When Sim Sok Toeur, 32, returned from study in Australia last April, he did so with a vision for Phnom Penh’s skyline.
“A building’s appearance doesn’t matter [to architects here],” he told the Post. “I studied urban development and design as an addition to architecture to get a broader view – and to improve the way cities are developed here.”
For Sok Toeur, a scholarship to study overseas granted him a better quality of education than was possible in Cambodia – even though the country has more than 100 universities, about 40 of which are public.
“There is no master’s degree in urban development and design offered in Cambodia, so I had to go abroad to follow my interest,” he said, adding that he returned with the know-how needed to set up his own urban development company.
More young people than ever are flocking to Cambodia’s universities upon leaving school. But students seeking better education elsewhere are reminders of the gulf that exists between the Kingdom’s institutes and those abroad.
By Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own admission, this gap relates to the quality and relevance of degrees taught here, and is resulting in the system not producing the type of graduates required to meet the Kingdom’s needs.
“We have some 200,000 students, but private investors could not find the skilled ones they need,” Hun Sen said during a speech earlier this month to graduates. “This tells us to pay more attention to the quality of education.”
The premier’s observations are nothing new. According to a 2011 UN Development Program report on future economic growth in Cambodia, graduates of the Kingdom’s universities are often “found to be lacking in the essential skills and practical experience required for employment in the field for which they were supposed to be qualified”.
Furthermore, data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics shows that Cambodia is lagging behind its ASEAN neighbours when it comes to overall funding of education.
A comparison of the countries made in 2010 showed Cambodia spent the equivalent of 2.6 per cent of its GDP on education, below Laos (2.8 per cent), Thailand (3.8 per cent) and Vietnam (6.3 per cent). Most Western countries fall between 5.5 and 6.4 per cent.
After decades of civil war, a period in which the education system was badly damaged and at times shut down altogether, the rebuilding process has been a difficult one.
“After peace was made, the education system had to be completely rebuilt,” Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua said.
Sochua said that for this reason she understands the difficulties the government has faced and its need to focus first on basic education. Her concern, however, is that despite the number of universities growing at a fast rate, the rebuilding process has lacked the relevant funding to ensure higher education is what it should be.
As a result, she said, teachers and lecturers are still paid poorly, and little investment is made in training them or enhancing their research capabilities.
“They should update their knowledge all the time …but who pays for all of this?”
The 2014 National Budget – passed by Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers late last year in the absence of opposition lawmakers who are boycotting the National Assembly – promises a 20 per cent increase in spending for education, taking its annual total to $335 million.
Sochua’s concern is that a lack of transparency in how the budget allocations are broken down could result in money allocated to education being directed into defence and security.
Furthermore, she said, while corruption such as widespread cheating remains in the education sector itself, the only way talented young people can reach their full potential is to travel abroad.
In response to such concerns, Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron told the Post yesterday that resources in the higher education sector were not matching growth.
“The numbers of institutions have increased. Also the numbers of students have increased. But not the numbers of qualified teachers,” he said.
The government, Chuon Naron added, should focus on preschool, primary and secondary education first in order to build a foundation for higher education.
“Higher education attracts more investment from the private sector. That is also why Cambodia liberalised higher education a lot,” he said, referring to the dozens of private universities in the Kingdom.
Cambodia’s education system in general, he added, was either producing people with professional skills or simply passing them through the system with “very little education”.
“But the middle skills [skilled manufacturing] are missing in the textile industry, for example. I think we have to identify missing skills.… [Students] should know more about the job market, which jobs are offered.
“There are so many students studying management, but there are not enough job openings for management positions.”
Until the gap closes between Cambodia and elsewhere, students should be further encouraged to go abroad, where they can have access to “more skilled teachers”, he said.
One such graduate fortunate enough to have studied overseas is Ly Sokleap, 27. Like Sok Toeur, she gained a scholarship to study through the Australia Awards Scholarships program, which has enabled about 500 Cambodians to study in that country since 1994.
Qualifications earned in Australia helped her gain a promotion at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, she said.
The fact remains, however, that the vast majority of Cambodians will never have that sort of opportunity.
For that reason, the government must continue to focus its resources on improving standards at all levels, Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association president Rong Chhun said.
When it comes to higher education, the government has a responsibility to ensure degrees handed out have as much “value” as those gained in other countries, he added.
“The government or the education officials have to strengthen the system by teaching to an international standard,” he said. “To do this, they must eliminate bribes, the buying and selling of certificates and people hiring others to sit exams or write theses for them,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL AND MOM KUNTHEAR