In an era of the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education, it is difficult, if not impossible, to disregard the regional and global trend toward building world-class universities.
Many governments in Asia and Africa are making significant efforts to establish research-intensive universities to catch up with their counterparts in the US and Europe.
Competition for global university rankings has increasingly intensified, yet the success or failure of building world-class universities is to a great extent determined by individual governments’ commitment and economic strength.
The vast economic disparity between countries in the global North and South has created huge inequalities in knowledge production, leaving many developing countries in a peripheral status in the pursuit of world-class research institutions.
Against this backdrop, it seems an impossible dream for developing countries like Cambodia to aim for world-class status.
However, there are alternatives worth considering and investing in.
One of which is to establish national research universities.
The Kingdom, having become a lower-middle income economy and aspiring to be an upper-middle income country by 2030, should consider establishing national research universities.
Within the context of a knowledge-based economy, it is imperative that Cambodia begins to prioritise research and become more serious in investing in human capital development.
The country is in dire need of a highly skilled labour force to drive its economy and enhance its competitiveness.
Improve innovation capacity
Although there are other areas such as poverty reduction and institutional reforms which have absorbed the Cambodian government’s attention, improving the country’s research and innovation capacity should be at the top of the agenda for policy-makers and the political leadership.
In line with the government’s vision to transform Cambodia from a labour-intensive economy to skills-driven industry, as outlined in Cambodia Industrial Development Policy 2015-25, addressing the scarcity of basic technical knowledge and skills among the country’s workforce is as important as improving physical industrial infrastructure.
Cambodia cannot afford to continue to lag behind its neighbours and other countries in the Asean region and beyond.
A lack of a concrete plan to establish national research universities will help contribute to the low performance of the country’s overall competitiveness, as evidenced by last year’s Global Competitiveness Report in which Cambodia was ranked 110th out of 140 countries by the World Economic Forum, while Thailand (38th) and Vietnam (77th) performed much better.
To address this concern, it is important that the government, through the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and other relevant ministries, embarks on the establishment of national research universities.
This initiative can begin by first selecting one or two public higher education institutions such as the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) or the Royal University of Agriculture and making them the Kingdom’s flagship research universities.
At present, as the Kingdom’s oldest university, RUPP has been envisioned to become Cambodia’s flagship university in teaching, research and community services.
Such an ambition is not beyond the realm of possibility.
However, a lot needs to be done to establish research universities in Cambodia.
First and foremost is the full support from the government and the education ministry.
Most importantly, financial support in the form of research grants must be available for fair and open competition.
Funding from development partners, international donor agencies and industry should be targeted at the selected few universities with the overall aim of developing one or more national research-intensive universities.
The government should also finalise and fully implement the system of academic titles and ranks with stringent minimum standards and clear promotion policies.
Without this hierarchical academic ranking policy, university academics are less willing to devote their time and energy to academic research, thereby rendering the development of research universities impossible.
At the institutional level, every effort should be made to nurture and foster institutional and departmental environments that are conducive for research and research collaborations.
University leaders should take into consideration such critical factors as research training, mentoring, funding, incentives and resources.
Incentivising research-active academics through various reward and recognition schemes is crucial, as is mentoring support for less experienced researchers and academics who are interested in research but are reluctant to engage in it.
Crucially, there is a need to formulate and implement viable institutional research policies that clearly outline academics’ specific duties and responsibilities with respect to teaching, research and service.
Creating time and space for academic staff members to engage in research and writing for scholarly publication is also important.
Perhaps an employment contract that requires academics to produce research output in the form of journal articles or working papers within a specific timeframe is one way to foster an institutional research culture and promote university research in Cambodia.
Relying on individual academics’ interest, commitment and agency while institutional support is minimal and inadequate is not a viable and sustainable approach for the development of research in general and the establishment of research universities in particular.
It is vital that the government takes the lead in establishing university research and engaging all other stakeholders, including the private sector, universities and academics, to materialise the idea of developing research universities in Cambodia.
All it takes is vision, will and action.
Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Queensland and a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.