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STEM-ing the tide of business degrees

Students attending Cambodia’s first science and engineering fest
Students attending Cambodia’s first science and engineering fest. KIM MCCOSKER

STEM-ing the tide of business degrees

Experts want to encourage the Kingdom’s students to study more science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Cambodia’s first national science and engineering festival was held this week in a bid to tackle a longstanding hurdle to the Kingdom’s economic development: getting youth interested in science-based education.

“We’re here because we all believe that Cambodia, to move into the future, needs STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] professionals,” said the conference’s founder, Allen Tan, speaking from the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s vast assembly hall yesterday.

With close to half of Cambodia’s 220,000 university students currently enrolled in business-related fields, educational output is at odds with the government’s desire to encourage growth in industries like electronics assembly.

“At present, Cambodia’s economic growth depends on traditional sectors such as garments, tourism, construction and agriculture sectors,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said at the 2015 Cambodia Outlook Conference in Phnom Penh last week while launching Cambodia’s new Industrial Development Policy.

“This indicates it is necessary and urgent to diversify into new sectors, especially industry, agro-industry and handicraft, which require massive investment.”

Data from the World Bank’s East Asia Pacific at Work study from 2014 shows that less than 6 per cent of Cambodian university students were enrolled in any kind of scientific major – such as biology or engineering – while 46 per cent studied accounting, finance or management.

That poses a significant challenge for the Kingdom as it works towards the goals set out in its Industrial Development Policy, which was approved by the Council of Ministers last week.

Under the policy, Cambodia’s industrial sector aims to make up 30 per cent of gross domestic product by 2025, up from 24.1 per cent in 2013.

But to achieve this, Cambodia needs to diversify its export base from garments into light manufacturing, electronics, food processing and other sectors that require higher-skilled, better-educated workers.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

In a first step towards this last month, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport stopped providing licences for new business courses at universities to curb the oversupply of business students.

“They can improve quality instead,” said ministry spokesman Ros Salin.

But merely restraining the amount of business students isn’t enough for Cambodia to increase the share of non-garment exports to 15 per cent of the country’s total by 2025, in line with the IDP.

While the education ministry plans to build three more vocational schools and is investing in early science education and research, a lack of funding means the government is looking to partner with the private sector for help, said Salin.

Japanese electronics assembly giant Mineabea, which has now grown to 7,000 employees at the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone, and Singapore oil firm KrisEnergy, which recently bought out Chevron’s stake in Block A, are two firms building training facilities to improve educational output, Salin added.

“The challenge is investment,” Salin said.

Back at the festival, there were 3,000 attendees and more than 40 exhibitors on the first day, with many striking a similar note of concern at Cambodia’s lack of scientific development.

Leng Oudom is a civil engineer and technical officer at the National Biodigester Programme, a government program that helps farmers convert manure to biogas and one of the exhibitors at the conference.

Oudom said students were not interested in engineering because “they think it is too difficult” and the “finances are bad”, although he cited Phnom Penh’s growing skyline as a source of opportunity for budding engineers.

“In Phnom Penh, they are starting to build high-rise buildings now,” he said, referencing the massive and unfinished Gold Tower 42 on Monivong Boulevard and the satellite city dubbed Camko City in Tuol Kork.

Conference founder Allen Tan cited ASEAN integration as a driving reason to take on Cambodia’s “immense human resource challenge.”

Tan said that in the future, factories coming to Cambodia could hire Cambodian engineers to oversee operations, instead of foreign ones.

“Cambodian engineers can compete, [but] still get a lower salary,” he said.

Jayant Menon, lead economist of the Asian Development Bank’s office of regional economic integration in Manila, said that, in the short-term, the AEC could provide an opportunity for Cambodia to fill its skills gap by making it easier to hire better-trained engineers from the region.

However, he said that any short-term benefits would need to be made up for with considerable investments.

“In the long term, [Cambodia] needs to increase investment in human capital, by sending more students to quality institutions abroad while simultaneously improving the quality of training at home,” he said.

Kem Oeun, director of the Cambodia Japan Cooperation Center, said many students lacked proper orientation and went into business merely trying to “be somebody.”

In past workshops with the Ministry of Education, Oeun has pushed for students to choose their majors more wisely.

“Employers are always complaining about students lacking honesty, communication, sometimes even basic maths,” he told the Post after one such workshop last year.

“If the ministry takes on reforms, [the students] must catch up.”

Ki Chong Tran, a Chinese-Cambodian-American entrepreneur and director of Cambodia’s first 3D modelling firm, Arc Hub PNH, said that coming back to Cambodia made him see the reality of technical education in the Kingdom.

“Infrastructure and education-wise, these public schools are bare-bones,” he said, speaking from the firm’s booth.

Long-awaited education reforms were just the beginning, he said, and for students and their families who believed that business was still the way forward, change would need to come from the household too.

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