The American University of Hawaii, which claims to be recognized in the US state of Hawaii as “a world leader in the field of higher education,” has been labeled a fake by a US university regulation official.
Cambodian Ministry of Education officials have called the AUH an extreme by-product of lax educational standards and weak monitoring systems, but the country is facing a larger problem. Without a scrupulous national accreditation system, the door remains open to anyone who wants to start a private university, regardless of credentials, educational experts say.
“To the best of our knowledge [the AUH] is ‘a fake,’” Barbara Beno wrote in an e-mail. “I’d tell students it is not comparable to a US education.” Beno is executive director for the Accrediting Commission for Two-Year Colleges for the Western Region of the US, which is responsible for regulating and ensuring the standards of universities in Hawaii.
And Joyce Tsunoda, senior vice president for international education at the University of Hawaii in the US, wrote that she had never heard of the AUH in Cambodia.
Nhet Chamroen, AUH academic manager in Cambodia, said the AUH is not a fake and does not mislead students. “People in America don’t know about developing countries,” he said. “There is no degree in the whole world which is recognized throughout the whole world.”
The university is unusual in that it explicitly claims to offer a degree from a country whose educational authorities do not acknowledge it. But educational institutes professing to reach international standards of education can be found all over Phnom Penh.
The New York City Institute advertises an “international education” but is not internationally accredited.
International University makes similar claims: “Although our degrees are not recognized outside the country…they are [up to] international standards,” Darariddh Ek, the university’s program manager, said. Students might find their credits were transferable outside Cambodia even though their degrees are not, he said.
But how “fake” is the AUH? Although it claims to offer a “quality American Education,” it states openly on its Web site that it has not been given the go-ahead by the US Department of Education. It advertises “a quality American Education” and dismisses accreditation as a “process peculiar” to the US on its Web site.
That is an attitude Beno labeled as “suspect,” adding that the quality of education at the university would be below the US standard.
“I know it is not registered with the [US] education ministry,” said Son Lang, 31, who is studying for a four-year bachelor’s degree in business administration at the university. “Since it teaches in English and the teachers are foreign, we hope it will be better than local universities,” he said.
AUH is not exclusive to Cambodia; it has branches all over the world, from Armenia to the Philippines, and Vietnam to Pakistan. In Cambodia, it does not appear on the Ministry of Education’s list of registered higher education institutes.
The Education Ministry is planning to clamp down on the AUH and other universities that it deems misleading or sub-standard through its newly established accreditation board, Mak Ngoy, deputy director of the higher education department, said. But existing loopholes in the regulatory system make it difficult for the government to crack down on illegitimate universities.
The World Bank found the format of the current national accreditation board, established on March 31, so unsatisfactory that it withdrew a proposal for a $30.7 million loan planned for the education sector, World Bank officials said.
The accreditation committee was established on March 31, in a royal decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Acting Head of State Chea Sim.
As it stands, the board is neither sufficiently qualified nor politically independent, Peter Stephens, World Bank communications manager, in Singapore, wrote on July 30. He added that the World Bank has “no immediate plans” to reopen their negotiations with the government.
“The [World] Bank remains willing and available to support higher education reform in Cambodia, but we believe that the independence of this oversight committee would be an important criteria for that support to be effective,” he wrote.
The monitoring system is further undermined by the fact that a university can continue operating without the approval of the ministry’s higher education department.
Twenty-two institutes are registered with the higher education department, but others continue unchecked. The Department of Higher Education “has not legalized them” because “they are at a lower level for which the government cannot be responsible,” Rath Sokha said.
Not everyone shares the World Bank’s pessimism about the accreditation board, and some still hold hope for the system as it stands.
The fact that a university operates without international accreditation does not necessarily mean that students will learn nothing worthwhile, provided they are self-disciplined, Luise Ahrens, advisor to the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said. “If they are smart and study in the library” they may still develop skills that are transferable outside Cambodia, she said.
Frances Kemmerer, adviser to the ministry, also said that internationally unaccredited institutions will not necessarily short change students, citing Norton University and the University of Cambodia as institutes “that are really trying to improve education.”
Kemmerer did not completely dismiss the national accreditation board as it stands. “I don’t want to say it can’t work, but it’s going to be difficult,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Kate Woodsome)