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Going down under with a purpose


Promising Cambodian graduates and young professionals are heading to Australia to hone their skills

Photo by: Pha Lina
Postgraduate students network at a farewell event for Cambodian scholars headed to Australia.

Australia's government has just expanded its scholarship programme to accept more Cambodians. If you want to apply visit www.australianscholarships.gov.au

HUNDREDS of Cambodian students have left the country to study in Australia over the past 15 years. Some of them have entered Aussie universities as tuition-paying students, but a select group has received scholarships to study in postgraduate programmes abroad though the Australian Leadership Awards, Australian Development Scholarships and Endeavour Awards. Upon their return to the Kingdom, members of Australian Alumni Association (AAA) have been making waves in various positions within the public and private sectors. The impact of AAA members has been particularly critical in ongoing efforts to change the landscape of Cambodia’s private university system.

Hundreds of Australian alumni gathered last Thursday along with Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia Margaret Adamson to say farewell to the 2010 recipients of the Australian government-funded scholarships.

The 38 students who will be heading south include representatives of various ministries, universities, private companies and civil society groups.

The students have varying goals for their studies, and they have all developed specific plans for how they will use their time in Australia to improve Cambodia upon their return.

“I will study technological development in order to help integrate technology into Cambodian schools and universities as they continue to develop,” said Sidaroth Kong. Not only do the students have experience and skills within their field of expertise, they also have soft skills and high English proficiency, which will allow them to integrate easily into an English university.

It is yet to be seen what sort of impact this year’s crop of talent will make on Cambodia’s development, but there are members of the AAA throughout Cambodia who are redefining quality in the fields of medicine, agriculture, academia and development.

Australian alumni Tia Phalla, vice chairman of the National Aids Authority, gave the keynote speech for the evening’s event. He has been working to build up the capacity of Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, which have garnered international attention for their effectiveness. Also in attendance was Chhour Y Mengwas, who returned from Australia in 1995 and is now the director of the National Paediatric Hospital.

The youngest-ever recipient of the scholarship, Pheakkdey Ngoun, who was 20 years old when he left for Australia four years ago, is now on his way to study in America on a Fulbright Scholarship in order to develop a plan for how to ensure that Cambodia’s involvement in carbon-credit programmes provides a maximum benefit to Cambodian people.

Along with a number of other countries (see sidebar), Australia’s embassy has contributed to the UN millennium goals by providing scholarship for students to develop themselves in order to return to build the capacity of their home country.

The impact of these graduates can be felt in many of the countries’ development initiatives, including the booming private university system. While many universities are still plagued by low-quality education, unqualified professors and improper management practices from lecturers up to presidents and rectors, a group of young Cambodians has returned from Australia with a vision for what universities in Cambodia could be.

“In Cambodia you are taught to copy your teacher and do what they do,” said Kieng Rotana, who is the president of the AAA, founding president of the Cambodian Higher Education Association and current vice chancellor of Pannasastra University. “In Australia we were taught to discover our own ideas and engage in critical thinking.”

Kieng Rotana founded the CHEA along with Ich Seng and Ban Thero, who are chancellor and vice chancellor of Mekong University, as well as Meas Renrith, who is now vice rector of Build Bright University.

CHEA was formed as “a group of educators who could work together to form ideas for how to deal with problems and improve Cambodia’s education system”.

Ich Seng says that his vision for Mekong University was largely influenced by his time in Australia.

“We wanted to re-create the picture we had of Australian universities in Cambodia,” he said. In the school’s first year, many of the students weren’t ready for a curriculum that involved critical thinking and academic responsibility.

“We challenged students with difficult classes and created an atmosphere where cheating and corruption were absolutely out of the question,” said Ich Seng, adding that Mekong lost over 50 percent of first-year students because they couldn’t or didn’t want to manage the academic pressures.

Now Mekong is producing some of the country’s future leaders, particularly in the field of business.

One of the departing fellows, Chheng Sokunthy, is temporarily leaving her post with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. She hopes to return with the skills to help develop an oversight capacity for her ministry over the country’s higher education system.

“I want to help improve quality and management as well as the student experience for higher education,” she said.

While they are in Australia Cambodian students provide a great benefit to their host country, “Having unique perspectives at Universities in Australia makes the experience more enriching for everyone”, said Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia Margaret Adamson.

However it is upon their return that the benefits of the program truly take hold; as the next generation of Cambodian leaders re-enter their country with a vision for the future and skills to make turn their vision into reality.

Your Scholarship thoughts...

When I graduated from high school, the first thing that I worried about is continuing to study at university because my parents don’t have money for me to learn at university. But I have never abandoned my wish to go on my study. Struggling is the best way to reach success.”
Lim Siden, 19, a scholarship student at University of Cambodia

Giving scholarships to poor students is the best way for them to have a chance to continue their studying. I want private and state universities and also the government to provide scholarships for the poor students.”
Uch Riguen, 19, first-year student at Institute of Foreign Language

I don’t worry about continuing at university because my parents have the ability to pay for me. I want to suggest to universities that they discount tuition for poor students who want to study at university. I want to encourage the poor students not to abandon their study at college.”
Tep Mara, 17, grade 12 student at Intra Devi High School

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