Report Calls for Foreign Teacher Trainers, Higher Salaries

Cambodia must significantly increase teachers’ salaries and import the best teacher trainers from abroad in order to combat a continuously widening gap between the skills employers are looking for and those the country’s graduates are able to provide, a new report says.

Facing the worst student-teacher ratio in the world outside of Africa, Cambodia needs more and better-qualified teachers to overcome both low enrollment and poor education in the country, says Srinivasa Madhur, research director at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, in a report released by the organization Tuesday.

“The shortage of trained teachers is a self-perpetuating problem resulting in a vicious circle of poor education over generations—today’s students are poor because today’s teachers are poor, and tomorrow’s teachers are poor because today’s poor students become tomorrow’s teachers,” Mr. Madhur writes in the report, “Cambodia’s Skills Gap: An anatomy of issues and policy options.”

Mr. Madhur warns that the Asean Economic Community planned for the end of next year would make the skills gap all the more painful for Cambodia as barriers to the cross-border flow of skilled labor continue to fall.

“A business-as-usual approach that would only involve some tinkering of [education] policy here and there is not an option,” he writes.

Mr. Madhur calls Cambodia’s shortage of trained teachers, especially in primary schools, the single greatest constraint to narrowing the country’s skills gap.

With an average of 46.2 primary students to every teacher, Mr. Madhur says, Cambodia has the highest student-teacher ratio across Asean, far behind Burma at 28, Laos at 27 and Vietnam at 20. It’s also the 16th highest ratio worldwide and the highest of any country outside Africa.

The report also finds that only 4 percent of Cambodia’s primary school teachers have college or university degrees, compared with 60 percent in Vietnam, “where the quality of the teacher workforce is fast emerging as a major asset.”

There’s nothing new in the picture Mr. Madhur paints—Cambodia’s education officials readily admit to the overall substandard quality of the country’s teachers. Mr. Madhur’s main recommendations —more spending on the education sector and higher wages for teachers—have been made before too.

The government is regularly criticized for spending far too little on education and health in favor of defense and security. In a rare moment of public criticism from the inside, Ministry of Education Secretary of State Nath Bunroeun last year complained that the government devoted less than 2 percent of GDP to education, arguing that this figure should be closer to 4 or 6 percent.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the monthly minimum wage for teachers would be increased from $105 to $138 by April.

Mr. Madhur says that’s still not nearly enough.

“Even with this adjustment, it is unlikely that the country can attract highly talented youth into the teaching profession,” he writes. “The government should review the overall remuneration package for the teaching profession with a view to adjusting it over time to levels that would attract and retain top young talent. Otherwise, just providing better training will not necessarily result in either better teaching or better learning.”

Mr. Madhur does not say how much he thinks teachers’ wages should increase by, but notes that the Cambodia Independent Teachers Association recommends raising starting monthly salaries to $250.

More unusual is one of Mr. Madhur’s main recommendations for improving the quality of Cambodia’s teachers: importing teacher trainers from abroad.

He argues that this would both mitigate the high costs of sending Cambodian teachers abroad for training and the risk of becoming dependent on foreign teachers themselves.

Ultimately, Mr. Madhur argues, Cambodia is in a race against time to get the country’s youth better educated.

“Crucial to converting the youth bulge into a skill bulge is more schooling…and better learning,” he says. “This window of demographic dividend will gradually close as the population ages. Unless the country acts now, today’s education gap will simply become tomorrow’s skill gap, just as the past gaps in education now show up as a major skill gap.”

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