Almost every day, Pet Rath journeys from his home in Battambang province’s Sampov Loun district across the border to study Thai about two kilometres inside Cambodia’s western neighbour.
The facilities and standards at the school he attends part-time over the border in Khlong Hat district, Sa Kaeo province, have always surprised him.
“The development of the education system in Thailand seems miles away from what we have in the school in our home district,” he said.
“The schoolyard [in Thailand] is wider than the ones in my home district. Students wear appropriate uniforms and better obey the school’s rules. Teachers and students can reach school by travelling on modern roads.”
The vast gap between the educations afforded to students in Thailand and Cambodia is representative of a broader problem facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as its 10 member states seek to integrate their economies by 2015.
Namely, how can member countries that have just begun to develop their education systems hope to compete with individuals from far more developed ASEAN states armed with a vastly superior education in an integrated regional economy?
It’s a dilemma that has pricked the concern of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which yesterday highlighted this problem in the Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific, released yesterday by ESCAP.
The wide socio-economic gap remaining between more developed members and less developed members – namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – is a major concern, the report says.
“The literacy rate in Cambodia remains low, at around 75 per cent, compared to the other ASEAN members’ 90 to 95 per cent [except for Laos],” the survey found. “Public spending on education is also relatively low at around three per cent of [the gross domestic product].
“Such a gap could have a negative impact not only on the economic integration of ASEAN but also on its social and cultural harmonisation.” The report goes on to say that education will also be an important factor in determining labour productivity.
While Cambodia prepares for the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, which will facilitate the free flow of goods and labour among its 10 countries, improving labour productivity and competitiveness in a regionalised economy is crucial for Cambodia, analysts and experts said.
Dr Vong Sam Ang, general manager of SOMA Consulting Service, told the Post yesterday that Cambodia will face tough competition when the ASEAN economic community opens its doors, as the quality of employees in white-collar positions such as accounting and banking is limited compared with regional competitors.
“The educational systems in more developed members of the ASEAN and the commitment of their students are on a higher level than ours,” he said. “Instead of hiring a Cambodian middle manager or general manager, a chief executive officer might choose to import staff from more developed countries whose quality is much better.”
However, Sam Ang also said he sees enormous potential in the Kingdom’s large young labour force, many of whom are low-cost workers.
“The ASEAN economic community could entice more investors to open up businesses in our country, and graduated students who leave school with good skills could also see broadened opportunities by the ASEAN economic community’s launch,” he said.
“In order for [less developed] countries to fully benefit from the ASEAN economic community, the focus on education needs to be enhanced,” said the ESCAP report.
However, education might be a crucial step to meet Prime Minister Hun Sen’s target to move forward “from a low-income country to a lower-middle income country”, as he told Chinese news agency Xinhua in last week.