How Universities Can Help Improve the Quality of Education

The demand for skilled labor has been rising over the past several years as Cambodia gradually moves from agriculture to industrial and manufacturing sectors. However, skills shortages remain a major obstacle to the country’s future economic growth. Echoing this concern, Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed the urgent need to build a quality and competent workforce ahead of the Asean Economic Community in 2015. Yet, achieving this goal requires tremendous efforts to strengthen the education system, which has long suffered from a lack of resources.

Recently, the government has been trying to introduce a range of policies to reform the education system. For instance, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport just suspended issuing licenses to new universities that focus on social studies but not science, technology and engineering. It also seeks to improve the quality of the academic staff, streamline the curriculum and increase teacher-student ratio. In the upcoming high school exam, the Anti-Corruption Unit will join the ministry to make sure that the exam is conducted properly. Whether the ministry can live up to its promises remains to be seen.

However, even if the government commits to solving the problem of skills shortages, it cannot afford to do everything alone. For example, offering science, technology and engineering degrees is extremely expensive. Only a handful of universities manage to teach some of these courses with financial support and technical assistance from the government, partner institutions and foreign countries.

Complicating this problem further, most universities will adopt different sets of policies in order to maximize their profits, and in many cases, those policies conflict with one another. For instance, universities may be competing to attract more students by reducing tuition fees but also lowering the quality and standard of their education services. In short, they are racing to the bottom and the inability of many students to pay higher tuition fees reinforces such practices.

Because many universities do not see the lack of high-quality education as a collective problem, they have been very reluctant to work closely together and contribute whatever they can in order to help the government address the problem of skills shortages and skills mismatch for thousands of students. Without enough incentives, it is very hard if not impossible to expect the universities to solve this problem anytime soon.

Thus, the government must serve as a bridge to connect universities and other relevant agencies in order to jointly develop a roadmap for education reform. For a long time, the ministry has often been in the driver’s seat, creating policies for higher education institutions. Although several universities are also involved in the policy-making process, their input remains limited.

To address this issue, the ministry needs to create a working group made of its senior staff and the leadership of both public and private universities. The government should engage them in the decision-making process as much as possible for they are the ones to decide how much they are willing to invest in improving the quality of education. Moreover, they can also have a sense of ownership of the policies, and feel that it is their responsibility to deliver some positive results.

The government can also work with the universities to streamline the curriculum in order to meet international standards. The problem with the ministry dictating curriculum is that it simply ignores different constraints facing each university. The one-size-fits-all approach will not work. If the government does not take such problem into account, its policies will not yield the results as expected.

Understanding the universities’ concerns and interests allows the government to design the right policies and implement them in an orderly sequence. For example, the ministry can recommend specific changes to the curriculum, and give the universities some flexibility to decide how many of these changes they can adopt depending on the availability of resources and know-how—but they must at least meet the minimum requirements. The government might consider allocating its funding scheme based on the universities’ performance in curriculum development.

The ministry could also use a working group to design appropriate incentives for universities and students who lack strong interest in science, technology and engineering degrees. Suspending the issuance of licenses to new universities is a good start but not a long-term solution. The biggest problem is not that the universities do not want to offer these skills, but that they do not have any incentive to do so given the huge cost involved.

The solution might be giving direct funding to the universities that are willing to invest in those skills. The ministry can also provide other supports such as capacity building for academic and professional staff, joint research projects and lab equipment, among others. A better solution, perhaps, is to provide more full and partial scholarships to students who want to study engineering and similar subjects.

However, the allocation of such resources can also be problematic. Without proper procedures, this scheme could be plagued with widespread corruption given the discretion that the ministry staff might have in deciding which universities should receive the funding. The ministry can also make use of the working group to develop effective checks and balances to ensure that such funding scheme will be conducted in a fair and just manner. Furthermore, the universities can assist the ministry in designing more accurate assessment criteria, so that resources will be put to use in the right place.

Besides the incentives, the ministry also needs to inspire students to study science, technology and engineering. Many people might not know the importance of these skills in improving their life and society as a whole. There must be a public campaign to raise awareness among students and parents about how scientific discoveries and engineering works can affect everyday life. So the ministry should work with the universities to design science and technology courses that are appropriate for high school students as well.

In addition, the ministry should cooperate with provincial and municipal education departments, universities and other relevant agencies to arrange science and technology exhibitions at least once a year to give students a chance to see, learn and understand the role of the subjects in society.

Another advantage of close cooperation between universities with the ministry acting as a bridge is that they could share the very limited resources they all have. For instance, most universities in Cambodia do not have a library that would meet all their students’ needs. Many books are out of date or no longer practical. The problem is even worse for science and technology students since changes in these fields are happening at an unprecedented speed.

Therefore, the ministry should work with all universities to develop an interlibrary loan scheme, in which each university is required to make a large number of their books available for lending to students from other universities. This sharing approach can also be used in other areas such as lab equipment, physical plant, research facilities and technology transfers, among others.

Despite tough words and strong commitment, the ministry cannot solve the problem of low quality education and skills shortages alone. It needs strong cooperation with all stakeholders, especially the universities. With a large hardworking and skilled population, Cambodia will be able to develop its economy and stand a better chance of competing with the rest of the world. Moreover, such diffusion of knowledge can also help solve some of the biggest problems facing the country at the moment, most notably inequality and poverty.

Phoak Kung is the vice president for Academic Affairs at Mengly J. Quach University, Phnom Penh.

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