by Shane Worrell with additional reporting by Chhay Channyda
Corruption, funding shortages and an obsession with profit are plaguing the quality of university education in Cambodia, students say, driving them overseas in search of master’s and Ph.D. programs.
If the government hopes to keep its best and brightest at home, it must resolve these issues and build a world-class university system from within, said Sim Socheata, one of three Cambodians on scholarship at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who spoke about their frustrations with Cambodian education.
“It is time for Cambodians to start researching, analysing, drawing conclusions and suggesting what needs to be done . . . Up until now, this has been largely left to external advisers,” said the 29-year-old, who is studying for her master’s in public health.
Obstacles hindering Cambodia’s higher education system include low salaries for teachers – which force them into second jobs – a lack of materials and equipment and a “mushrooming” of the private system, which has encouraged a focus on profit over quality, and flooded the labor market with graduates who can’t find work in their field, she said.
Men Nimmith, 42, moved to Australia to study for a Ph.D. in law in a quest to do the “bigger and better things” he believes are impossible with only a Cambodian degree.
“Higher education in Cambodia has lower quality and very limited facilities. For example, poor library and teaching/learning techniques,” he said.
But Cambodian students suffer not because the government cannot afford to properly fund education, but because it chooses not to, he said.
“[The government is] spending too little on the education sector, and too much on the military,” he said, adding that rampant corruption also takes a toll.
In the place of quality learning, a system of “ceremonial education”, in which bribes are paid for degrees, is flourishing, Men Nimmith said.
“It is dangerous that several of the universities are very powerful and active in selling diplomas. It is frightening,” he said, declining to name specific universities.
Mak Ngoy, director general of higher education at the Ministry of Education, denies such corruption exists and said such beliefs have arisen from “confusion”.
“There is no such issue. Those who don’t study or go to school, we will not give degrees. There is no buying of degrees in Cambodia,” he said.
“The concept of private university tuition fees started in 1997. So it’s not buying a degree. It is just a study tuition fee. People may be confused by this.”
Khim Keovathanak, 37, from Phnom Penh, is studying for a Ph.D. in health systems in Melbourne and spends his holiday teaching at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Cambodia’s system lacks rules, regulations and uniformity, which results in students not being taught “the basics” of university, such as meeting deadlines and avoiding plagiarism, he said.
“The teachers are being constrained in terms of doing their job properly. They are not being paid enough and are in environments not conducive to their work,” he said. “They have to provide for a family, so they have to do other jobs.”
The UNDP-funded Human Capital Report, released in August, voices similar concerns.
“In most cases, students graduating from university with degrees in management, accounting and business administration were found to be lacking in the essential skills and practical experience required for employment in the field for which they were supposed to be qualified,” the report says.
Scoping Study: Research Capacities of Cambodia’s Universities, commissioned by the Development Research Forum in Cambodia and released last year, examines 15 universities, public and private, and concludes that research is lacking, due partly to a “missing generation of academics in the immediate post-conflict era”, but exacerbated by inadequate funding and professional development of staff.
“There is a relative absence of any government budget allocation for research activities in public universities,” it said. “Salaries remain low [and] lecturers tend to take up part-time teaching at a number of other institutions.”
The report recommends universities develop research, form partnerships with civil society groups, state agencies and the private sector, and establish long-term goals.
Mak Ngoy cannot say how much money the government invests in education because he is “not in charge of it,” but he defends the funding put into universities.
“The education sector receives much more than other sectors. I have no figure, but I know it’s a lot . . . We (also) have support from donors and development partners.
“The Cambodian government regards the education sector as a priority and always increases money for it from one year to another,” he said.
Public university teachers earn at least US$100 per month plus between $2.30 for each hour of actual teaching, but if their universities offer additional private classes, teachers can earn more than $500 per month, Mak Ngoy said.
As to why teachers are taking second or third jobs, “it’s better to ask them.”
Cambodia’s higher education sector, which comprises 97 institutions, 38 of them public, has come a long way since the 1990s, when only students who won scholarships could study, Mak Ngoy said.
“We did not have full peace until 1998. So we have had 13 years to build the education system, and we have seen an increase in both quality and quantity.”
About 10 employers, including phone companies, NGOs and banks, said experience is the most important thing they look for in jobseekers, followed by education.
One Phnom Penh-based technology company told the Post it prefers graduates who have studied in other countries, preferably Japan, the US or Australia, because they have “more advanced skills”.
However, this is not something the company mentions in job descriptions or interviews, so it asked not to be named.
Mak Ngoy acknowledges that many students want to study in countries such as Japan and Australia.
“[But these] are developed countries, so development means that everything is better, including the education system. [However] paying to study at university here is not too expensive, [and] we give more than 5,000 students per year a scholarship.”
Ek Tha, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the Council of Ministers, said the government is looking to countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia for ways to improve.
“Those governments heavily invest in education, and this is why Cambodia wants to improve its quality of education by calling for investment in education. We want our children and students to obtain higher education [here] like students overseas.”
While Cambodia’s students wait for this change, Sim Socheata said they also need to take responsibility for their learning.
“How serious do Cambodian students commit to reading books other than the required course books?” she asked.
“We need to promote the culture of reading among our generations, as through reading we begin to acquire broader knowledge outside what we learn through the system.”