University lecturers have three major roles that are normally expected of them – teaching, research and service.

Research is fundamental to the tripartite role of lecturers. It allows for the creation of new knowledge or the use of existing knowledge in a new way.

Through research, new concepts, understandings and inventions are generated. Through research, the stock of knowledge is increased, and through research, one can increase his or her understanding of a topic or an issue.

Research is understood as a process or a series of steps used to collect and analyse information.

Together with teaching and service, research is recognised as a cornerstone of conventional assumptions of higher education.

It is a common belief that research contributes to teaching effectiveness and benefits individuals, the community and the wider world in various ways.

Engagement in research is therefore necessary for personal and professional development of university academics.

In Cambodia, more attention is now paid to improving the higher education system and building a research culture.

Responding to the increasing social and educational demands and aspiring to become a knowledge-based society, the Cambodian government has begun to invest in higher education and research and development.

The publication of policy documents on research development such as the Policy on Research Development in the Education Sector in 2010 and Master Plan for Research Development in the Education Sector in 2011 has made it clear that the government recognises the significance of higher education research in improving the country’s competitiveness and responding to regionalisation and globalisation.

Moderate level of engagement

The Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, through the technical and financial support of the World Bank and development partners, has endeavoured to improve the quality and research capacity of Cambodian higher education institutions (HEIs) and their academic staff.

A World Bank-supported project titled Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project (HEQCIP), which began in 2010 and concluded in 2017, is a good example that reflects the Cambodian government’s attempts to improve research and higher education.

However, despite efforts from the government and the support from major international institutions and donor agencies, many reports and research studies have shown that the research engagement and research productivity of Cambodian academics is still limited.

Around 10 years ago, a group of researchers reported in their research that almost 90 per cent of Cambodian university lecturers they surveyed had never published any academic paper.

Later in 2015, a Cambodian researcher conducted a survey of more than 400 faculty members from 10 Cambodian universities and found that 65 per cent of Cambodian university lecturers were not involved in any research activities at all.

Similar findings have also been reported. Stephen Moore of Australia’s Macquarie University, for example, reported in 2011 that Cambodian English lecturers had a moderate level of engagement in research.

Major barriers to their active research engagement included limited access to books or journals, time constraints, poor knowledge of research methods, and insufficient institutional support.

These findings were later confirmed by research by Keuk Chan Narith of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

The lack of research engagement among Cambodian academics and by extension the lack of research in Cambodian universities should receive more serious attention from all stakeholders involved, particularly the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and leaders of all Cambodian HEIs.

As Cambodia aspires to become an upper-middle income country by 2030 and a high-income economy by 2050, the Kingdom has to be serious in building its human capital.

Research in universities must be promoted to facilitate innovation and invention needed to drive economic growth and social development.

In today’s knowledge-driven world, knowledge is recognised as the driver of productivity and economic growth.

Leading international institutions such as the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have produced many reports emphasising the significance of the production, dissemination and utilisation of knowledge in the context of globalisation and knowledge-based world.

If Cambodia does not begin to earnestly promote research in universities and take concrete actions to foster research engagement among university lecturers and researchers, the country will continue to lag behind most of the other Asean countries in many areas, including innovation, competitiveness and knowledge production.

Cambodia’s overall competitiveness performance was ranked 110th out of 140 countries in 2018 by the World Economic Forum. Thailand was 38th and Vietnam 77th.

Time to prioritise research

The Kingdom’s overall innovation capacity also received a relatively low score, standing at 118th among 138 countries surveyed in 2017.

To improve its innovation capacity and overall competitiveness in the Global Competitiveness Index, Cambodia has to work hard to improve its higher education and promote research undertakings in universities and other research institutions.

No doubt it is time to prioritise research at all levels, in particular at the institutional and national levels.

The government should allocate more public budget for research and development, and make serious efforts to nurture and support the nation’s knowledge enterprises, namely universities and research institutions.

Higher education institutions should also begin to genuinely and willingly support research activities by offering in-house research skills training and guidance, helping to identify and pursue funding opportunities, facilitating a supportive and productive research environment, promoting research collaboration, and ideally making research an integral part of faculty evaluation and promotion.

While more and more countries in Asia and beyond are in their quest to build world-class universities, Cambodia continues lack an educated and highly skilled workforce.

Unless concrete actions and measures are taken to foster a research culture in universities, the Kingdom will be at the disadvantaged end with regard to participation and competition in the regional and global knowledge-based economy in the 21st century.

Kimkong Heng is an Australia Awards scholar and a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Queensland.