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Cambodians look overseas for higher learning

As Cambodia rebuilds after decades of conflict, international universities are looking here for an untapped market of bright young minds – and dollars.

While overseas study was once the preserve of the elite, economic growth and increased educational standards mean that an increasing number of young Cambodians now have the opportunity to study abroad, with universities in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States offering a range of scholarships and other incentives.

“There is growing interest in studying in Australian universities,” said Andrew Schultz of IDP Education, which is organizing the upcoming Australian Education Exhibition. The exhibition, to be held at ACE Auditorium on June 18, will host representatives from 20 Australian universities, each hoping to gain the interest of local students.

“Last year we had about 150 people attend the exhibition. This year we’re aiming for around 200,” Schultz said.

It might not seem like a lot of students to go around, but the strong interest from Australian universities is a clear indication that they now see Cambodia as a new and untapped education market, with increasing numbers of students willing – and able – to pay top dollar to study Down Under.

“Over the last five years, the number of interested students has been increasing each year,” Schultz said.

But for those who cannot afford the tuition fees, there is an increasing array of scholarships and grants that can provide the necessary financial assistance.

Through its government-funded Fulbright Fellowship program, the US is giving 17 Cambodians the chance to attend its graduate schools this year, many of whom return to help along Cambodia’s development.

According to Chau Sa, the Cultural Affairs assistant at the Education and Cultural Department of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, such programs greatly enhance the employability of Cambodians upon their return.

“All the returnees get good jobs,” he said. “Some of them come back to join the government, and some get very good positions.”

Leang Rithea, an alumnus of the AusAID-funded Australian Development Scholarship (ADS) program, graduated from Perth’s Curtin University in 2006 with a master’s degree in health administration. He is now head of the National Malaria Research Center’s health unit and says he hopes other students who studied abroad would return to help their homeland.

“Cambodia will benefit a lot in terms of institutional capacity, in the sense that we can train those people who don’t have the time or money to study overseas,” Rithea said.

According to John Boxsell, also of IDP Education, which coordinates and awards the scholarships, the ADS program is aimed specifically at students who can have a positive impact in Cambodia upon their return.

“The ADS program is looking for people who know what they want to study, know why they want to study it and what they can do for Cambodia when they return,” he said. “[So] the program gives priority to people from the provinces, and we give priority to female applicants.”

Cambodians also have the opportunity to study in Singapore through the Singapore Scholarship and Secondary Three Scholarship programs, which offer free tertiary and secondary level education in the city-state.

A spokesperson at the Embassy of Singapore in Phnom Penh said an increasing number of students were showing interest in Singapore because of the ease of application and its proximity to Cambodia.

“The education in Singapore is very good,” said the spokesperson. “It is a country that is very near to Cambodia – they are both ASEAN nations, so there is no need for a visa. They only need to apply for a student pass once they arrive.”

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