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Not making the grade

A teacher questions students last year at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh.
A teacher questions students last year at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh. A new report from the World Economic Forum suggests that Cambodia has not placed a high enough premium on education. Pha Lina

Not making the grade

A new report from the World Economic Forum underscores Cambodia’s poor performance at providing the education and training needed to guarantee future prosperity, though experts say the country is slowly improving.

The Human Capital Report 2015, published on Wednesday, lists Cambodia 97th out of 124 nations. Among its Southeast Asian peers, only Laos and Myanmar feature further down the rankings.

The index is intended to quantify how countries are performing at developing and deploying human capital, which the authors say will be “key to future innovation, competitiveness and growth”.

“A nation’s human capital endowment – the skills and capacities that reside in people and that are put to productive use – can be a more important determinant of its long term economic success than virtually any other resource,” the report states.

That human capital is measured by looking at employment rates, education levels and economic participation among four different age groups, as well as school enrolment among children and young people.

According to the report’s authors, the 124 countries included cover 92 per cent of the world’s population and 98 per cent of its GDP. Of the 10 member states of ASEAN, only Brunei does not appear.

One telling statistic published within the country profiles is the proportion of GDP spent on education. While there is not a strict correlation between this figure and overall rankings, it is notable that among ASEAN nations, Cambodia’s 2.6 per cent is only higher than Myanmar’s 0.79 per cent, and almost on par with Laos’ 2.77 per cent. The Philippines is the only other nation to dip below 3 per cent, while Thailand – which ranks 57th overall – spends 7.57 per cent and Vietnam – ranked 59th – spends 6.29 per cent.

But according to Cambodia’s Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron, the rankings do not take into account the history of the countries involved, which he says goes a long way to explaining the Kingdom’s bad performance.

“About 80 per cent of educated people were killed under the Khmer Rouge, so we had to start from scratch,” he said. “For that reason, Cambodia should be compared to other post-conflict countries, and compared to them, Cambodia has performed well and invested heavily in education.”

However, according to economic analyst Srey Chanty, after more then three decades, that legacy can no longer be used to explain away all of the Kingdom’s ills.

“Cambodia should not forget about that, but should focus on the present. We’ve had 30 years and we should have done better,” he said. “Other countries in war have done better because they invested heavily in education.”

That assessment was echoed by the acting president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA), Ouk Chhayyavy, who agreed the Kingdom’s investment in education and training today offers a better explanation than its history.

“Claiming civil war as the reason that Cambodia could not achieve as much as neighbouring countries is wrong,” he said. “One thing is the wage of teachers; a teacher cannot teach well if they do not have enough to eat.”

Yet despite those criticisms, experts did acknowledge the country’s slight improvement, with education funding as a proportion of the national budget – currently standing at about 17 per cent – increasing 1 per cent annually over the past two years and set to hit 20 per cent by 2018, according to NGO Education Partnership’s executive director Chin Chanveasna.

Meanwhile, even the education minister himself is candid about the need to focus on education in order to guarantee future prosperity.

“Without a collective pool of educated people, Cambodia will not diversify and will not enjoy continued growth,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TAING VIDA

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