduate outcomes. In Vietnam, university staff are recruited as specialists in their field, and do not necessarily undergo comprehensive training in teaching techniques. This initiative thus equipped them with valuable and transferrable pedagogical skills.
A primary goal of the project was to foster a sense of collaboration and to help support more horizontal relationships in the Vietnamese education sector. For Dr Nicholas, one episode in particular stands out in this regard.
“One man came from a minority ethnic group, and he asked if he could play a song for us. His melody used only the leaves of a tree, and it was a great moment as it demonstrated the pride that exists within ethnic groups,” says Dr Nicholas. “Further to the point, in welcoming the man and celebrating his culture with him, the participants showed that they had taken on board key lessons from the project.”
Dr Nicholas and Le Nhu Thuy believe their program demonstrates that the education and empowerment of teachers, while beneficial on an individual level, also has the cumulative potential to improve the lives of disadvantaged and minority students in other ways. In 2019 they hope to extend the initiative to work with staff in specific disciplines in the same universities.