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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cambodia as a player in education

By John O'leary

Universities are set to play a key role in Cambodia’s economic development, national leadership and its move forward in globalisation.

Asian higher education is on the rise and looks set to take the global stage. Global university rankings show this growth, and even the European Union’s education commissioner says the famous names that dominate such exercises should look to their laurels if they are not to be overtaken by the tigers from the East.

But these plaudits apply to a relatively small proportion of universities in relatively few countries. Although spending on higher education has been rising sharply, with 10 percent growth in student numbers each year in East Asia, the poorer countries risk being left behind.

The first Asian university rankings, which were published by QS earlier this year, were dominated by Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. There were no universities in the top 200 from Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos, and even Thailand had only three representatives in the top 100.

Higher education has become more of a international phenomenon, with millions of students crossing borders to take a degree, universities (both public and private) establishing campuses in other countries, and global networks springing up to promote collaboration in research. Governments are desperate to have universities that are “players” in this new world, which they see as vital to prosperity as a knowledge economy.

So how realistic is it for a country like Cambodia to harbour such ambitions? What sort of a higher education system should it develop to serve the needs of its people and boost the economy?

The gap between Cambodia and the leading Asian nations in terms of participation and spending on higher education is so large that trying to compete on the international stage would surely be a waste of money. The latest UNESCO statistics showed fewer than 3 percent of Cambodians completing tertiary education, compared with more than 30 percent in South Korea and 20 percent even in the Philippines. Spending per student was less than $1,000 a year, compared with $5,000 in Malaysia.

Of course, the destruction of its universities and the loss of a generation of academics under the Khmer Rouge make Cambodia a special case.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, teachers and educated role models were killed, schools were destroyed and books were burned. Although new teachers have been trained and schools have been rebuilt, there continue to be a variety of obstacles that challenge the country’s ability to provide access to quality education. Initiatives like the World Bank’s commitment of $15 million to support public and private universities acknowledge the need for extra investment in the country’s higher education. Agreements like the one signed by the University of Texas at San Antonio with the Royal University of Phnom Penh and Pannasastra University will also help to strengthen the system.

Universities elsewhere in Asia and farther afield are increasingly keen to recruit international students. The University of Bedfordshire, in the United Kingdom, for example, offers scholarships to Cambodians of “high academic standing”.

A realistic target for the country’s universities, therefore, would be to keep more of the brightest students at home, as well as take more students in total when funding allows. As per-capita income and the numbers completing secondary education grow, the demand for higher education is certain to increase. The university system can make an important contribution to Cambodia’s development, particularly in areas such as agriculture and tourism, without worrying about international rankings.

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