Cambodia has 95 accredited universities or higher-education institutes, including
Pannasastra University, pictured above.
The rapid rise in the number of universities and other institutes of higher learning means many more Cambodians have access to an education that might have been out of their reach a few short years ago.
But while the government can be credited with allowing for the creation of the country’s free-wheeling higher education system, which graduates tens of thousands of young Cambodians each year, critics say it has done little to ensure that the degrees those newly-minted graduates take with them have any value.
The Kingdom’s Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC), the body charged with ensuring the quality of the country’s institutes of higher education, was established in 2003 and has stirred some limited reform.
In 2006 – the first year it was fully functional – the body defined the terms “university” and “institute,” and set the minimum standards for first year curricula.
It also issued three-year accreditation licenses to 33 institutions and one-year temporary licenses to 31 institutions. Two universities were closed.
Since then, the ACC has accredited 95 universities or higher education institutes from both the private and state sector.
But the ACC has also come under fire from foreign critics for being too slow, too politicized and, like most of the country’s institutions, for lacking independence.
One damning article, written by David Ford in the journal of International Higher Education, took the ACC to task for focusing too much on the technical aspects of universities – their size, number of students or courses – rather than the quality of instruction.
Others say that the body is a victim of the massive, multi-ministry bureaucracy that muddies the chains of command and dilutes its authority to set policy and make decisions.
For example, while the ACC can cancel foundation year programs that it feels fail to meet minimum standards, an institution’s second, third or fourth-year courses can continue since they fall under the authority of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
The result, wrote Malcolm Innes-Brown in a 2006 Australian government funded report on education in Cambodia, is that Cambodian universities are not currently regulated by a neutral, external body committed only to maintaining educational standards.
ACC secretary general Tech Samnang acknowledged the body’s shortcomings, saying the ACC was only now at the point where it could accredit foundation programs.
He said the ACC would engage in more comprehensive assessments in the future, but admitted that, “We cannot say that our degrees are up to international standards yet.”
Until then, said Rong Chhun, chairman of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, Cambodian university graduates would have no chance of having their degrees recognized outside of Cambodia.
“It [a Cambodian degree] doesn’t travel. Still, no one else recognizes a Cambodian degree,” Chhun said.