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Hopes high for class of boomerang students

Korean language teacher Kim Kwang Hee demonstrates the Three Bears Dance Song to her first year university students
Korean language teacher Kim Kwang Hee demonstrates the Three Bears Dance Song to her first year university students. Eli Meixler

Hopes high for class of boomerang students

Suffering a dearth of qualified teachers, one Phnom Penh university is planning ahead to stop the perennial brain drain

It’s a Monday morning at the Royal University of Fine Arts and the first-year students are hard at work. Led by enthusiastic teacher Kim Kwang Hee, they are learning the Three Bears Dance Song – a Korean nursery rhyme with accompanying ursine-like shimmies and shakes.

The class is a compulsory part of a new program for undergraduates in music and dance that requires them to study nine hours of Korean every week.

It’s hoped that with four years of learning the language under their belts, the students will get scholarships to study for masters and PhDs at South Korean universities – and ultimately come back to teach the next generation of arts students.

“The problem in our university is human resources,” RUFA rector Bong Sovath explained. He estimates that RUFA currently has about 70 full-time teaching staff, which he thinks is somewhere between a quarter and a third of the number needed.

RUFA is the country’s oldest and most venerable arts institution, but a dearth of full-time teachers means it currently offers no post-graduate education, bar one masters program in archeology, half of which is taught at the INALCO National Institute of Oriental Languages in Paris.

By sending students abroad, the university hopes to create a pool of academics with the expertise necessary to teach higher-level programs on home soil.

This is not the first scheme that has seen graduates sent to Korea. In 2005, a group of 10 students went there to study. But without any prior knowledge of the language, the initiative was not a resounding success.

“Before they received their degrees, they had to pass a certain level in Korean language, and some of them could not pass it,” Sovath said. “They passed their speciality, but they couldn’t get the degree because of the language component.” He said that almost a third of the students failed, despite spending six months to a year in intensive Korean classes on their arrival.

With the new Korean classes for freshers, he is playing the long game – it will be at least a decade before the students in this class will be ready to return to Cambodia with doctorates to their names.

Even then, there is a question mark over whether they will return to teach. Over the years, RUFA has welcomed back only a fraction of its former students who have gone abroad.

Final year art students present their work to teachers for inspection.
Final year art students present their work to teachers for inspection. Eli Meixler

In the 1980s, when Cambodia had ties with the Soviet Union, scholarships for artists were plentiful. But in the 1990s things got tougher: places dwindled and the bar for entry was raised. Students who did return from post-graduate courses in countries like the US and Japan became highly sought after commodities. “Human resources in Cambodia were very low, so they tended to go to work in the private sector, or in private institutions that can generate more revenue than our university,” Sovath said.

The situation hasn’t changed much since. Over the years, promising returning cohorts have been snapped up for jobs at the Apsara Authority, staffing the National Museum or in other departments in the Ministry of Culture.

The rector is accepting of these setbacks. “I really understand the situation,” he said of the recent loss to the museum.

“But for the next wave [of returning students from France], I talked with the [Ministry of Culture] already, and I think maybe we will be able to keep all four people.”

RUFA comes under the remit of the ministry, which means that bargaining over teacher allocation is a key part of the rector’s job. When former students end up working for different government bodies, he tries to set up arrangements for them to visit RUFA for a couple of hours teaching per week. “But I don’t want to rely on teachers from outside,” he said.

All the students in the Korean class expressed their intention to come back to the university following any scholarship they might be granted to study abroad. “I want to work in this school because Cambodia is my homeland,” said 19-year-old dance student Chhum Chanthou. “I want to contribute my skills to the next generation.”

Traditional music student Som Vesna, 18, said that the purpose of studying abroad was to acquire the skills to communicate Khmer culture to a wider audience. “If we play our traditional music to people who don’t know our language but we can’t explain it to them, we will lose a great opportunity,” she said.

Among the former students who have chosen to return, there is a keen sense of purpose. Tith Veasna studied design at Dong Hua University in Shanghai following her graduation from RUFA in 2006, and now teaches painting in her old department.

“When I got to China, I realised that my country needs a lot of teachers,” she said. “I understand local people here clearly because I am one of them, so I came back.”

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