‘Tis the season to be cheating
High school students gather outside a Phnom Penh copy shop in the middle of the night, waiting to make copies of a pilfered final exam, in this photo taken in July 2007. With this year’s exams only a few weeks away, rampant cheating is again a concern. Australian teacher Marg Froude said that despite the strict standards she demands in her English lessons at the Australian Center for Education, all of her students have openly admitted to her that they cheat in other classes. “It’s giving them a false sense of what they know and the country a false sense of what their graduates are capable of,” she said. “How can you hire someone with a qualification when they are not required to learn anything to gain it?”
Rising private investment in Cambodian higher education is leaving quality behind, warns a top Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport official, as some school administrators increasingly view their institutions as profit machines rather than places of learning.
Chea Se, undersecretary of state of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, told the Post on June 9 that the ministry has ordered the closing of unaccredited and undercapitalized institutions calling themselves universities, despite lax standards concerning class size, equipment, and curriculum.
“It can’t be called a university if it’s just a class taking place in a flat,” said Se.
A number of entrepreneurs have begun by operating a primary or secondary school and then tried to graduate to establishing a university, he said.
Ministry officials have inspected many private universities in Phnom Penh and ended up ordering the closure of a number found to have been unlicensed and unaccredited.
The Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC) was established under the ministry in 2003 to evaluate institutions of higher education according to strict requirements for capital, enrollment, facilities and equipment, curriculum and qualifications of faculty and administrators.
Over 70 private and state-owned universities are currently operating in Cambodia, including some invested in or supported by political leaders.
“I think competition in higher education is a good idea, but investors must also pay attention to quality,” said Se.
It can’t be called
a university if it’s just a class taking place in a flat.
– Chea Se, Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport
Higher education, including both state-owned and private universities, needs to be reformed in terms of capital and enrollment requirements to ensure that institutions are turning out qualified graduates, said Chan Sokheang, the head of Norton University.
“I agree with some of the criticisms from domestic and international organizations about low educational standards,” Sokheang said, adding that investment in education must look to the quality of graduates and whether they meet the needs of the job market.
He strongly criticized some small-scale universities that have attempted to attract students to register with promotional gimmicks like a cap, a t-shirt, a hamburger, or a lottery ticket.
“It’s not right,” he said. “The right thing is to attract students with clear information on degree programs and curricula.”
The Higher Education Association and the ACC are the two institutions which measure quality of educational institutions.
However, meeting the minimum requirements of the ACC for establishing a university in Cambodia has not always been a difficult task.
A decade ago, founding a private university required capital of $100,000 to $200,000, said Sokheang.
That figure has now been raised to $1 million, and the ACC has stated its intention to place stricter requirements on private universities.
Capital investment requirements would soon climb to $2 or $3 million, reaching $10 million over the next ten years.
Without stricter requirements, Sokheang warned, domestic private education was destined to lose competitive advantage to foreign institutions.
“Ten years ago, employers would readily hire graduates of domestic universities, but today these graduates are facing strong competition from students who have studied abroad,” he said.
Economist Kang Chandararot said promoting investment in the educational sector was necessary, but school curricula needed to be matched to the demands of the job market.
“I have not seen many universities that have co-operated with private enterprise to promote the future employability of their students,” said Chandararot.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, was even more critical, saying that private and state-owned universities generally were operating to take money from poor students who were ill-equipped to evaluate the qualifications of each university.
The government also needed programs to help graduates find jobs, Chhun added.
“Investment in educating human resources has to be quality-first,” he said. “Society will face a major challenge if the low quality of higher education continues.”