Colleges and universities in the US and Europe often battle grade inflation, but in the tight-knit world of the Cambodian elite, a bigger problem might be developing: PhD inflation.
High-ranking government officials and businessmen are increasingly amassing doctoral degrees. State-run news agency Agence Kampuchea Presse has prefaced the names of officials with their “Doctor” or “PhD” titles, and Khmer-language newspapers frequently run large advertisements congratulating the growing number of new doctorate holders.
Prime Minister Hun Sen himself has a PhD from the National Political Academy in Hanoi, as well as at least nine honorary doctorates from institutions in a number of countries.
Senate and CPP President Chea Sim now boasts three PhDs and two honorary PhDs, including a PhD in political science from the Southern California University for Professional Studies and a PhD in “high leadership in the Senate” from the Open Seminary University of California.
“Samdech [Chea Sim] did not request or do anything to get all these PhD degrees, but the universities provided them to him,” his cabinet chief, Kunthea Borey, explained.
Ros Chantrabot, a historian and prominent member of the Royal Academy, said the abundance of PhDs is becoming such an issue that the government recently established a committee to oversee the quality of officials’ doctoral theses.
There are currently around 2,000 PhD candidates in Cambodia, Mr Chantrabot said.
“In a small country like Cambodia, there are too many PhDs, which can lead to PhD inflation,” Mr Chantrabot said. “Will these PhDs help Cambodia develop as a nation, or be a cancer on the nation and society?”
In late 2009, a Malaysia-based organization called Isles International University awarded PhDs to 19 senior officials, lawmakers and businessmen including CPP Senator Mong Reththy, former Deputy Municipal Governor Mann Chhoeun and senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap.
Isles handed out another batch of doctoral and master’s degrees last week to 14 government and parliamentary officials, including Pen Pannha, chairman of the National Assembly’s legislation committee, and Koam Kosal, cabinet chief for National Assembly President Heng Samrin. Mr Heng Samrin also picked up an honorary PhD at the ceremony.
By way of comparison, only one US president has ever held a doctoral degree, and only two of the current 16 US cabinet officials have PhDs.
Isles International, which has a long history of making false claims about its accreditation status and institutional affiliations, is the current incarnation of Irish International University.
As Irish International, besides granting an honorary doctorate to Mr Hun Sen, the organization established a joint PhD degree program with Build Bright University, charging Cambodian students extra fees for “Irish” doctorates. In 2006, the Irish government repudiated Irish International University’s claim that it was a recognized university in Ireland.
Since changing its name, Isles International has also falsely claimed to be affiliated with Belgian royalty and to have offices in the European Parliament.
Multiple PhD holder Mr Yeap, the National Assembly member, said all of his degrees were earned through honest hard work.
Mr Yeap said he earned a “Post PhD” from Isles International in 2009. He also holds two PhDs-one from Northern Colorado University and one from California Global University, which offers online degrees and bills itself as “a global provider of USA education.” In official National Assembly communications, Mr Yeap is referred to by the title “His Excellency Post Dr Cheam Yeap.”
Mr Yeap insists that all his degrees are legitimate. He proudly cites the title of his postdoctoral thesis: Strategy of Economy in Cambodia.
“I never used money to buy it,” he said. “My PhDs had proper theses with my own writing, and I defended my theses in presentations to professors.” All three theses are now available at the Senate Library, he says.
According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a researcher for political and strategic affairs at the Singapore-based Asean Studies Center, it is very common for politicians in Thailand to purchase academic degrees, but the situation is worse in Cambodia.
“It seems that having a PhD is…certainly to be used as a basis of promotion. But there is a serious negative impact on the overall educational system of the country,” he wrote in an e-mail.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay called the mania for PhDs “out of proportion in Cambodia” and said he was concerned the degree would eventually lose their value.
“People can get PhDs without really studying, you know? You can see that the issue is a kind of manipulation. To give someone a PhD has become a kind of business operation here…and we see there are some fake universities giving out PhDs to the very rich and very powerful.”
Independent political analyst Chea Vannath said PhDs were now as coveted as the titles His Excellency and Oknha (“tycoon”) were a few years ago, comparing them to other luxury items.
“Either they have so many PhD degrees or they have so many houses or cars. It’s just the human ego to show off their belongings.”