One of the biggest achievements of the government is having achieved peace and stability for Cambodia. Before becoming the education minister, I was working in the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MEF), and there, we identified human resource as a crucial factor.
My first task at the MEF was to give budgeting to schools – to channel the money from the ministry and treasury to schools. With that, we created the school budget, and schools started improving, and parents were not charged unscrupulously for their children’s enrolment. Before the budgeting introduction, teachers did not even receive their salary on time.
Access to schools
Road access is one major factor that affects whether parents want to send their children to school or not. The Priority Action Plan launched in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri increased enrolment by up to 30 percent. In 2000, the nationwide enrolment rate was 87 percent. Now, 98 percent are enrolled in school at the earliest level. This increase was because we built many more schools in villages. We now have 7,100 primary schools but only 1,200 lower secondary schools, and we should have one in each of our 1,646 communes. So going to school is far. For upper secondary, we have only 480 schools. When we go up in higher education, there are fewer schools. Distance is far and families cannot afford to send their children to school.
I think that the education institution did not respond well to the needs of the economy. Having access to education is not enough – we need hard and soft skills. For both higher education and vocational training, the feedback was that investors were not satisfied with the level of skills ranging from technical to problem-solving, decision-making and communication skills. In order to have quality, teachers need to be managed well. We need personnel management and financial management so we can have a budget increase. We have a trend of the education budget decreasing, so when I was in charge of the budget preparation we increased the budget from 12 percent to 19 percent. When I became minister, the budget was only 15 percent of the current budget.
Where we have improved
In the past 15 years, we have increased access drastically. For lower secondary education from Grades 7-9, enrolment rate increased from 30 to 55 percent, and for higher education from 18 to 27 percent. Back in 1999, we only had one percent of enrolment rate for higher education, compared to the ASEAN regional percentage of 30 percent. Right now we have 118 private and public universities. Student number has increased from 9,000 to 124,000 in 2008, to 250,000 at present.
However, quality did not follow suit.
The number of students expanded rapidly but the quality did not grow. The problem is that only eight percent of the teachers in higher education hold PhDs, while 80 percent have a master’s degree. Teachers are not qualified enough – to teach in universities normally, one needs to hold a PhD.
This is the challenge for Cambodia – the skill mismatch.
Therefore we take action to provide additional training to teachers. There are five areas of reform: the teacher policy-action plan (TPAP) to attract the best and brightest to become teachers, increasing primary school teachers’ salary from $120 to $250, increasing teachers’ qualifications, creating a teacher career pathway in specialised areas like management and director-level spheres, and having regular school inspections.
To motivate teachers, the ministry has a Teacher of The Year award – every year we select five teachers, and three school directors. This year we added five more Grade 1 teachers to promote good teaching from the beginning. This is the overview of the reform program.
We now focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), while also prioritizing foreign languages especially English and French. We have also adopted the reading standard and made it compulsory from Grades 1-3.
My approach is to go out to the schools and ensure implementation. Overall, teachers at the core should feel proud of their work and earn students’ respect. I want to make sure that the reforms are sustained, not just talk but are actually followed through and sustained.
The last area of reform we are doing now is capacity-building. Here at the MoEYS we have 120,000 in manpower at both teaching and non-teaching levels – this represents 60 percent of the civil servant force. Before I came, there were many complaints at the school level and at the department level. Reviewing the complaints on Facebook is not enough, so I would rather go out there and meet the teachers and listen to their problems. This is a useful technique to get feedback.
Education defines the future of the country; it decides whether we are going in the right or wrong direction. If you don’t have human resources, you are in big trouble. You can see that rich, developed countries are those that have qualified human resources.
The major challenges Cambodia’s education sector is facing are migration to Thailand to work, and a high dropout rate of 20 percent for lower secondary schools. When you have money you should not spend on material things like televisions or motorbikes, you should use that money to invest in education. I think this is the responsibility of every family. Education is a cooperation between the school and family – you cannot just rely on the government, as the family should also contribute and prioritise education.
Lastly, we should focus on preschool. I believe starting from a young age at the preschool level is very important. Attentive focus on early moments, nutrition especially, is crucial for physical developments to progress normally, so that we can instil both cognitive and non-cognitive skills in the children. If they are protected from diseases, they can have good social skills as well.
To invest in education is to invest in the future of the country.