Before she dropped out of school in April, following her cousin to a factory in Thailand where a week of making mattresses pays $48, Dong Sreyda was ranked third in her ninth grade class in Banteay Meanchey province.
“I wanted to study so much, until I graduated from high school, but my parents don’t have the money to support my education,” the 16-year-old said last week.
For Sreyda’s family, the nearly $300 needed for a year of school fees, materials and extra courses was unaffordable after their rice harvest came up short following the recent drought.
The high cost of schooling, coupled with poverty and the lure of foreign employment, make staying in the classroom a difficult choice for students and their families, especially in rural areas.
According to data released Friday by the Unesco Institute for Statistics, poverty is a “significant barrier” to students receiving an education in Cambodia, where 160,000 children in grades 7 to 9 did not attend school in 2014—a striking 17 percent of children in that age range.
Last year alone, the Ministry of Education recorded a 19.2 percent dropout rate among those in seventh through ninth grades, accounting for 104,962 of the 546,678 students that enrolled in the grade group during the 2014 to 2015 academic year.
Despite the Thai military junta’s 2014 crackdown on foreign workers, which required migrants to obtain official documentation in order to work across the border, the lure of employment in Thailand has held strong. Helen Sworn, the international director of anti-trafficking organization Chab Dai, said that although there were no reliable statistics on the number of workers who go to Thailand, by all accounts migration was on the rise.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase, especially of late teens and young adults…so if you go around the border, you’ll see there’s almost nobody” in that age range remaining, she said.
Sreyda’s former school, Chhouk High School in O’Chrou district’s Changha commune, is located in one of those border areas being rapidly depleted of young people. The school’s dropout rate has jumped significantly in the face of Thailand’s economic pull, said principal Ouch Makara.
“The problem now is getting worse than in previous years,” he said.
Last year, 52 students completed 8th grade, Mr. Makara said, and for many, that was the end of their days in the classroom. This year, only seven of the 52 returned to school for ninth grade, “but two have just dropped out,” he said. Sreyda, he added, was one of the latest.
Pring Morkoath, deputy director of the Ministry of Education’s secondary education department, said the problem stretches along the border, where Thai business owners are locating their companies in order to attract Cambodian workers.
“In Thailand, they say they need much manpower, especially from Cambodia or Myanmar or other areas,” he said, adding that migrating to Thailand “is easy compared to other countries.”
Parents who have relocated to Thailand often encourage their children to join them, Mr. Morkoath said, adding that this also has an effect on secondary school dropout rates.
Thailand’s higher wages are a huge draw. While most Cambodians working in Thailand have low-level jobs as construction or factory workers, those who have completed seventh to ninth grades can get a job earning around $250 per month—similar to an entry-level job in Cambodia for a university graduate, Mr. Morkoath said.
The students’ shortsightedness about their education is “a big problem for us,” he said. “They don’t care about how it [will be] in the future. They say ‘in the current time,’” he said.
According to Vorn Samphors, country director for Aide et Action, an NGO focusing on education, the lagging interest in secondary education is a reflection of an education system that remains weak despite recent attempts to improve teacher training and curriculum standards, and to eradicate improper school fees and rampant corruption surrounding the national high school exam.
“Our education system is not yet able to ensure, convince, and motivate [students] that to continue one year of education, three years of education, five years of education really improves the production, improves the living conditions for their future,” he said.
Because of this, he said, students choose “to move for the economic reasons in the short term, rather than try to pursue an education.”
According to a Unesco report released in February, an estimated $68 million in potential income is lost to the national economy annually due to primary and secondary students not completing their education. That’s more than 7 percent of the estimated $500 million national education budget for 2016, according to Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron.
While the government does not collect data on how many school dropouts go to work in Thailand, Mr. Chuon Naron said the government recognized this as a problem and was working to mitigate the consequences, including the “loss of human resources.”
“We want them to get an education and work in Cambodia, so I think it is a concern, in general, for Cambodian development,” he said. “For that reason, the ministry has introduced job counseling…to prevent job dropout and migration and to provide information on what they should study” in order to find well-paying jobs in their own country.
The job counseling program will become part of the country’s teacher training program in the near future, Mr. Chuon Naron said, after a pilot project is completed in Battambang province, “where there is a high migration rate since it’s near Thailand.”
But doubts remain as to whether government efforts will be sufficient to stem dropout rates and employment migration. Miguel Chanco, lead analyst in the Asean region for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the government’s current investment in education and low-cost labor approach would not be enough to allow Cambodia to compete economically with other Southeast Asian countries.
“Public spending on education in absolute terms has risen noticeably over the past few years, but there is still a lot of scope for Cambodia’s government to dedicate more of its admittedly thin resources to this critical area,” he said in an email. “Indeed, as a percentage of total government expenditure, the proportion of funds devoted to education in Cambodia lags far behind those of its peers in Asean.”
While Cambodia’s economy will continue to grow with the aid of foreign investment, ensuring that this growth is felt across society will be a challenge—and one that a strengthened education sector could relieve, he said.
“Time is not on the government side, as the country’s current low labor-cost growth model will be increasingly replicated and challenged by nearby countries.”
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)