Cambodia has had a turbulent past, which has included many dramatic transitions. Several of these transitions have had serious implications for education. However, education activities were revived during the 1980s and have taken a new direction since the early 1990s. Over the last decade, higher education in Cambodia has witnessed phenomenal expansion due to the increasing attention given to it by both the government and the private sector.
This makes it a good location for the recent conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning, or ASAIHL, held in December. Organised by Build Bright University in Siem Reap, the main focus was on access and excellence. Both are very relevant to the development of higher education in Cambodia.
There are 110 higher education institutions, or HEIs, in Cambodia, under the supervision of 14 different ministries, among which 44 (40%) are public HEIs. In 2013-14, around 250,000 students were enrolled in HEIs. The gross enrolment ratio, or GER, has increased from 1.4% in 1998 to 11.1% in 2008, and then to 15% in 2014.
As the Cambodian economy has shifted from basic agriculture and services to higher value-added manufacturing and service sectors, the government recognises the need for more tertiary-educated workers and is looking to increase access and enhance the quality of higher education through various projects, programmes and mechanisms.
One way is through the gradual internationalisation of higher education, mainly via the development of online courses, student mobility, the establishment of branch campuses of foreign universities and the presence of foreign teaching staff. Currently, around 1,000 Cambodian students are studying abroad at tertiary education level and some 152 foreign students have been studying in Cambodia.
Another way is through the introduction of research capacity and the provision of research grants through the Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project, or HEQCIP.
Challenges in Cambodia
Build Bright University is one of the leading universities in Cambodia, having eight campuses in different parts of the country. From humble beginnings in 2002, it currently has more than 35,000 students pursuing studies, both in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes including doctoral programmes.
The university, a beneficiary of HEQCIP, has been working to broaden access to its courses and is constantly involved in the development as well as improvement of curricula in all programmes. To support this it has hired qualified international teaching staff and aims to provide a conducive environment to carry out both in-house research and research for external publications.
Higher education in Cambodia faces several challenges and Build Bright University is not an exception to this, but it is ambitious in its aim to overcome them.
At the conference, Minister of Education, Youth and Sport of the Royal Government of Cambodia, Dr Hang Chuon Naron, outlined some of the challenges facing HEIs in Cambodia.
He said that Cambodia compares unfavourably with other ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations –countries in terms of the proportion of teaching staff with high academic qualifications. Only 12% of Cambodian academic staff currently have a PhD, while more than 80% have a masters degree.
To address this, both public and private HEIs have partnered with overseas universities or have invited foreign academic staff members to share their skills and expertise, either through teaching in Cambodian universities or through the development of joint courses.
Another challenge is the low level of public spending on tertiary education in Cambodia. It is around 0.58% of gross domestic product, or GDP. The bulk of financing for higher education comes from private sources, principally student fees and levies. In addition, Hang Chuon Naron highlighted “a significant mismatch of skills between those gained by the majority of graduates and those needed to meet the needs of economic growth”.
For this reason, he said, the government has embarked, since 2013, on reforms to improve the quality of higher education through accreditation and increasing internationalisation of the higher education system by introducing foreign university programmes and twinning arrangements of Cambodian HEIs with foreign universities, as well as a policy to allow foreign universities to establish branch campuses in Cambodia.
In terms of accreditation, a National Standard for Accreditation of Higher Education Institutions was adopted in January 2015. There are nine standards including governance and management and internal quality assurance. These have 73 indicators in total.
In 2015, the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia fully evaluated six universities, including Build Bright University, and plans to evaluate five more. The aim is to enhance the quality of education and enable parents and students to gain information in selecting institutions and courses.
Internationalisation includes measures to promote twinning partnerships, dual degree recognition and public university autonomy. Cambodia recently adopted the Higher Education Vision 2030 to set long-term goals and implementation strategies for the sector.
To implement reform programmes, proposals for reforms are grouped into eight thematic areas, including rethinking the relationship between secondary and higher education and preparing for the integration of Cambodia's higher education into the ASEAN Economic Community.
The minister concluded that high quality and excellence in education should be at the core of programmes offered by HEIs and that this required effective teaching methods, research and technological innovation.
Dr In Viracheat, chairman of Build Bright University, argued for the removal of any barriers which might prevent the creation of equitable and effective systems of student support for those who would otherwise be deprived of access to higher education.
He further emphasised the need to provide opportunities for higher learning and lifelong learning that give learners more choice and flexibility over when and how they enter and exit the education system. He added that accessibility needed to be balanced against financial concerns and the importance of improving the quality of education provided.
As Hang Chuon Naron stated, internationalisation is tied to quality issues and speakers addressed challenges in this area too. Professor NV Varghese from the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India, spoke about four modes of trade in education: cross-border mobility of programmes, students, institutions and teachers.
He said globalisation had made education a tradable commodity, but that the new providers of higher education were more often investors rather than educators and that the profit motive had resulted in corrupt and fraudulent practices. This meant there was a need to strengthen quality assurance mechanisms and regulatory arrangements to protect students and provide them with quality education.
Emerita Professor Elspeth Jones from Leeds Beckett University in England added that in the present globalised world, the internationalisation of higher education is no longer optional but vital for institutional quality.
She said global rankings, research collaboration, international partnerships and networks, the number of international staff or mobile students had little value unless they were really making a difference for students and giving them the skills they needed.
Jones said internationalised learning outcomes were crucial in the curriculum of all students, whether or not they took part in a mobility experience, and they enhanced the quality of higher education as they offered an external measure of quality and were the foundation for internationalising the curriculum.
Other speakers at the conference spoke about the role of technology in improving access to quality education in the Southeast Asian region.
Graeme M Coomber, the founder of online education platform EdTrin, said high delivery costs, high demand – especially in emerging nations – new technologies, the penetration of mobile devices and the delivery infrastructure provided by the internet are now the prime drivers for the dramatic changes in the global education and training industry.
He said that besides teaching more students in an efficient way at a lower cost, it is now possible to expand educational reach throughout regional communities and provide educational and training programmes to contribute to real and sustainable economic growth.
Conferences like the ASAIHL conference offer the chance to get both an international and regional perspective on the challenges facing higher education. Its purpose is to assist member institutions to strengthen themselves through mutual self-help and achieve international distinction in teaching, research and public service.
It also fosters the development of HEIs, the cultivation of a sense of regional identity and interdependence and liaison with other regional and international organisations concerned with research and teaching.
Today, the technological revolution has brought unbelievable changes in the way we live and lead our lives and changing demands on higher education. HEIs, and particularly higher education administrators, teachers and researchers, need to understand the real expectations of learners for quality academic programmes, teaching and research which benefit the wider society.
Professor Tapas R Dash is vice-president, postgraduate studies and research at Build Bright University, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Business and Development Research. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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