Giles Lever, UK Ambassador to Vietnam

Giles Lever

British Ambassador to Vietnam

Part of UK in Vietnam

12th November 2014 Hanoi, Vietnam

Lighting a Fire

In his essay “On Listening”, the ancient Greek writer Plutarch said about the process of education: “The mind does not require filling like a bottle. Rather, like wood, it only requires kindling, to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”

I came across this quote when I was a university student. Even though Plutarch lived 2,000 years ago, I think it remains one of the wisest things ever said about education.

Sometimes, I feel like my job title should be Ambassador for Education. Education is a huge, important and growing part of Britain’s relationship with Vietnam. And for an ambassador, that means a diary full of education events, ceremonies and seminars. These are always interesting, and often very moving. A few highlights:

– Seeing off our new Chevening Scholars to start their MA programmes in the UK. And hearing about the success of Chevening alumni: one of them has just been appointed General Director of a major Vietnamese bank.

– Attending graduation and opening ceremonies of joint degree programmes between universities in Vietnam and partners in the UK. There are now more than 40 of these joint courses, which offer students the opportunity to achieve a qualification recognised by a UK university, without having to spend 3 or 4 years overseas.

– Seeing the crowds of excited young Vietnamese at the annual British Education Exhibition – which this year featured 69 UK universities, colleges and schools (plus a very busy Embassy visa stand!). There are 8,000 Vietnamese students now in the UK, and we want that number to grow.

Giao lưu với các bạn trẻ tại buổi Triển lãm Giáo dục Anh 2014
UK Education Exhibition 2014

– Opening the UK-Vietnam Institute for Research and Executive Education in Da Nang, together with the Vice Minister of Education and Training and the Vice Chancellor of Aston University in the UK. Our aim is for the Institute to develop the capability to conduct international quality post-graduate research in fields such as finance, telecoms and life sciences.

- Khai trương Viện Nghiên cứu và Đào tạo chuyên sâu liên kết Anh – Việt tại Đà Nẵng, cùng với Thứ trưởng Bộ Giáo dục và Đào tạo
Opening the VN – UK Institute for Research adn Executive Education

– Visiting schools from the British International School family in Hanoi, and seeing how fast the mostly Vietnamese pupils were adapting to learning in English from British teachers.

– Taking part in British Council seminars on skills development, curriculum reform and development of a national qualifications framework. For Vietnam’s economy to keep growing, universities and vocational training colleges need to produce graduates who meet the requirements of the modern employment market.   I’m very proud that the UK, in the form of the British Council, is playing a leading role in partnering with the Ministries of Education & Training and Labour, Invalids & Social Affairs on this important agenda.

So, where does Plutarch fit in? Well, one common theme at these events has been the importance, in any kind of education, of developing “soft skills”. Not just instilling specialist knowledge, important as that is – Plutarch’s “filling the bottle”. But also, encouraging life-skills like teamwork, self-belief and creativity. And most of all, promoting in students the ability, and the appetite, to think and learn independently – Plutarch’s “kindling the fire”.

One British CEO of a local technology company told me recently that technology development in IT is now so rapid, that 50% of what a computer engineer studies at degree level will be out of date within five years of graduating. So, if that engineer is going to have a successful career, he or she has to have the skills to keep on learning throughout their life.   That means independently seeking out, evaluating and applying new information.

I think this is a big part of what makes British education great (and it is great – 6 of the top 20 universities in the world, according to the QS World University Rankings). Students in the UK are encouraged not just to absorb information, but to ask questions, to challenge, to debate, to think critically.   In other words, to learn how to learn.

Education is a central part of Vietnamese culture – as we will see later this month on 20 November, “Teachers’ Day”. One of my favourite Vietnamese sayings is “Nhất tự vi sư bán tự vi sư”. But this aspect of challenging students to think independently has not always been a major feature of Vietnamese education. However, I think change is starting to happen, thanks in part to the kind of partnerships I mentioned above.  At these events, I’ve seen plenty of “wood being kindled”. I wish all of you well with your life-long learning journeys.

About Giles Lever

I’ve been ambassador to Vietnam since July 2014. It’s a great privilege to serve as ambassador anywhere, but I’m particularly delighted to be back working for British interests in a…

I’ve been ambassador to Vietnam since July 2014. It’s a great privilege to serve as ambassador anywhere, but I’m particularly delighted to be back working for British interests in a country and a region I know well.

My very first job in the FCO, in 1991, was in the Southeast Asia Department, and that was followed by a posting to Vietnam from 1993-97 – an exciting time, as the “doi moi” process of economic reform and opening up gathered pace.

East Asia has been a bit of a theme in my career, as I also worked at the British Embassy in Tokyo from 2002-2006 (preceded by two years learning Japanese). But I’ve also been fortunate enough to work on a lot of other interesting regions and issues, including on the Middle East and North Africa, international development, and arms control/security. Immediately before coming back to Hanoi, I was Deputy High Commissioner in Abuja, Nigeria.

Outside of work, when I have time, I like running, reading, exploring, and trying to stay in touch from afar with the fortunes of Bolton Wanderers FC. Many of my Vietnamese friends love Premier League football, and are invariably disappointed to hear that the team I support is not in the Premiership!

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