Cambodia’s higher education dreams confront reality

Posted by: | Posted on: October 5, 2008

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — She has two years to go until graduation, but already Cambodian student Chhum Savorn is filled with a sense of dread.

The 21-year-old decided to major in finance, hoping she would acquire skills to help develop her country, which is one of the poorest in the world.

Instead, she thinks her education is nearly worthless — classes are mostly packed with indifferent, cheating students and led by under-qualified professors.

“The low quality of my studies means that I can’t help the country, and I’ll even have a hard time getting a job that pays enough to help my family,” she says.

A growing number of eager young Cambodians are finding themselves duped into a higher education system that suffers from weak management and teaching because it is geared more toward profit than learning.

As a result only one in ten recent graduates are finding work, a worrying figure in a country trying to rebuild after decades of civil war.

Cambodia’s schools were obliterated under Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s when the regime killed nearly two million people — including most of the country’s intellectuals — as it emptied cities in its bid to forge a Communist utopia.

But as the country rebuilds and the economy grows, it is inundated with institutions peddling low-quality education.

In 2000, there were ten post-secondary institutions in Cambodia. Now there are 70 private and state-run universities.

Most programs offered by those institutions are dismal, says Mak Ngoy, deputy director general of higher education at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.

“We are not yet satisfied with the current quality of our education,” Mak Ngoy says.

“I think increasing the number of higher education institutions is a positive sign, but we are struggling with the hard task of strengthening quality,” he adds.

Qualified university professors complain that many students rarely do their work and cheating is rampant.

A number of students are content to pay for a degree and do not realise the benefit of a good education, says Lav Chhiv Eav, rector of Royal University of Phnom Penh, the oldest and largest state-owned college.

“Some students are scared of studying hard and think what they need is any degree, not quality. The final result will be joblessness,” he says.

Most of Cambodia’s universities are small-scale institutions with limited of capital, poor facilities and little discipline.

So far, the education ministry has ordered the closing of four institutions that called themselves universities, but gave little education to students.

Five years ago there was an attempt to fix Cambodia’s higher education institutions, with the formation of a national university accreditation committee.

The committee was formed to force institutions to adhere to strict education requirements, but the World Bank pulled its funding for the scheme when it became clear the body would not be independent from government control.

With little official oversight, the quality of many Cambodian universities has worsened, while the number of Cambodians seeking a diploma has shot up.

More than 135,000 Cambodians are currently enrolled in some form of higher education, says the education ministry, compared to just 25,000 eight years ago.

But only one in 10 recent university graduates have found work, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, as the country remains mired in poverty despite the double-digit economic growth.

Ma Sopheap, officer at the Asian Development Bank, says Cambodia will have trouble luring foreign investment if it does not start producing more qualified graduates.

“If the low quality of higher education continues, it will affect Cambodia’s economic development,” he says. “Then there is no way to reduce poverty.”

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