Increasingly qualified graduates and growing job opportunities has caused organisations to rethink and rework Cambodia’s methods of higher education
As Cambodia witnesses a surge in recruitment and manpower amid a rapidly globalising economy, there is a demand to fill the talent void left by decades of civil war and intellectual genocide. Yet the graduates and employees that are churned out by the education system are often not of adequate quality to meet domestic demands.
The availability of higher-education opportunities in Cambodia has developed exponentitally due to the government’s licensing of private universities and the price hike for fee-paying students at national universities. However, the growth, driven by the expansion of middle- and upper-class families willing to invest in post-secondary education, has been largely left unsupervised, and many graduates are left with a degree but lacking the skills or know-how of applying them.
Cambodia’s Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have seen significant improvements. However, measures needed to make institutions and students internationally recognised and advanced are emerging slowly.
Quality: a new concept
In 1997, Norton University became the first Private Higher Education Institute (PHEI) to register with the government. Since then, 45 PHEIs have opened their doors to high school graduates in 19 provinces.
“It has been rather easy to get a licence from the government since they opened the market to private universities,” said Ich Seng, who is the chancellor of Cambodian Mekong University. “But a screening process hasn’t been built to ensure these schools are working on educating students.”
The Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC), an educational quality assurance organisation founded in 2003 under the supervision of the Council of Ministers, has been working on a watchdog body regulating HEIs.
With financial support and supervision from the World Bank and strategic international partnerships with the Asia Pacific QualityNetwork, the ACC is responsible for creating guidelines that institutions must follow before they confer certifications.
Their initial project, a foundational review of the first year of academic programmes at each of the 65 registered HEIs, was met with resistance when it began in 2005. “The idea of accountability was very new,” said Pen Sithol, who is the director of the department of standards and accreditation which oversees the ACC. “Many people didn’t understand what quality in education really meant.”
HEIs must meet 50 percent of indicators to receive provisional accreditation and 70 percent for full accreditation, with reviews every three years. The schools are graded on their academic programmes and staff, management expertise and accountability, student involvement as well as facilities and technology.
While the ACC relies on private assessors, each with a masters degree and five years of experience in higher education, to conduct the assessments and submit reports, action is ultimately taken by the board of directors, which is made up of five government officials.
The World Bank and other international partners have encouraged the council of ministers to make the ACC fully independent from the government, but it is yet to happen. “Hopefully, when we reach a certain stage of development of higher education, the government will change their mind or at least think again,” said Ich Seng, who is also an assessor for ACC.
The foundation year review, conducted over four years from 2005-09, was a wake-up call for many universities and a death knell for others. The Institute of Management and Science, Wanlan University and the Institute of Cambodia all closed after they met less than 50 percent of the ACCs foundation year standards. Two other schools, City University in Phnom Penh and Khemarak University in Battambang, continue to operate despite failing to receive ACC accreditation.
Beginning this year, the ACC and the World Bank will begin building criteria for full institutional assessment, with an emphasis on student evaluation methods. “We didn’t think schools were ready for a complete assessment,” explained Pen Sithol. “But now they are beginning to understand what quality means.”
The vast expansion of Cambodia’s HEIs in combination with raised standards for academics has led to fierce competition for financial resources, usually in the form of tuition from upper-middle class students, in order to hire qualified professors, pay for adequate facilities and invest in curriculum development.
Across the board, the acceptance rate of students with a high school degree and the ability to pay the yearly tuition is 100 percent in undergraduate programs, and the standards demands placed on these students are notoriously low.
“At many universities, students pass classes without qualifications.
“It is more important that they remain at the school,” said Kieng Rotana, vice chancellor at Panasastra University. And the mad dash for more students has led to complications at government institutions as well.
In September, over-enrolment at the University of Health and Science led university officials to alter their usual practice of allowing students to repeat academic courses which they have failed. When repetition was not offered as an option, the students began protests that went on for days.
“Many students believe that if they continue to pay, they can continue to study,” said Ich Seng. “But we are trying to change that.”