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Cambodia’s sinking higher education system

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That development in Cambodia is lagging behind much of the world is not a claim but a fact. While there are real signs of progress toward many of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which set minimum standards for health and education to be met by 2015, others have been adjusted down. Regardless, the indicators themselves convey the reality that Cambodians are striving for a quality of life that was achieved decades ago by many developed countries, and is now taken for granted by most of the modern world.

Cambodia is still struggling to even approach true equality between boys and girls in primary-level enrollment, a ratio that was achieved by most European countries early in the 20th century. In fact, in 2007, Cambodia was yet to reach 90 percent (meaning that there are nine girls enrolled for every 10 boys), while the world as a whole had a ratio of 96 percent.

The importance of Cambodia’s faltering education system is mounting. Up to 70 percent of the Kingdom’s population could be considered youth, and it is this part of the population that will inherit the responsibility of lifting Cambodia onto the international stage. In order to do this with respectability, the young leaders who will soon become the face of Cambodia need to have an education fit for their task. They will require a comprehensive academic experience of the sort that simply does not exist for the vast majority of Cambodians today.

While raising the Kingdom’s ailing education sector won’t be easy to execute, there is a fairly simple first step to bringing life back to Cambodian academia, and that is investing more federal funds in schools and educational institutions. Sure to follow will be qualified, responsible and aspiring educators who will be the cornerstone of future development in society and a more diverse and robust economy.

According to the most recent summary report on education, youth and sport, there are 91 higher education institutions (34 and 57 private), located in 18 provinces and Phnom Penh. Compared with 20 years ago, when these figures were effectively 0, this seems like a healthy higher education system.

However, if we take a serious look at what is actually being offered in the buildings of these “universities”, it is easy to see that, more often than not, it is not what a modern academic would recognise as post-secondary education. This is the greatest stumbling block on the path to producing capable human resources in the Kingdom. These business institutions use the guise of academics to attract tuition money, and as such they count success in terms of the bottom line, ignoring the service of schooling they purport to provide and the country so desperately needs.

What the country is left with is a rapidly expanding quantity of graduates, with much slower rises in the quality of youth entering the workforce. With no real qualifications being passed on with their degree, even the best-intentioned graduates often have little to offer in terms of moving the country closer to global legitimacy.

Some higher educational institutions have very good policies on paper (like the government they work under), but this rarely results in good practice. Uniformly, cheating is not allowed in exams, but it still happens and students continue to resort to this sort of behaviour, believing it to be a legitimate strategy for scholastic success.

Higher education institutions call themselves centres of research, but often lack adequate bandwidth, computer terminals, subscriptions to academic journals, up to date laboratories or any of the other expensive, but essential, tools for today’s top students around the world.

Internships, which are seen as an integral part of professional preparation in any sector, have yet to be built in to the curriculum at most schools and career counselors or academic planners, essential resources for any student lost between high school and adulthood, are virtually non-existent.

While it is easy for the government to plead poverty when pressed on the widespread failing of higher education in the Kingdom, they make a different statement each year when the national budget is debated, and passed, with education receiving a much too small slice of the fiscal pie. The call from the capital is loud and clear. They don’t care about education.

Less than 10 percent of 2011 federal spending will go to education, US$223 million of the total $2.4 billion budget. A quick sampling of the world shows just how pathetic this is. Mexico, whose fight against drug lords is costing billions in security spending and draining the tourism industry, uses 24.3 percent of its budget on education spending. Iran, a country facing rampant unemployment comparable to Cambodia, spends 17.7 percent of its allocated budget on education. South Africa, whose population is suffering from HIV/AIDS at the highest rate in the world, is still able to spend 18.5 percent of its budget on schools. Even Russia, which regularly faces international criticism for being a failed state run by a small group of oligarchs, easily beats Cambodia’s education spending with 11.5 percent of their budget flowing into academia.

The government is not wholly responsible of course. The private institutions (most of which are owned by power brokers who also hold an official position in the government) are also to blame for luring students to their buildings, which they call universities, and failing to make good on their end of the deal. They too can save face by claiming to be short on funding, but if that is the problem, perhaps the best option is shutting the doors before teenagers and their mostly middle-class families fork over hundreds of dollars hoping for future returns that will never be realised.

But, of course, the government is also responsible for oversight of the private sector, so regardless of who is steering the country’s hollow private universities (there are some good ones out there, just not many), the buck stops with the regulatory boards and watchdog agencies, overseen by the council of ministers and education ministry, which have received millions in the past few years to bring accountability to a university network that is run not by educators but by backroom brokers and businessmen, who were most likely subject to the same copycat education, if they had the luxury of formal schooling at all, that they are now profiting from.

If Cambodia’s government truly wants to set up the Kingdom for a better future, it will happen in classrooms where students are taught to be critical thinkers and innovative, productive members of society. Counting the number of degrees handed out in the hollow halls that label themselves as universities means nothing. Cambodia’s government needs to lead the way in improving the country’s attitude and ethics around education. First by giving schools enough money to provide the essentials of a modern-day education and then by raising teacher salaries so that education can actually be a career choice, rather than the last resort.

Education drives progress in all parts of society. The government must begin to refuel Cambodia’s empty tank or it will suck its own people dry.

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