Last year, a furore erupted when a computer miscalculated the results of the Grade 12 science exam.
After students complained, the examination committee reviewed and recalculated the exam scores. Only 975 candidates passed.
The situation led to a loss of confidence from candidates and their parents in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, and in particular its minister, Hang Chuon Naron, who has spearheaded reforms for the BAC II exams since 2014.
The Ministry of Education has officially announced a 30-day period for applicant complaints after the the results are issued.
For this year’s Grade 12 exams on August 19-20, the ministry has said it is working to improve its computer systems and strengthen oversight, given that similar issues have regularly occurred over the past five years.
The Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which has conducted annual inspections of the exams over the past five years, is no longer sending observers, given that irregularities such as leaked question, copied answers and bribery are no longer being detected. This has been great news for honest candidates.
However, based on the Grade 12 exam results over the past five years obtained by The Post, candidates have had a tendency to pursue the social sciences class [mathematics, Khmer literature, geography, history, ethics, citizenship, earth-environment and a foreign language] over the sciences class [mathematics, Khmer literature, physics, chemistry, biology, history and a foreign language].
Over the past three years, the social sciences class has had a pass rate of more than 80 per cent, while the pass rate for the sciences class has remained at just over 50 per cent.
A dramatic increase in the number of candidates taking the social sciences class has been seen over the past five years.
The increase in the number of students taking the social sciences class has seen an 18-fold increase, from 2,492 in 2014 to 45,002 in 2018 (Ministry of Education), while those studying the science class has remained at around 30,000.
It suggests that students who chose science were afraid to fail and switched to the social sciences class.
The Ministry of Education has not issued the number of students who took the sciences and social sciences classes last year.
Perhaps the ministry does not wish to overload its social sciences classes.
Even the Ministry of Education’s annual congress report for 2017-18 and its plans for 2018-2019 released in March included exam pass rates but didn’t mention the results in the science and social science classes.
The nationwide shift towards students taking the social sciences class also raises the question of whether the Ministry of Education has lowered the standards for the exams or intends to limit the higher number of passing candidates in the social sciences.
But this situation does not reflect the overall vision of the government, with the Ministry of Education encouraging students to study the sciences, which includes supporting information and communications technology (ICT); E-learning and English in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (E2STEM); STEM exhibitions and competitions; the formation of the Cambodian Science Committee for doctorate-level research; and the establishment of the science doctorate graduate school.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has also recently criticised students rushing to study management instead of STEM and the medical sciences.
Despite the commitment to promote STEM education, the Ministry of Education is still facing a lack of science equipment and digital technology at state schools, as well as the suitable toys to get children interested in science, while these are readily available at private international schools across Phnom Penh.
Even if there are more STEM graduates, however, the job market remains limited, which means only the cleverest can find the right jobs, while the rest look for work in the social or business sectors to make ends meet.
Nonetheless, there have been notable achievements in the drive towards Industry 4.0 – students at the Preah Kossomak Polytechnic Institute in Phnom Penh have created a robot that can move and speak both Khmer and English, while a young Cambodian-Canadian, Richard Yim, has built a demining machine called “Life”, which is undergoing field tests.
With regards to foreign investment and operations in science, technology and construction in Cambodia, many foreign engineers do not intend to transfer knowledge and skills to Cambodians, despite their potential to catch up if given the opportunity.
If this situation is not rectified, it will reflect a saying in Khmer “Cambodians only pass the veget-ables, meat and the knife to foreigners to cook the food.”
This issue is not restricted to Cambodia but affects a number of Asean countries.
In China, companies that invest there are required to transfer technology to Chinese experts.
The Cambodian government should adopt similar practices to strengthen the STEM industry here.
At the same time, the Ministry of Education should rebalance the intake of the sciences and social sciences classes to prepare the Kingdom for Industry 4.0.
Tong Soprach is a social affairs columnist for The Post’s Khmer edition. Comments: [email protected].