“What should I major in?” was the question recently posed to me by a fresh high school graduate in Phnom Penh, where dozens of universities recently welcomed a new crop of students, most of whom are only a month removed from receiving the results of the grade 12 national exam required of all the Kingdom’s outgoing prospective high school graduates.
For more than 90 percent of 108,000 seniors who passed the exam, the past few weeks have been a time for speculation and excitement about their academic and professional futures. This year’s group of incoming freshman have not only benefited from the slow but steady improvements in the country’s public school system, making them the Kingdom’s best-prepared academic class in more than three decades, they will also enter a job market with rising domestic demand for a dynamic white-collar workforce.
But despite these advantageous parallel trends, the widespread dearth of academic or career counselling available to Cambodia’s prospective collegians leaves students guessing when it comes time to choose the major that will consume the majority of their time and, for most students, money over the next four years.
It’s tempting to calm the anxiety of these students by saying that this decision isn’t binding, and can be changed if it proves ill-suited, but before looking at the reasons why it does matter to make the right decision from the start, let’s go back a bit to understand why their parents are so concerned with their children’s completion of high school in the first place.
Failing the grade 12 exam not only condemns students to repeat their final year of secondary school, further delaying their entry into the workforce, it can also put families in the financially distressing situation of having to pay for another year of textbooks and transportation, costs that have become significantly more expensive in the last couple of years. Regardless of the actual skills or academic ability they have obtained, receiving a certificate of graduation is, in many ways, the sole indicator of success for many Cambodian families anxious for their children to take the next step, whether it’s university or the work force.
The resulting message to students is that a piece of paper is more important than the substance of their education, and it is precisely this attitude that leads so many students astray as they begin their post-secondary studies, where the value of their time and money is determined solely by their ability to amass skills and expertise applicable to the demands of employers.
This year, as in previous years, too many helpless high school graduates left their school asking the same questions about where they should focus their future academic efforts, as if the last 12 years taught them nothing about their individual interests or particular potential in certain professional fields, awareness of which would help guide them towards a sound choice for their field of study for the next four years or more, depending on the major.
The weight of this decision, and the student’s level of engagement in the ensuing years, is heavier now than ever before, given the spike in graduates coming out of university each year and the number of highly skilled jobs available. Only highly qualified, multi-skilled and well-disciplined candidates will even warrant consideration from employers looking to fill high-level openings in businesses and organizations facing the need to meet international standards to remain commercially viable.
With this in mind we return to the importance of students choosing the right academic path from the outset. By choosing a path that inspires a student to embrace their studies, rather than one that pushes them towards professions with the greatest potential for profitability, students will ultimately enter the work force with a much higher chance of contributing to the development of their respective field, whether it be agriculture, rural development, civil engineering or even business management and law, if that is truly their calling.
Making the right decision from the start, however, is still complicated by the lack of academic information, particularly regarding the specific courses offered in university programs, made available to high schoolers as they approach graduation age. It is inevitable that some students at this age simply don’t know what they want for their future, but for many others, more information about higher education options combined with a bit of guidance will prevent four more years of going through the motions and facilitate a more excited and engaged population of students throughout Cambodia’s universities.
The public education system must engage families to fill the role of guiding teaching their children to leverage their personal strengths and potential skills in order to realize a more fulfilling and financially secure future. While public and private universities provide course information to high school graduates who have had a couple of months to figure out which major they should choose, preparation must begin in primary and secondary schools for Cambodian youth to be well-equipped when they face the daunting decisions that invariably arise in the early stages of adulthood.
Universities are rightfully blamed for many of the shortcomings of fresh graduates, who often fail to meet the demands of the Kingdom’s highly skilled work force, but secondary schools, families and communities must also take part in maximizing the quality of Cambodia’s human resources by beginning to prepare their children long before they leave high school. All things equal, students who enter university with a clear and confidant vision for their future will invariably graduate as more capable employees than their unprepared peers.
Read the Khmer translation of Tharum’s story at angkorone.com/lift
How can parents and teachers get Cambodian high schoolers excited about learning? Give us your advice at angkorone.com/lift.
And check out Tharum’s blog at globalvoicesonline.org/author/tharum/