Concern over higher education quality as ASEAN community looms

Veterinary student Kong Sokhom (20) from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh still has two years to go until he graduates from Preak Leap National School of Agriculture. But he is filled with uncertainty about his future.

Sokhom opted for veterinary science hoping to acquire high-level skills to help develop his country, one of the poorest nations in South East Asia.

But he regards his education as almost worthless. The classes are packed with students who do not want to work hard, he said, and he regards his teachers as “under-qualified”.

“When I graduate, I don’t really know what I can do with the degree that I’ll get from this university, as I know the education quality is quite low,” said Sokhom grimly.

Every year Cambodia produces hundreds of thousands of graduates like Sokhom who are unfit for the job they have trained for, experts say. There is a big gap between subjects studied at university and workforce skills needed.

According to Chea Vannath, a sociologist and independent researcher, Cambodian graduates also find it hard to land jobs within their field of study.

Only one in 10 graduates finds work, according to figures from the Economic Institute of Cambodia. It is a worrying statistic for a country that has struggled to rebuild its economy and image three decades after a civil war that destroyed its financial, educational and justice systems.

“It creates a daunting challenge for Cambodia, which remains poor,” Vannath said.

ASEAN community looms

The problem could become more acute as Cambodia becomes part of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) community by 2015, when workers from ASEAN countries will have full mobility within the region.

The other ASEAN countries are Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Apart from Laos and Myanmar – the latter is facing similar problems – all are far more developed than Cambodia.

When ASEAN leaders announced the ASEAN Economic Community with free movement of goods, services, investment, and skilled labour, and freer flow of capital, by 2015, many Cambodians expressed concern about competing with highly skilled ASEAN citizens who might come to the country for work.

With poor curricula and facilities for teachers and students alike, local experts worry that Cambodians will not be able to take advantage of ASEAN community opportunities.

According to Sambo Manara, a professor of history and culture at various public and private universities, young Cambodians “are among the least skilled young people in the South East Asian region.

“As part of the ASEAN community, Cambodia will have to open its market to people from other ASEAN countries who have better skills and attract more employers and investors into the country.”

A long way to go

Cambodia has a very long way to go to catch up with its neighbours.

“Despite rises in productivity, the overall output level per worker remains low in comparison with other ASEAN countries. Raising productivity levels within Cambodia is vital if the country is to remain competitive in relation to its ASEAN neighbours,” according to the International Labour Organization.

Ministry of Youth and Sport surveys have found that a staggering 94% of the youth labour force has not completed secondary education – a major obstacle to ensuring gainful and productive work. And as recently as 2000, an estimated 63% of the adult population, 6.5 million people, were functionally illiterate.

Although education funding has improved in recent years, the overwhelming obstacle to increasing education levels is still financial.

“Looking at all the challenges that our education system has faced, I don’t think we’re going anywhere soon if we don’t take action right now,” Dr Van Chanpheng, deputy director general of higher education at the Ministry of Education, told University World News.

Young Cambodians ‘deserve more’

“Increased skill acquisition will help increase productivity that allows for higher wages and purchasing power. It will help young Cambodians, who deserve more,” Van added.

While the country has 20 public universities and nearly 30 private ones, the ministry has said that only around 150,000 students are currently enrolled in higher education, or some 10% of the age cohort.

Sambo Manara argues that higher education in Cambodia has improved over the past five years, with a few new, private universities providing a more appropriate curriculum for students. However, he said, there are still many universities interested only in profit, not quality.

At the education ministry, Van admitted that the education system needs improvement. “More university teachers need to be trained,” he said. The latest figure from the ministry's higher education section shows there are only 2,000 PhD holders in Phnom Penh.

“What can be done in the short term is to create more vocational training for more Cambodian adults. But it is easier said than done – we have seen people unwilling to learn more as they have to keep working.”

Quality is a concern

Five years ago there was an attempt by the World Bank to improve the quality of Cambodia's higher education institutions, with the formation of a national university accreditation committee.

The committee was created to force institutions to adhere to strict education requirements and quality. But the World Bank pulled funding for the scheme when it emerged that the new body would not be independent of government control.

Sambo told University World News that many Cambodian universities needed to improve significantly – lectures are inadequate, and the education system in rural Cambodia has been totally neglected.

Rural education is a daunting challenge. Many people drop out of school as facilities are poor and often far from home. Teachers are not well trained and, compared to other professions, are low paid, causing them to moonlight and pay too little attention to teaching.

“Cambodia is still developing its own education system and cooperating with other countries to develop better educational standards,” said Sambo.

Van added: “Before we develop anything else, don’t forget [we need] to provide the best education possible to young Cambodians, as this is the only way to raise Cambodia out of poverty.”