SCHOLARSHIPS to study at the Kingdom’s public higher education institutions are some of the most coveted in the country. They are given only to high school graduates with impeccable transcripts and top-flight scores on the secondary school exit exam. However the pre-requisites for non-scholarship students are much more lax, with a high school degree and the money to pay tuition being the only requirements.
In order to finance projects to improve their universities, administration at RUPP, NUM and other national schools accept 100 percent of fee-paying applicants. The National Institute of Education and other teaching colleges are the only national universities that do not enroll private students. According to director Im Koch, NIE accepts around 30 percent of applicants annually.
While students said that there was little difference between private and public students at RUPP, professors reported seeing a disparate performance from these two groups. Chuon Kheang, a lecturer of English at RUPP, said that there are clear rules for attendance and public students seem to study hard, but “private students seem to be careless about their studies”.
“There are a few who are great but most of them don’t really care about learning”.
Cambodia’s national universities were originally meant as a place for the country’s brightest students to study for free; a bastion for intellectual growth for students from all backgrounds. However, as the universities must begin to build internationally recognised programs with higher quality of education, the need for funding has become imminent. Since the government does not have the resources to undertake these initiatives on its own, the doors have been opened wide for fee-paying students.
In 1996, the National University of Management became the first government-funded university to accept fee-paying students into their undergraduate programmes. While the number of scholarship students has remained fairly consistent with about 400 students receiving government scholarships each year, the school has grown exponentially over the past decade, with the most recent freshman class numbering nearly 10,000. Fewer than 10 percent of last year’s graduates got their degrees for free.
At RUPP the situation is fairly similar. Since they began accepting private students a growing majority of students are paying between $300 and $500 a year to attend classes.
Although the use of tuition money has recently been questioned by students at the University of Agriculture, who accused government officials of pocketing their tuition fees, there are visible signs of improvement at RUPP that have been made possible by student tuition.
School officials said that new buildings and renovations have all come from the pool of tuition money.
The practice of having citizens pay to attend public university exists in many westernised countries, but unlike these foreign countries, where all students attend the same classes and have the same academic opportunities, fee-paying students in Cambodia do not get the same education as their non-paying peers.
At RUPP, it is school policy that scholarship and non-scholarship students do not attend classes together. The curriculum is theoretically the same, however some students said they think they are missing out on interpersonal exchanges that would enrich their time at RUPP. “I want to build friendships with non-scholarship students and share our experiences,” said Tok La, who is a scholarship student in the geography and land management programme.
Besides missed social exchanges, some students reported that the academic programmes differ for the two groups of students. “I think that the English for scholarship students is better because we study four times a week and non-scholarship students only study once a week,” said Soeurng Sombath, who is on scholarship to study chemistry at RUPP.
“The experience for scholarship and non-scholarship student is very similar,” said Ho Seang Hoi, who is a fourth-year scholarship student in RUPPs chemistry programme.
“But non-scholarship students must pay for field trips while it is free for scholarship students.” There is also a much lower percentage of non-scholarship students writing theses during their fourth year because the university does not provide a theses adviser for non-scholarship students.
While the academic activities for private and public students may not be equal, it is ultimately up to the individual to decide what they will get out of their university experience. “It depends on the student,” said Chhun Leang, who studies Japanese at RUPP. “If you study hard you will have good results upon graduating.”