Who can blame him? Vietnam's university system is "archaic", says Hoang Tuy, another mathematician. Teaching methods are outdated, universities are stuffed with cronies and smothered by Communist orthodoxy. Censorship and interference are pervasive.

For an emerging economy trying to build a technology sector, this is both discouraging and damaging. Top-notch research universities and innovative manufacturing go hand-in-hand. Vietnamese universities do little original research, and are rarely cited by scientific scholars, says a recent UN-financed study. Graduates are poorly prepared: as many as 60 percent of new hires by foreign companies needed retraining, according to a Dutch report.

Vietnam already spends more on education than its neighbours (see chart). Literacy rates are high, and parents sacrifice much to put their children through college. Enrolment at Vietnamese universities rose from about 900,000 in 2001 to over 1.6m by 2006. But most students study at lacklustre public universities or at private diploma mills. Those who can afford to go overseas. The best and brightest, like Chau, rarely return.

Efforts to reform public universities have floundered. So the government has seized on the idea of creating four new research-oriented institutions from scratch, with foreign universities as partners and, crucially, promises of autonomy. The first of the new breed, the Vietnamese German University (VGU), opened in 2008 in HCM City. A French-backed technology school in Hanoi will follow.

VGU has around 220 students, enrolled in engineering and economics programmes which are taught, in English, by visiting German professors. Within ten years, it hopes to have 5,000 students. Its independent charter, a first for a Vietnamese university, allows it to hire professors and design its own courses. In theory this should boost academic freedom.

For the moment, VGU gets most of its money from Germany. Vietnam contributes a modest 365,000 ($500,000) a year. But it must eventually bear the running costs, which are forecast to reach 45-50m by 2030. Proper equipment and top-class professors do not come cheap. Vietnam's government has to be willing to pay for global talent, otherwise VGU "will fail", says Wolf Rieck, VGU's president.

Luring back high-fliers such as Chau would be a start. China faces similar problems but has managed to woo some overseas talent by appealing to patriotism and giving academics a chance to work in an innovative economy. It should not be hard. Professors might take less pay if it means being at the cutting edge of research. Most want to be closer to their families.

But academics in both China and Vietnam are hemmed in by political dogma. This is as much of a drag on higher education as low pay, says Professor Tuy, who retired two years ago as a maths professor on a salary of $250 a month. "A good scientist needs not only money but competent colleagues and academic freedom."

The Economist - October 2nd, 2010