The man on the other end of the phone had an urgent question for Jerry Walter. A new private university was opening soon in Phnom Penh, he said. Would Walter like to be the dean of the faculty of sciences?
The man offered the job on the phone, without bothering to interview Walter or examine his physics degree, Walter said. A longtime physics and math instructor, Walter was especially surprised by the offer because he has no advanced degree.
Though he turned down the job as dean, Walter agreed to teach a college algebra class at the new school. But more than half of his new students scored a zero on a quiz he gave them on his first day to test their knowledge. Most weren’t ready for the class, he said, though the school had already accepted their fee.
“If they take the students’ money before evaluating them, that’s fraud,” he said. “A lot of students have been cheated outright.”
In the coming years Cambodia will graduate a record number of high school students, and new private universities are emerging every month to educate them further. But Cambodia lacks both the system to handle these students and the qualified teachers to instruct them, experts say.
At a conference opening at the Sunway Hotel today, national and international experts will meet to discuss a system of accreditation—aiming to make a Cambodian college education meet international standards.
At stake is a $30 million loan from the World Bank that would provide colleges with libraries, computers and teacher training. The money will be released only when Cambodia passes a draft law to establish an accreditation board designed to be independent from political influences, said Philippe Peycam of the Center for Khmer Studies, which is organizing the conference.
The board would help establish uniform standards for teacher credentials, admissions, curriculum, and school administrative and financial management.
“Cambodia is at a crossroads, and it needs to tackle the issue of higher education,” Peycam said.
Government officials and donors tend to focus on primary education because that is where the student numbers are largest, observers say. But the number of students leaving high schools is expected to quadruple over the next 10 years, government advisers Louise Ahrens and Frances Kemmerer found in a recent study.
Only about 1 percent of college-age Cambodians are enrolled in college, compared to 5 percent in other low-income countries and 20 percent in Asean countries, Ahrens and Kemmerer say.
The risk is that development will be slowed, and reliance on foreign experts will persist, without enough Cambodian doctors, foresters, agriculturists, technicians and other professionals to serve a growing population, they say. In public schools, where tuition is nominally free and professors’ salaries are low, rumors of bribery are common for students seeking admission, promotion and graduation.
Administrators are commonly believed to be political appointees. Courses are taught in a variety of languages, materials are lacking and many textbooks are not translated into Khmer.
Walter, who taught physics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said qualified teachers were in short supply, and the curriculum emphasized highly theoretical fields that left graduates with few job prospects.
Aid donors’ efforts to help have commonly been confined to individual departments at certain schools, Peycam said. Because these efforts are uncoordinated, students and professors end up chasing scholarships and salaries while the concept of a well-rounded education falls by the wayside, he said.
With public universities largely focusing on traditional and theoretical topics, private schools have been filling the gaps with more practical subjects such as tourism, business and information technology.
But these new schools operate in a largely unregulated environment. Teachers and administrators speak privately of students studying for masters’ degrees who have not graduated from college or even from high school. Admissions standards are inconsistent or missing.
Perhaps a dozen private schools have emerged in the last two years alone, said Neil Maclaren, director of the Regent School of Business. It is too early to tell whether employers in Cambodia or internationally will take degrees from these schools seriously, he said. Many private schools trumpet their connections with foreign schools, but that is no guarantee of quality.
One school advertises itself as “the first American university in Cambodia,” offering “an internationally recognized degree.”
But the university’s Web site states that the school is not accredited in the US, which means many US schools would not give credit for its classes.
“There’s obviously an enormous demand, so obviously people see there’s a way to make some money,” Maclaren said. “Unfortunately, some of these kids are getting ripped off.”