When the Ministry of Education in 2014 introduced its strict “no cheating” policy for school leavers, many of those who had cheated their way through in previous years surely breathed a sigh of relief.
That’s because anyone wishing to enter university must pass their Grade 12 exit exam. The 2013 pass rate was nearly 90 per cent, another year of seemingly stellar results. But with measures in place to prevent rampant cheating in 2014, just 25 per cent of the 90,000-odd school-leavers passed (though that number increased to about 37 per cent after students were permitted to retake the exam).
Clearly, many of those accepted to a tertiary education course in 2013 wouldn’t have been admitted had they been born a year later.
The ministry has been applauded for its tough stance; after all, there’s little point in an education system in which you can cheat your way to top grades.
The problem is that, although getting into university is harder, getting through university hasn’t changed much at all. Once you’re in – depending on the institution – the chances to cheat are as widespread as ever. And that means at least some of the 250,000 students in higher education don’t have to learn in order to graduate.
The result, says San Chey, the executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability-Cambodia (ANSA), a non-profit focused on transparency, is that some graduates “don’t know anything from university when they start a job”.
The onus is then on employers to spend time and money training their newly hired graduates solely to get them to a standard they ought to have reached already.
As Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron has pointed out, that represents a failure of the concept of a university, whose purpose is to operate as a place where students can learn the skills required for a job. If a university can’t do that, it is little more than a degree mill.
Meet 22-year-old Sophat*. He is a fourth-year dentistry student at the University of Health Sciences (UHS) in Phnom Penh. Sophat says cheating is “a big problem”. He even admits to having cheated in the past, though tells Post Weekend he’s changed his behaviour.
“I had no choice,” he says of his earlier ways. “I wanted to pass my exam.”
A recent UHS dental graduate, who asked to remain anonymous because he doesn’t want to jeopardise his new job, says cheating was “rampant” throughout his courses and during tests. And even though examinations were computerised two years ago to help prevent cheating, some lecturers still provided students with a list of questions they knew would be asked.
The 27-year-old dentist says cheating wasn’t the only issue; some questions were taken from other countries’ exams or from the internet and then translated into Khmer.
“Some of the questions are very difficult, very confusing,” he says, adding that they are sometimes not even based on the lessons students learned.
And, he adds, some students who didn’t speak English – one of the three languages of instruction at the dental school – still managed to pass, as did others who rarely showed up to class.
“We need to change, because the results of the issues I mentioned are leading to a substandard quality of education,” he says. “We cannot compete with other countries. We know very little compared to them.”
He says there should be “intervention” at his former school. The Ministry of Education, he adds, should encourage teachers to be “stricter”. Officials at UHS didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Policing the System
Sophat and the anonymous graduate are far from the only people to talk about the issue of cheating at the Kingdom’s tertiary institutions. Education experts, lecturers and other students – some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions – say the practice is common, though a lack of statistics means it’s hard to know the extent.
Post Weekend heard reports of students getting questions for end-of-course exams and the national exit exam ahead of their tests so they could memorise the answers, and of people being paid to write students’ research papers and theses.
ANSA’s San Chey, for example, says he was approached a few years back while completing his Masters and asked whether he wanted to pay a third party $500 to write his thesis. (He said no.) But, he adds: “It still goes on. There should be a system to check on that.”
And although some universities have taken steps to curb cheating, critics – including Chey – say the ministry could and should do more.
Ros Salin is spokesman for the Ministry of Education. He says the ministry is not in a position to do that because it has given “autonomy” to higher education institutions. That means issues of governance, management, curriculum development, teacher training, student learning, research and other quality improvements – as well as investing in infrastructure and equipment – are the responsibility of the individual institution.
It also means the ministry cannot take the kind of action that it did for the Grade 12 exams.
“The ministry has set the policy to guide them to increase the quality of governance,” he says. “Each of our higher education institutions has their own internal rules, including [the] exam process, and until now, most of our higher education institutions are doing well.”
