Cambodia’s education sector needs a complete overhaul in order to reduce unemployment and successfully diversify the economy beyond garment manufacturing, according to a World Bank report released today.
The report’s release came after investors and economists said at a trade and investment conference in Phnom Penh this week that Cambodia’s education system falls far short of providing graduates with the skills currently demanded by the labor market.
While damage from this year’s flooding and sluggish growth in the US economy are said to be the most immediate threats to economic growth, investors are becoming more aware of the shortcomings in Cambodia’s labor force. Cambodia currently produces a mass of university graduates in subjects such as management and finance. But the economy is crying out for professionals trained in areas such as manufacturing and engineering.
“Potentially talented, potentially skilled Cambodian young people are stepping out into the labor market with virtually useless education and qualifications, and they need to be trained and educated from the ground up in becoming skilled,” Larry Strange, executive director of the Cambodia Development Research Institute, said at a conference organized by the International Business Chamber of Cambodia on Tuesday.
In Cambodia, about 40 percent of firms now consider skills “to be at least a moderate obstacle for their business” and almost 20 percent consider them to be a “major obstacle”, according to the World Bank report entitled “Putting Higher Education to Work”.
“Nearly 60 percent of all tertiary students study business, social sciences or law, but fewer than 25 percent are in agriculture, education, engineering, health, or the hard sciences, even though many of these latter sectors provide ” and will continue to provide ” the most jobs,” the report said.
In fact, fewer than 4 percent of students enroll in agriculture, even though the sector accounts for 29 percent of GDP and supports 59 percent of the population.
“Recent evidence suggests that most students select their subject based on the advice and wishes-and, to a lesser extent, interests-of their family rather than on their own future labor market prospects, opportunities, and outcomes,” the report said. “The mismatch between graduate supply and demand has serious economic and social implications for Cambodia, such as high structural unemployment, with a pool of university graduates seeking jobs but without the skills demanded by employers.”
At the conference Kong Vibol, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, said that the government has little fiscal space to increase spending in education and vocational training.
“Regarding to education, the government realize that there is not enough for the government to support the education system,” he said, adding that the government’s policy was to attract more private investors to the education system. “We are open to attract more private schools,” he said.
Mak Ngoy, director-general of the department of higher education at the Ministry of Education, declined to comment.
Part of the reason investors have been slow to invest in the education sector is because pedagogical projects require large amounts of capital to build school buildings and buy land, said Sandra D’Amico, managing director of Hr Inc, a recruitment consultancy firm, and vice president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations.
There is also a lack of quality teaching staff in Cambodia as well as doubts over whether there are enough students willing to pay tuition fees.
“On the technical vocational training side we need to precisely embark on projects to attract foreign investment to Cambodia,” said Ms D’Amico.
According to the World Bank report, the amount that Cambodia spends on education and human capital is lower than other countries in the region as a proportion of GDP.
In Cambodia, the amount of money that goes towards research is less than 0.1 percent of GDP, compared to around 0.25 percent in Vietnam and 0.2 percent in the Philippines.
The report also said that expenditure on education amounts to just 1.6 percent of GDP in Cambodia, compared to 5.34 percent in Vietnam, 4.12 percent in Thailand and 2.82 percent in Indonesia.
There are further concerns over the quality of universities in Cambodia. Two thirds of higher education schools in Cambodia are privately run, yet the World Bank report said that public universities in Cambodia are generally of a higher standard.
“The quantity of high education graduates is still too low for the labor market in countries like Cambodia, China and Vietnam. More important than quantity, however, is quality,” the report said.