Make Change Together

Graduate students from abroad change education in Cambodia from their hearts and experiences


WHEN Ting Layheng arrived in the US in 2004 to pursue post-graduate degrees, it felt completely different from Cambodia. Not only the quality of education, but student life in general.

Now a technical advisor at department of higher education in the Ministry of Education, Ting Layheng, 33, says that students at universities in the US are not only taught by qualified professors, but learn how to teach themselves. Student are able to use research material and study groups to make the most out of their classes. They even find time for fun activities outside of class, at gyms or clubs on campus.

After coming back to Cambodia, Ting Layheng is working to apply what has learned from the outside in the hope that it will improve the quality of education in Cambodia.

Scholars who have experienced education abroad have the potential to make a improvements in the education sector, experts say, because they have seen the strengths of foreign education systems and can apply it in their home countries.

Post-conflict Cambodia is similar to other developing countries, however, its tragic past—four years under the Khmer Rouge and a more than a decade of civil war—took a particular toll on the educated class. Intellectuals and academics were specifically targeted by Pol Pot’s regime, decimating the education system.

According to the Asian Development Bank’s report which was conducted in 1996, it was estimated that between 75 and 80 per cent of the teachers and higher education students fled or died between 1975 and 1979.

However, in the past two decades, new schools have been built reaching rural and remote areas; and universities, which were almost non-existent under French colonial rule, have been established in the capital and several main provinces.

But the schooling system remains one of the worst in Southeast Asia. Cambodia has struggled to improve basic education for its people by ensuring all children complete primary school and expanding basic schooling to nine years. But creating a higher education system from scratch has, in many ways, been even more difficult.

In academic year 2012-2013, Cambodia has 250,000 university students including associate, bachelor, master, and Ph.D. degree, but there is not enough qualification. Most academics who are old enough to be professors were either killed or fled the Khmer Rouge. The number of qualified educators, while growing, simply cannot keep up with the number of students.

Seeing this lack of quality in Cambodian education, students with the necessary ability or resources have sought opportunities to pursue their higher education overseas, especially in developed countries such as US, EU, Australia or Japan.

Luise Ahrens, who arrived in Cambodia in 1993 to work with the government to establish a proper higher education system, agreed with the ADB’s research.

“Compared to 1979, it’s wonderful. Great achievements. Cambodia has moved the very long [way] to build this education quality,” she said.

However, Luise, a technical advisor at Royal University of Phnom Penh, explained that the quality of education still does not meet social and market needs. “If you look at the perspective of objective standard is very poor, so you have to say two ways,” she said.

Besides the lack of standards, Pen Sithol, deputy secretary-general of the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC), said that Cambodia also lacks resources such as a budget for conducting a research, quality of teaching and curriculum.

He explained that many lecturers teach for multiple universities every day—more than 24 hours a week—so they do not have enough time to do research, or even properly teach their students. Some lecturers also lack training in teaching methodology and sometime have to teach classes with up to 70 to 80 students.

Pen Sithol, who graduated from a university in Australia, said students graduating from abroad have learned those country’s about what education quality means, and can help Cambodian by sharing their knowledge from overseas.

He continued that some students can help the university to reform its curriculum by mixing the local and international system.

“Now, we see that most universities create English language programs for students because new teachers present and use the foreign documents, most of which are written in English,”

Although human resources in Cambodia are in the urgent need of being improved, some students who are educated abroad do not want to come back to their home country because they think that they will face too many challenges.

Mr Sithol agreed with this concern, saying that some students do not want to return home because they hope to get a good job opportunity or citizenship from the host country so their children can live and study abroad. Furthermore, those students think that their salary in Cambodia would be relatively small, compared to a developed country. They are also worried by a dysfunctional bureaucracy, cronyism and nepotism, which often make it difficult to rise in your career, regardless of your skills.


According to the draft budget for 2013, funding for education increased from $245 million last year to almost $280 million in 2013. In its financial plan for higher education this year, the government set aside $11,725,000, an increase of 39 per cent compare to $8,410,500 for year 2012.

However, Luise Ahrens said the budget is not enough for Cambodia to deal with the problem. The government must also address problems of inefficiency. She explained that if the teachers get money through the bank, they will get it. But if they get it through state institutions, some amount of money might not end up in their pocket.

Most importantly, there is a need to reform academic programs to meet the social and market needs of students. There is an urgent need for faculty and staff development, pay-increases for highly qualified lecturers and staffs, reform of financial and managerial structures in higher educational institutions, and a greater focus on research according to a 2010 report from the Development Research Forum in Cambodia (CRF).

However, CRF noted this will not happen immediately. It requires careful longterm planning in close cooperation with university leaders who are appointed and recognized on the basis of excellent academic and administrative leadership. It will also require reviews of the finances of higher-education institution, including the identification of current gaps in research funding— especially for research-oriented public universities.

Ting Layheng suggested that the government increase the national budget on higher education to 10 percent of the education budget per year. She added the government should expand access and equity and strengthen the quality standards of higher education, meaning that students have enough knowledge—both hard and soft skill—after they graduated to compete in the job market. In addition, the government should strengthen the good governance to ensure that money is well spent.

Having received a masters and Ph.D degree from the US, Ros Soveacha, 33, is now a program coordinator for the education unit of UNESCO Cambodia. He agreed with the above recommendations, adding that education and economy should be run on the same speed. Right now, he said, the government has placed a great focusing on economy, which has grown rapidly—and is set to continue to grow at more than 7 percent per year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“I think the economy and education sector need to go on-track at the same time,” he said. “The government needs to expand the national budget for education to strengthen teacher’s ability, research, and materials.”

He said most of scholars want to come back, but the government sometimes ignores them. “The ministry of education should control the number of these scholars—how many students graduated from abroad each year, and the ministry should welcome them by giving them an opportunity to get a high-paid job when they come back,” he suggested.

“These students will make change happen in Cambodia to improve the quality of higher education for next generation,” said Luise Ahrens. “But they must work together if they want to change. Their voice will be strong if they are together.”

Photo: Im Somony is thinking about how to win an oversea scholarship. © Tep Chansophea

This article was originally published in Take A Look Cambodia Magazine (pp 34-35).

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