In its 2015 report on the sector, the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) found private universities were barely regulated. And there are a lot of them: ministry figures (see sidebar) show 60 per cent of the country’s 119 higher education institutions are private bodies – unlike the bulk of the nation’s schools – and that means private money is involved. In Cambodia, where private investment and political clout often go hand in hand, that can complicate enforcement.
Which perhaps explains the ministry’s position that, as it publishes more data on universities’ performance in the coming years, it is relying on the market to determine which will remain open.
That day can’t come soon enough.
Preap Kol, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, says some private universities don’t care much about quality “and allow some sort of cheating and plagiarism”. He suspects some universities have political connections that result in “special treatment”.
Kol is one of those who want the government to do more to combat cheating – particularly at less-disciplined universities that lack proper quality-control mechanisms.
“The government should also consider strengthening their oversight on the quality and standards of higher education to ensure that graduate students have the necessary skills and capacity to work when they are employed,” he says.
At the minimum, he wants the ministry to have a “very credible and competent accreditation committee” that will inspect, assess and approve university courses on a regular basis to ensure standards are maintained.
The ministry does have an oversight committee of sorts: the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC), which was removed from the Council of Ministers in 2013 and placed under the Ministry of Education.
But, Kol says, people lack confidence in its ability to do its work. Only last month, the International University, a private facility specialising in medicine and medical science, was found to be offering an associate degree in pharmacology that wasn’t recognised by the Ministry of Health. (The ministry insists on a bachelor’s degree.) Luckless students, who had thought the qualification would permit them to open their own pharmacies, protested.
The ACC’s general secretary, San Montaya, admits the powers of the body – whose role is to oversee regulations and standards at higher education institutions – are limited.
The ACC resumed on-site inspections last year. Part of its quality control remit is to have each campus establish an Internal Quality Assurance agency, which is meant to be in charge of developing policies on a range of issues – including combating cheating.
“Technically, they are supposed to respond,” says Montaya. “But in reality, not all of them have established the IQA.”
That is being generous. In fact, only 11 of the country’s higher education institutions that the ACC has inspected had set up an IQA. That means the ministry does not yet know the IQA status of about 90 per cent of higher education institutions.
And although the committee does carry out inspections, it has not monitored any of the 11 institutions after its first site visit to ensure they are implementing its recommendations.
Montaya says the ACC plans to change that and start repeat inspections from next year.
“We want to make sure the schools are implementing the recommendations of the ACC,” he says. “We want to see what progress has been made.”
It also doesn’t help that the ACC has no power to take action. Its role is limited to issuing warnings. After the third warning, it can submit a recommendation to the Ministry of Education to act against universities not meeting their obligations.
As a result, very few institutions have been closed in the past decade. Just four, in fact: two because they weren’t meeting national standards, and two – which had compliance issues as well – because they went bust.
Cause and Consequence
Andrew Sandham is a former dean of dentistry at James Cook University in Australia. He has also taught in several countries – including in Cambodia at the International University – and is currently an adviser on curriculum development and examinations at the University of Puthisastra.
His main concern with cheating, he says, is “the impact on society that medical and dental education has where students are allowed to get away with compromised learning”.
“It’s an impact on society, the public, the people who are being treated by people who have not fulfilled the examination requirements,” he says.
In Sandham’s time in Cambodia he has seen enough of the dentistry and medical curriculum to say that the examination “needs to be tightened up”.
“I would like to see the whole examination process reviewed, re-evaluated and structured in a way that produces a good quality practitioner,” he says.
But that requires more than just goodwill. Medical and dental schools here, he says, also need “a massive injection of capital from the government” to make sure that the country can produce the best practitioners.
Teresa Fishman, director of the US-based International Center for Academic Integrity, says cheating is a threat “perhaps most importantly because it undermines confidence in university graduates and in the university itself”, decreasing the value of a diploma.
“One of the most important roles that universities play is that of providing credentials that can be relied upon,” she says by email. “If students cheat and have not [acquired] the skills and abilities their credentials say they should have, potential employers can’t have confidence when they hire.”
Every country has cheating, Fishman adds, and in general, they could all do more. “It is simply easier to act as if we don’t have the problem, but we know from 20 years’ worth of surveys that every country has a significant amount of cheating,” she says.
