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Struggling for a degree of credibility in education

Struggling for a degree of credibility in education

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struggling.jpg

New Zealand Education Minister Trevor Mallard presents a sheepskin rug gift to the interim Minister of Education, Pok Than. "Be careful when you open this, it might jump out and say 'Baa!" cautioned Mallard. Sure enough, when Than slit the tight plastic it did indeed leap out, but quietly. "Was this made in New Zealand?" Than inquired. "It had better be," quipped Mallard.

I

t's said that in Phnom Penh, anyone who can put the right amount of money in the

right palm can start a school, call it a university and issue "degrees"

that have little relevance to the recipient's ability.

In 1997 in this city there were eight public and one private "higher education

institutions" (HEI). Now, the official record states, there are 10 public and

26 privates. These are the approved ones. Education professionals believe there are

actually a total of 49 HEIs operating.

Some 250,000 Cambodians enter the job market each year, many of them with what may

be a valueless piece of paper that has cost them hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars.

The World Bank (WB) supported a move to convene an accreditation body last year,

but withdrew after the government failed to meet the conditions of a WB loan. The

Ministry of Education had proposed to borrow $26 million for libraries and other

academic improvements.

The government went ahead and created its own accreditation body under the Council

of Ministers by Royal Decree on March 31 last, but it has little funding. Sources

say the board has not met and is still grappling with staff training issues.

The World Bank believes the education sector is heading for a crisis if changes are

not made to cope with the wave of young people seeking degrees.

However, things are moving forward.

An Education Strategy Development Plan for 2004-08 is being written with the support

of the Asian Development Bank (details of this will be available in July), and the

World Bank is still waiting in the wings.

The Strategic Plan is currently in the first of three phases. Phase I (the big picture

and policy) is due to go through an appraisal process funded by an ADB technical

assistance grant later this month. Phase II will cover sector support programs and

Phase III funding.

Cambodia's interim Education Minister, Pok Than, says that although things are far

from perfect in the education landscape, "we at least have an increased number

of schools and attendances are rising. There are many challenges. My primary goal

is to ensure that education at all levels is available to the poor, not just the

privileged."

The ADB sees the key issues facing education as:

* Low secondary net enrolment rate of only 20 percent.

* Informal school fees [i.e. money demanded by teachers to supplement their low wages,

currently among the lowest in the world].

* Lack of educational opportunities in the 15-to-29-years age group to learn new

skills and training (about 3.1 million people in this group are under-employed or

unemployed).

A Royal Kret (Decree) Regarding the Accreditation of Higher Education was drafted

by the Government between 2001 and 2003 with World Bank/Institutional Development

Fund (IDF) support. The version of the Kret passed by the Council of Ministers on

April 31, 2003 (together with a Sub-Decree on the Establishment of Higher Education

Institutions, passed by the Council of Ministers on June 13, 2002) contained many

provisions that the World Bank believes will advance the development of higher education

in Cambodia.

World Bank Country Director Nisha Agrawal said: "Among other things, these include

the basic definitions of a university and other higher education institutions (HEIs),

guidance for a quality assurance process and the meeting of higher education standards,

an outline of minimum course requirements for a bachelor's degree, greater transparency

in the process of admitting students to HEIs, encouragement for HEIs to recognize

credits earned by students in other HEIs, and improvements in the organization, structure

and financing of HEIs."

"The Kret also provides for the establishment of an Accreditation Committee

of Cambodia (ACC) to recommend specific standards for universities and to review,

help raise, and signal the quality of HEIs. The ACC does not make decisions about

the financing or management of HEIs, but it is a critical source of information and

guidance for Government decision-makers, public and private HEIs, and consumers of

education. The World Bank was concerned, however, that as drafted by the Government

the proposed new law could have compromised the professionalism and independence

of the ACC. Specifically, the law did not ensure the independence of the ACC from

political interference, which is an essential provision if the committee is to be

effective in the long term."

As a result, Agrawal said, the WB suspended work on the preparation of a Higher Education

Credit until after the elections of 2003. This allowed time for the issues to be

discussed and resolved free from the distractions of the election process.

"The formation of the government and the resolution of the outstanding issues

have taken longer than we intended. At this time, the project is still frozen. We

do not have a firm timetable for proceeding.

"We are, however, using the intervening time to assist the Ministry of Education,

Youth and Sport (MoEYS), through the consultative process of the Education Strategic

Plan (ESP), to refine its strategy and formulate sound policies for the higher education

sub-sector. An immediate need is for the donor community to assist the Ministry and

the ACC to complete the technical groundwork (including the development of a credit

transfer system, the definition of accreditation standards and the elaboration of

the university foundation year program) that is a necessary first step in setting

up a credible quality assurance and accreditation system for higher education in

Cambodia."

An education trade mission from New Zealand has recently been in Phnom Penh for high-level

meetings at which the New Zealand Minister of Education, Trevor Mallard, offered

to help develop a robust education framework, based on the quality assurance of qualifications

and institutions, and in particular official accreditation for institutions that

are prepared to meet minimum internationally recognized standards.

Their visit was a small component of a nine-day mission to China, South Korea, Vietnam,

Thailand and Malaysia. The main appointments in Phnom Penh were a formal meeting

with the interim Minister of Education, Pok Than, senior officials and principals

of some of the city's larger institutions; and a roundtable discussion with a different

group which included the World Bank.

The mission spokesman, New Zealand Embassy (Bangkok) first secretary Steve Dowall,

said the main topic on the agenda was the need for a robust framework for the education

system, particularly around the quality assurance of qualifications and institutions.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority hoped to be able to assist in this regard.

"The visit enabled Mr Mallard to gain an understanding of the Cambodian education

system and the challenges it faces. Cambodia is still suffering from the effects

of the Pol Pot regime; it was chilling to learn that 80 percent of university staff

and 60 percent of university students were killed during the regime. As a consequence

there is a lack of trained staff in the universities and the quality of the education

is low. The effects also extend to the basic education system," Dowall said.

"We can offer robust, proven objective systems, which we think are necessary

if other international agencies are to consider putting educational funds into Cambodia."

Dowall said he hoped there would be an extension of existing tertiary sector associations

between universities in both countries. This currently involves Victoria and Canterbury

Universities in the Greater Mekong Subregion Tertiary Education Consortium (GMTEC).

Some New Zealand secondary schools are marketing in Phnom Penh for students. There

are already 123 secondary and tertiary students studying in New Zealand, plus 220

studying English.

Than said he believed NZ would continue to play an important role in the GMTEC and

he looked forward to specific proposals coming from Mallard's office for developing

the relationship with Cambodian education.

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