Corruption monitors and armed patrols – It must be exam time

A year ago, with a mandate to reform a severely flawed education system that produced university graduates who had paid for – rather than studied for – their grades, Cambodia’s Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron went straight to its heart: the university entrance exam.

“When I was appointed, I needed to address the issues: the skills mismatch and the exam system,” said Naron, who became education minister in 2013.

Cambodia’s national university entrance exam – long plagued with allegations of bribery, corruption and cheating – was cleaned up. But it took police armed with AK-47s patrolling exam centres, candidates being frisked on arrival, and the powerful Anti-Corruption Unit, which usually deals with the country’s most high-profile scandals, sending monitors to each exam room. Prison sentences were also threatened – for both students and proctors.

During the exam that took place on 24-25 August this year, there was only one arrest – of a boy who attempted to sit the test in place of his adult brother – compared to 20 arrests the previous year of proctors and exam candidates. These included one teenager who stabbed an observer with a pen.

The annual exam, which dictates university placements for the 80,000-odd students graduating from high school each year, has seen a pass rate of up to 86% in the past 10 years, with students commonly obtaining leaked test papers or answer sheets and then paying teachers to turn a blind eye to cheating.

“It became chaotic,” Naron told University World News in an interview last week. “The answers were for sale at the market.”

Despite the changes, many candidates continued to rely on the methods that had worked for those who came before them in the belief that the ministry was pandering to outside observers.

Last year when the results were announced, just 24% of more than 80,000 scored above the 45% pass mark to secure a ticket to university. It was the lowest pass rate in almost two decades.

“I know that some universities were not happy because of the financial impact,” Naron said. “But the situation required drastic action.”

New rules

The class of 2015, who will receive their results on 15-16 September, had a year to get used to the new conditions.

“This year, the students paid attention to the rules and regulations,” Naron said. “I cannot say what percentage will pass, but I can say that, this year, they were much more confident. Last year, they were scared, shocked, when they arrived [at exam centres]. This year they were prepared and smiling.”

The minister said the introduction of drastic reforms was a steep learning curve, not only for candidates, but also for him. After the 2014 exam unfolded – with university intakes significantly reduced – he saw a number of areas where the process had to be improved.

“It was high impact and also very sensitive,” he said of the 2014 reforms. “We took six months to re-strategise.”

In the light of evidence that the 2014 test had been leaked, though on a much smaller scale than in previous years, the team of academics that produced the 2015 version was reduced to just five, and the answers were simply not written down anywhere until after all papers had been turned in. The exams, which had all identification removed and replaced with a serial number, were kept under lock and key until they were handed over to a small, trusted team for marking.

Another key to a smooth process was the healing of relations between the proctors and the Anti-Corruption Unit’s observers, who in 2014 were at loggerheads as the observers aggressively cracked down on cheating, robbing proctors of their annual windfall.

“There was a lot of friction between them, there was conflict,” Naron said.

The ministry centralised the exams, relocating the exam centres to provincial capitals and the capital, Phnom Penh; reversed the practice of having proctors move between provinces to monitor exams; and doubled the stipend they receive, to at least US$50 for the two days, “to reduce the cost for examiners, to reduce the temptation for them to take money from the students”, he said.

And with students now aware that they would have to be academically prepared for the exam, teachers devised their own strategies to cash in on exam season.

Earnings impact

“I can earn US$300 a month teaching extra classes” in the lead up to the exam, said Chhin Chhun, an English teacher and regular exam proctor who, like many others, has seized on the opportunity to help would-be university entrants ahead of the exam. “I just teach English, but teachers who teach subjects like maths can earn about US$1,000 a month,” he said.

The minimum wage, which the majority of teachers earn, is just US$160 a month.

Chhun acknowledged that when the reforms were first introduced, they were unpopular among proctors, who lost out on cash. “Last year the proctors and Anti-Corruption Unit observers did not get along. There were some arguments between them, because the proctors thought that the Unit should not have got involved with the exams, and the observers were ordering the proctors around,” he said.

“Now they understand each other and have learned to work well together. It was a turning point when more students came to take extra lessons.”

Nobody is expecting the pass rate to return to the highs of two years ago, at least not yet, and high schools are still full of students who have paid their way through the majority of their education.

But it will be impossible to pass the university entrance exam without having studied the course material, and now the onus is on universities used to the pay-for-grades system, to lift their standards to satisfy a new cohort of better educated students.

“We did not bother them for one year,” Naron said of the country’s 110 universities. “Now they have to take responsibility for their own human resources. There are qualified students that need qualified teachers – they [the universities] have to do it.”

* Huot Chanpav contributed to this article.