And as Peter Wells, chief of UNESCO’s higher education section in Paris, points out, cheating has wider implications for society. “You don’t want to employ an engineering graduate who will design and build a building that can fall down or design roads that are dangerous for the public,” he says.
That logic applies equally to medical graduates, of whom Cambodia doesn’t have enough.
Dr Beat Richner, the Swiss paediatrician who set up the Kantha Bopha children’s hospitals in Cambodia, is not alone in decrying the quality of many of those who have qualified as unacceptably poor.
In August, Richner called on the government to test hundreds of doctors at private clinics in order to prove that they were qualified to practice.
That came after hundreds of severely ill children were admitted to Kantha Bopha hospitals over that weekend. Many had dengue or encephalitis. More than half, he said at the time, “had been incorrectly treated without any diagnosis”.
Fifteen per cent of Cambodia’s 18-to-24 year olds are enrolled in tertiary institutions. That compares unfavourably with more developed ASEAN countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, where the proportion is about twice as high.
However, the proportion of those students enrolled at private universities in Cambodia is among the highest in ASEAN – at about 60 per cent, according to a 2015 report from the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI). Cambodia also has a far higher proportion of private institutions (60 per cent) than other countries in the region.
That follows the government’s decision in 1997 to allow private universities to open. Prior to that, there were just 10 higher education bodies in the country; by 2012, according to figures cited by CDRI in a 2013 report on higher education, that number had risen to 97 – of which 38 were public and the remaining 59 private. That number has since increased to 119, says ministry spokesman Ros Salin: 47 are public and 72 are private.
The CDRI report also noted that the number of students doubled in just five years (from about 117,000 in 2006-07 to more than 245,000 in 2011-12), reflecting a demand for tertiary qualifications.
“This rapid increase has implications for the capacity of staff to cope and therefore the quality of graduates and whether the supply of graduates responds to labour market needs,” it states. “There are reports indicating not only an oversupply of university graduates, but also a decline in their quality.”
Salin says 56,301 students started their first year of tertiary study in 2015.
Ministry figures show the top three fields of study last year were: foreign languages (with enrolment of 23,562); banking and finance (with enrolment of 22,646); and accounting, with 19,045 students.
The issues go further than the campus, say some students and lecturers.
“Some of us are unhappy with the national exit exams for medical, dental and pharmacy students – as students have all the questions beforehand and just need to memorise the answers,” says one lecturer in health sciences at the University of Puthisastra. “There is also a lack of benchmarking of our Cambodian graduates with those from overseas.”
At Cambodian Mekong University, first-year civil engineering student Hort Vita, 19, says he has seen some of his classmates cheating.
“Maybe that’s the habit that they always had in high school,” he says.
The university is targeting cheating, though. Vita says it recently installed cameras in classrooms to monitor when students take exams. But the cameras cannot capture everything.
Fellow first-year civil engineering student Lon Bunheng, 20, says the cheating that he witnessed in high school has continued in college. Some students, he and others say, pay to have people write their assignments.
He’s against cheating, not least because it means those graduates will lack the skills to do their jobs. But, he says, the situation seems to be improving – at least at his university.
“The examinations are not like before, where students could cheat more easily,” he says.
There have been other improvements too, says one university professor who asked to remain anonymous: until recently, lecturers at some institutions would provide students with exam questions ahead of time so they could memorise just the answers they would need. Several campuses have now outlawed that practice, he says.
However, challenges remain: although each student is meant to have a supervisor to guide them through the process of writing their thesis, there are not enough supervisors, and that means some students are likely able to get away with paying a third party to write it for them.
He would like the higher education system to learn from the ministry’s crackdown on cheating in the Grade 12 exams and introduce its own reforms.
“That can happen,” the professor says, “but it always takes time.”
Chhem Rethy, CDRI’s executive director, echoes Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron when he says meritocracy and integrity are paramount.
“At the end of the day,” says Rethy, “those particular students would have ruined their own future in a Cambodian society that has become increasingly sophisticated. A knowledge economy requires a genuinely well-educated workforce.”
* Name has been changed to protect student’s identity.