After Boost in Funding, State Schools Seek Hands-On Help

Cambodia’s education sector has received a welcome boost in funding under next year’s draft state budget. Now it needs hands-on help from businesses and international schools to close the gap between what it currently provides and what society needs, the Education Minister said on Thursday.

“We don’t need your money, but we just want you to share…your methodology with our teachers,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said during a forum at the InterContinental Phnom Penh hotel on Thursday.

Education has gained ground among the government’s priorities —at $685 million, the ministry is poised to receive the largest slice of the nearly $5-billion proposed 2017 state budget. Total funding would reach about $750 million next year, including informal contributions from civil society, the minister said.

Contributions beyond funding were identified as an invaluable resource that the private sector and international schools could provide.

Students perpetually graduate without “soft skills” such as communication, critical thinking and problem solving, creating a mismatch between graduates’ capabilities and the country’s needs, Mr. Chuon Naron said.

Chhem Rethy, executive director of the Cambodia Development Research Institute, said that international schools could help shape training programs for “a new kind of teacher” who could get away from rote learning and hone in on skills like critical thinking.

“Invest in the quality of teachers… and then the students will learn,” he said on the sidelines of the event.

Businesses should be actively hiring apprentices and interns to train them to meet the market’s demands, he said.

He also urged businesses to join curriculum committees to help create practical, marketable coursework for high schools and universities.

“The private sector complains that graduates from schools and universities do not have all the skills necessary to work in their companies or factories. So you have to take responsibility for that,” he said. “Soft skills are about exposure to the marketplace.”

Errol Cresshull, head of the Asian Development Bank’s education sector development program, took engagement one step further.

“How many industries are right next to a school?” he asked. “How many industries could interact directly with a school and engage with the teachers to tell teachers, ‘This is what work is’?”

“It’s that sort of activity that will take place that will help bridge the gaps that you’re facing every single day,” such as technological illiteracy, he said.

Since taking office in 2013, Mr. Chuon Naron has said that his ability to effectively communicate the link between educational development and economic growth had helped place education “at the core” of the government agenda.

Long a target of criticism, the projected state funding for education next year is a victory for the sector—having grown substantially from $280 million of the $3 billion state budget in 2013. But funding must continue to grow if Cambodia is to compete within Asean, said Miguel Chanco, lead analyst in the region for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“On the surface…the increase in the amount allocated for education is certainly a welcome move,” he said. “The question for me is: Can the government do more? From the looks of things, my answer is a resounding ‘yes.’”

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