Singapore: Dr John Vong

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Dr. John Vong Of Sacombank Vietnam

Dr. John Vong of Sacombank Vietnam talks to Jim Playfoot about university education, approaches to teaching and how we can prepare young people for the world of work

Dr John Vong is well-placed to talk about the challenges of education. His career so far has seen him occupy an eclectic and varied range of roles that have taken him all over the world. He has worked in over sixteen countries, of which twelve are in Asia, and boasts a depth of experience in training, education, banking and international development. He contributed to the signing of an agreement that brought M.I.T. to Singapore as part of the Nanyang Fellows Programme and has worked extensively with government ministries and state agencies on training, education and labour policies in emerging economies. As a consultant with the UNDP and ADB projects he facilitated the human resource development process in the governments of East Timor, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia. He is now based in Vietnam and held the position of Senior Resident Adviser to the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) and was assigned to the Saigon Thuong Tin Bank (or Sacombank, of which IFC is a shareholder) and now serves as its Deputy CEO.

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The Challenges Of University Education

Beyond his professional life, his own experiences in education have had a profound effect on his personal development. "I have seen my own life transformed from a street kid to senior adviser for development organisations, which was purely down to education" he says. His tertiary education taken in the UK and Malaysia and later in Australia and US, and his experiences within different education systems have made him question the way things are done. He believes currently that too many people with degrees are unemployable, particularly in emerging nations. He pinpoints a number of key issues: the responsibility for funding is one. "The 'consumers' of graduates [by which he means employers] must contribute to educational funding. Education must be a public/private partnership and business must be involved."

Furthermore, he identifies significant issues with the approach currently adopted in 'top' universities across the world. He believes there is an over-emphasis on the writing of "unintelligible academic essays" and that this impacts negatively on teaching skills. He goes further: "We need to change the key performance indicators for university professors who are now rewarded significantly more for research papers published than for quality of teaching, to the detriment of teaching quality." He suggests that the emphasis needs to shift towards a situation where teaching is valued on an equal footing with research and where there is greater acknowledgement of the impact higher education has on the career prospects of graduates.

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Methods Of Teaching

We talk more specifically about the way in which education is delivered. "The quality of teaching in emerging countries is tremendously uninteresting." He concludes "It's just chalk and talk." He argues strongly for a need to "distil creativity into teaching". He also sees significant value in the idea of using simulations to teach, particularly within a vocational context. "If you want to learn branch banking, let's build a simulated bank branch". This kind of approach would provide a valuable antidote to chalk and talk and would begin to create a more stimulating and relevant learning experience.

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Preparing For Work

Our conversation moves on to the role education plays in developing individuals for the workplace. There are, Dr Vong believes, some core attributes that need to be embedded into education at every level. "Everybody must be taught communication skills, writing and speaking, in whatever discipline they study". Beyond this, there should be greater emphasis on developing "determination and discipline, although these things can be influenced and mentored but not taught". The approach should be integrated: "These types of core skills need to be woven into the design of education, not as an add-on".

There should also be a much greater focus on advice and support around career pathways. "We shouldn't force kids to specialise in their studies too early. Certain students know what they want to do, but for those who don't, you need to provide career counselling. A career path, based on the employment environment of the country, should be mapped out before tertiary education which would enable the necessary mapping of needed skills and behaviours, thus making education more vocational." Dr Vong also highlights the need to communicate the realities of working life to individual students in order to help them make the transition between education and employment. "You have to manage the expectations of graduates so that they understand the necessary skills and behaviours and related difficulties of doing a job."

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Employer Engagement

We finish by talking about the role employers can play. Against the backdrop of the global economic crisis, and within the context of changing employment realities where job or even career moves are increasingly frequent, employers are wary of investing in training, due to a focus on short term results. Dr Vong has some suggestions for addressing this issue. "You need to think about new ways of doing things. Why not have contracts between employers and employees which require staff to return fees for any education paid for by their employer if they switch companies before a certain period of time?" Another approach would be to place the onus on the recipient employer: "You put a system in place that requires one company to compensate another for the training costs invested in the staff joining a company".

Part of the problem for employers is that companies don't understand or are unable to quantify the long-term benefits of investment in training and education. "Employers don't know how to measure return on education; you need to tie in jobs to training after linking training to KPIs."

Although he is positive about the future, he concludes that action is needed. "It's time for a change. We need to focus on circulating best practice through developing pilot projects. Then based on the success of the pilots, we need to scale these up."

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