Three decades after the darkest years of the civil war, the educational system in Cambodia
continues to be plagued by bribery, cheating, low wages and funding, and expensive schools
By Diana Saw
Among students from the poorest 20 percent of the population, education costs represent 79 percent of their per capita non-food expenditure, according to a 2005 study by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and UNICEF. Though the government has steadily increased the education budget as a part of total government spending during to 12.4 percent in 2007, according to UNESCO, households, donors, and NGOs still provide much of total financing for education in Cambodia. According to the UNICEF study, there are some 113 organisations that support 223
education projects in Cambodia, at an estimated cost of US$225 million from 2003 to 2008. Efforts by the Cambodian government to improve education in the country should be recognised, but the work has been inconsistent and greeted with mixed results. So while literacy rates have increased from 62.8 percent in 1998 to 77.59 percent in 2008 (according to government census figures), there was little growth in adult literacy in the period from 2001 to 2006. And though school enrollment across all levels has also gone up, to 92 percent, completion rates are still low. DIANA SAW
Cambodia’s education system is plagued by a range of detrimental factors including an absence of suitably qualified or trained staff, rampant corruption and a lack of morale among low-paid teaching staff coupled with the high cost of schooling.
The starting salary for primary school teachers in the cities is US$30 per month. High school teachers are paid between $50 and $60. These low salary figures in state schools fail to attract quality educators, which has resulted in a vicious cycle of uninterested teachers and hapless students. Educators are saddled with the burden of inadequate resources and a shortage of schools and classrooms, particularly in rural areas, limiting the number of children with access to basic education. Schools often have to be content with poorly trained teachers and little government funding, resulting in insufficient teaching materials and poorly furnished school facilities.
Low compensation forces teachers to collect informal school fees from students, creating a barrier to education for poor children. To supplement their income, teachers offer extra, after-school classes for a fee. Often, teachers will withhold the standard syllabi during school hours, reserving them for the private classes, to place pressure on parents to pay the extra tuition. Students who cannot afford, or who refuse to pay, risk humiliation, failing their exams, repeating their grade or dropping out of school. Although collecting fees is officially banned by the Education Ministry, the practice remains widespread. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, Cambodian students have long admitted that examinations go hand in hand with money. It still costs around US $2,000 or $3,000 for someone to get into a school of law.
Phnom Penh-based NGO Riverkids provides free education for children at risk of being trafficked. Founder Dale Edmonds describes a recent visit to a primary school that most of the children attend: “The bathrooms have been broken for a long time, and the director admitted that they had the funds to repair it, but they had kept them instead. We offered to repair the bathrooms in exchange for a discount on the unofficial daily school fees for our children, but they’d rather collect more bribes. The school is slowly falling apart, and the last time I saw the senior staff, I counted the number of gold rings on their hands.”
Wealthier parents more concerned with their child’s grades see an opportunity to exploit the system, offering to pay for school repairs or building projects, or giving gifts to teachers and principals in exchange for passes or high grades. Parents and others share their complaints over the customs that have been practised for years in this country – corruption that leads to poor delivery of real education.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, has openly criticised the government over poor management and open corruption in education. Rong Chhun added that the trading of scores for cash has gone on openly since 2001, in which student scores from two semesters are added into their final examinations in the ninth and 12th grades.
Because of this growing corruption, there are a considerable number of undergraduate students who clearly do not deserve a place in the universities. Debby Adams teaches English to second- and third-year-level students at Cambodian Mekong University (CMU), a private institution. “One-third of my students can barely speak English,” she says. “Another third are extremely brilliant students who would excel in any country. My challenge is how to help these top students and not leave the others behind.”
It seems that often there is no incentive for students to study as hard as they should in order to pass their examinations. “There is a reluctance to fail students, as failing students mean dealing with confrontational parents who put the blame on the teacher. It also means extra remedial classes. It’s just easier to let them pass,” says Adams.
Impressive statistics [see sidebar] mask a grimmer reality. Academic credentials may not be closely linked to the laurels of political and economic success. However, the culture of corruption, underachievement and worthless paper qualifications is something Cambodia cannot afford or it risks the inevitability of its neighbouring countries’ pulling further ahead of it in development.
Diana Saw manages Bloom Cambodia, aiming to build a successful social enterprise making trade fair through fair wages and fair prices. Bloom Cambodia makes consumer products such as rice bags with recycled materials.