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Degrees of change in the air

Vietnamese citizens with makeshift batons line up along the Cambodia-Vietnam border on Sunday in Svay Rieng province before clashing with Cambodian activists.
Students wait for class at Build Bright University yesterday, where enrolments in two-year associate degree programs have increased from fewer than 200 in 2013 to more than 1,000 for the current school year. Pha Lina

Degrees of change in the air

Public and private universities are experiencing an exponential rise in the number of students opting for two-year associate degrees rather than four-year bachelor's programs following last year’s disastrous high school exit examinations, education officials said yesterday.

Passing rates plummeted by more than half, from 87 per cent in 2013 to just 25 per cent in 2014 after the Ministry of Education cracked down on long-rampant cheating.

The results led to more than 15,000 grade 12 students applying instead to lower-level associate programs that don’t require a passing mark – the “highest ever”, according to ministry spokesman Ros Salin.

“Due to the reform on education, many students failed, so the numbers are definitely up. Many are taking advantage of this other option,” agreed In Virachey, vice president of enrolment at the private Build Bright University (BBU).

The two-year associate programs typically train students in specific skills, while the more advanced four-year bachelor's degrees, which require passing exit exam marks, provide students with more theoretical knowledge and broader career opportunities.

At BBU’s Phnom Penh campus alone, the number of applicants for associate degree programs surged by 613 per cent from 160 in the 2013-14 school year to 1,141 in 2014-15.

The National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia (NPIC), a public university, also experienced a 121 per cent spike when applicants climbed from about 160 last year to 355 this year, said NPIC vice president of academic affairs Phasy Muong.

But while the surging rates are true across the board, education officials disagree about what this could mean for Cambodia’s higher education system.

“This alternative route is not in line with the ministry’s goal,” NGO Education Partnership executive director Chin Chanveasna said.

“There should still be a proper quality check before they are accepted.”

BBU’s Virachey and NPIC’s Muong, however, disagreed, saying that the different studying pathways are designed for students with varying strengths, interests and learning abilities.

“Not everyone has the same level of competency or talent . . . and we shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to study,” Virachey said.

Muong pointed out that students vying for associate degrees have the option of continuing on to bachelor programs after earning their diplomas and an additional two to three years of school depending on the nature of their study.

“Associate degrees only last for two years, and therefore you pay less and get on-the-job experience earlier.

Also, students could always come back to upgrade their skills,” he said.

According to spokesman Salin, the ministry “doesn’t see the increase as a problem” but will continue to tighten its crackdown on cheating as “it’s all about instilling diligence in students from early on”.

“It’s a transition process, and after a couple of years of studying harder, we think that the quality of students will get better and the passing rate will go higher.”

This year’s exit exam will take place on August 24.

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