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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Universities fear lower fees, lower standards

Universities fear lower fees, lower standards

Englilsh students accept their diplomas in a graduation ceremony at Paññasastra University of Cambodia.

A

ll universities, private and public, may soon be required to charge the same fees

following the formation of a new government, said Mak Nang, deputy director of the

Department of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education on November 18.

Although the ministry has floated a plan to standardize fees, officials said no timetable

was in place to implement it and specifics of the proposal, such as the structure

of the tuition system, have not been finalized.

"We have had a plan to oversee the private universities, but we are not sure

because our plan has not been officially discussed," she said.

Private universities have already called the plan unfair since tuition fees set at

low rates for subsidized public universities, which already receive free utilities

and teaching facilities, would erase profits for many private schools, those in the

private sector claim. Most public universities now charge the same rates as private

institutions, education officials acknowledged.

Private universities have already begun offering scholarships and slashing tuition

fees in response to increasingly fierce competition among the growing number of schools.

But officials warn that students may be getting just what they pay for. An accreditation

body to oversee the country's schools has not begun operating.

The prospect of convening an accreditation body, nearly a reality last year, fell

apart after the government failed to meet conditions of a World Bank (WB) loan. Part

of the dispute was over the composition of the accreditation board, on which Minister

of the Council of Ministers, Sok An, sought to have himself confirmed as a permanent

member. Sok An also chairs the Council of Universities.

The standoff sank the prospect for tens of millions of dollars to enhance the nation's

educational system. The Ministry of Education had proposed to borrow about $26 million

for libraries and other academic improvement, according to a 2002 World Bank report.

This year, the government went ahead and created its own accreditation body by Royal

Decree on March 31. The seven-member board is led by the Minister of Education and

includes Sok An as permanent vice-president.

However, little if any funding has been allocated to the body. It currently does

not operate as it lacks basic equipment and staff.

The education sector is headed for a crisis if changes are not made to cope with

the wave of young people seeking degrees, the WB reported.

The Bank has predicted that the rapid increase of students enrolled in universities

will be unsustainable without a "well-financed and well-managed higher education

system to accommodate the increase".

But an official at the Ministry of Education said that the loan proposal for the

Cambodia Higher Education project remains stalled, with few prospects of being resurrected.

Peter L Stephens, a World Bank spokesperson, wrote by email that the proposed loan,

while needed, could not have been approved without a legitimate accreditation board

in place to ensure standards.

"We believe it is important that the members of the accrediting committee be

qualified and free of possible political pressures," he wrote in an email this

October. "We are ready to discuss this issue at some stage in future, but have

no immediate plans to do so.... We believe that independence of this oversight committee

would be an important criterion for that support to be effective."

But that has not slowed the demand for advanced degrees. Students are piling into

the 30 or so private universities that have sprung up around Phnom Penh during the

last decade.

The schools outdo themselves to flood television broadcasts, radio programs and newspapers

with advertising. In fact, during some weeks, more than half of the top ten companies

advertising in Khmer language newspapers are schools and universities, according

to statistics compiled by The Mirror, a local news digest.

Lee That Sem, marketing manager for Setec University, said private universities must

constantly promote their school to attract a larger share of the 6,000 annual high

school graduates with money to pay for private higher education. About 14,000 students

graduated from high school in 2003, according to the Ministry of Education.

Many advertisers actually promise that their schools will waive tuition fees for

top students who pass a university-administered test. Others offer a variable rate

depending upon their performance on the entrance exam. Most schools charge between

$114 to $300 for one year of study toward a bachelor's degree. Master's degrees and

doctorates cost between $900 to $3,000 per year.

Chea Chamroeun, rector of Chamroeun University of Polytechnology (CUP), said that

the education business has grown dramatically since 2001. It's proven profitable

as large sums of money flowed into the mixed private-public education system.

However, he said pressure from the increasing number of private institutions would

degrade the quality of education. The lack of an independent board to evaluate the

universities' claims only contributes to the problem.

Students seeking to get ahead with a degree in popular subjects such as information technology must be wary of schools that offer substandard education. At present, the Ministry of Education provides little oversight of universities.

Sem at Setec University said that the number of high school graduates simply couldn't

support the number of universities now operating. He also voiced concern about further

declines in the quality of education.

"I think that now business owners in education are still making a profit, but

there will be more risks in the future if there is a lack of good management,"

he said. "The lower the fees, the lower the quality of education."

With the number of new graduates entering the workplace set to rise significantly,

that is problematic for those investing in an education.

Already, the number of new entries into the workplace, about 200,000 new workers

in 2001, according to the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, outstrips the

demand for new workers. And the labor pool is expected to double to about 10 million

by 2011.

As a result, many are scrambling to earn an education, and a competitive advantage,

in the race to land jobs with well-paid salaries and advancement opportunities.

While state universities offer an alternative, they often are the same price or slightly

more expensive than private institutions. Yet some students perceive them to be less

rigorous or independent than private universities.

Officials at the Ministry of Education said they are trying to take proper measures

to ensure that universities give accurate information.

"We will go down to each university to examine their implementation, enrollment,

and examination," said one official.

Chea Vanath, the president of the Social Development Center, said the government

had an interest in maintaining the quality of education. That required an independent

body to monitor schools and set standards.

"I have concerns that if there is no independent committee to control the quality

of higher education, [academic standards] will not meet the level required for access

to regional markets," said Vanath.

Simith Mon, a third-year student of business administration at Paññasastra

University of Cambodia, said he used to be hesitant about enrolling in schools and

taking risks on the quality of universities.

"I think that if there is an independent accreditation board to study the quality

of private universities and announce it publicly, people will no longer worry,"

he said.

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