Finance Ministry Accused of Ignoring Education Sector

The Ministry of Education on Tuesday again publicly accused the Ministry of Finance of not injecting enough funds into the education sector in order to bring Cambodia in line with the rest of Southeast Asia.

Speaking at the close of a two-day workshop to formulate the ministry’s Education Strategic Plan 2014-2018, Education Ministry Secretary of State Nath Bunroeun said the quality of Cambodian graduates—whose professional qualifications should be recognized across Asean come 2015—was directly related to the quality of teachers, who are often under-qualified and underpaid.

“We are trying to achieve a higher education rate of 40 percent. Do not say that we can do this when our GDP [gross domestic product] spending is just 1.8 percent,” he said, referring to the contribution to the education sector as a percentage of gross national product.

“We ask the MEF [Ministry of Economy and Finance]…. You need to give us quality input. It’s like if you send me on this budget to a restaurant, I can only eat Khmer noodles on the street.”

“If we want to output quality graduates, we need quality input, and that means better trained, better paid teachers. We should be inputting between 4 and 6 percent [of GDP],” he said.

The renewed call for more funding comes after Education Minister Im Sethy in January accused the Ministry of Economy and Finance of consistently failing to disburse sufficient funds to the education sector, forcing it to rely heavily on foreign aid to achieve reforms.

“To be blunt…now the proportion [of education spending] is decreasing, so the Ministry of Economy and Finance needs to take this into account,” Mr. Sethy said in a speech to a workshop at the time. “The Finance Ministry doesn’t know how to make policy at all,” the minister said.

According to official figures, the government allocated about $280 million to education for this year, roughly 9.1 percent of the $3.1 billion total budget. In 2012, funding for education was $245 million, or about 9.4 percent of the budget.

In contrast, some $400 million has been apportioned to the defense and security sectors this year, which amounts to about 13 percent of all spending and a 17.3 percent increase over last year’s allocation, with $245 million going to the Defense Ministry alone.

Vincent Vire, of the European Union’s education and health delegation in Cambodia, said that the Finance Ministry had a responsibility to provide the education sector with the funds it needed.

“Two percent of GDP is not enough if Cambodia wants to catch up with Vietnam and Laos,” he said.

“All the ideas for improvement have been made public, and they are the right ideas, but now it’s a question of cash, and Cambodia can’t just wait for development partners to provide the funds—they need domestic investment.”

“It has taken some time but finally we may have convinced [the MEF] that this is the way.”

Mr. Vire said that cash would not immediately improve the quality of teachers, and in turn, graduates, but that it was a very obvious first step.

“If the teacher is being paid properly, they don’t need to take on a second job and they don’t need to charge informal fees, then the students respect them more,” he said.

“It is quite simple, but it’s a question now of the ministries making this a priority.”

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said that minimum salaries for teachers rising from 200,000 riel (about $50) to 320,000 (about $80) on September 1 was a step forward and that negotiations for further increases were ongoing.

“We will continue with these talks until we feel that teachers are being paid what they de­serve,” he said.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance could not be contacted for comment.

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