Ly Sokun, first-year student at the Cambodian Institute of Technology, hopes to graduate from the school’s five-year program in mechanical engineering.
If he does, his first job will pay as much as $120 per month. If he had stayed home in Kompong Cham province and become a teacher—his other option—he says he would have been lucky to make $20 per month.
Good jobs, he said, are hard to find. “We have to pay attention so much to our studies,’’ he said. “We try hard to learn our best.’’
He’s not kidding. Students at Cambodia’s premier technical school take classes in Khmer, French, and, increasingly, English. They get hands-on experience in work-study programs with local businesses.
Those starting salaries, which can go as high as $300 per month, depending on the specialty, said industrial counselor Hubert DeFossez. And, he said, “Many students have jobs waiting for them when they graduate.’’
The institute is holding an open house from 8 am to 4 pm today at its sprawling campus on Pochentong Boulevard. The purpose is to show both high-school seniors and businesses—local and international—the caliber of their students, faculty and equipment.
DeFossez said partnerships with private companies are increasingly important to the school as it moves toward its eventual goal of financial independence.
Currently, about 50 companies —including major players like Alcatel, Nestle, Caltex and Total —offer student internships to provide hands-on experience. In return, the companies get what amounts to first dibs on workers they know can handle the jobs.
Degree programs include food technology and chemical engineering, civil engineering, energy and electrical engineering, industrial and mechanical engineering, and rural engineering.
The fastest-growing program, however, is the degree in computer engineering and communication. And that has re-energized a problem that has dogged the school for years: language.
French has been the primary language of instruction at the school since its founding in 1964 as the Institut Technique Superieur de l’Amitie Khmero-Sovietique.
The school shut down during the Pol Pot regime. When it reopened in 1980, classes were taught in Russian. That had changed again by 1994, when France started paying the bills again for the Institut de Technologie du Cambodge.
But the explosion in computers and the Internet is bolstering the case for English as the international language of technology and commerce. Students have periodically balked at the school’s emphasis on French, going so far as to stage strikes and demonstrations.
DeFossez says the school understands the need for English. “We want our students to be fluent in both,’’ he said. A contingent of teachers from New Zealand is working to expand English course offerings.
Keo Si Than, 23, didn’t wait around. He said he attended classes in 1997, but then left. Classes were taught in French and Khmer, and his technical courses were so demanding he didn’t have enough time to study English, he said.
“So I stopped going. Now I study at the National Institute of Management, where the courses are in English and Khmer,’’ he said. ‘’Nowadays, all the investors speak English. There’s not that much use for French.’’
Meanwhile, the institute receives the bulk of its funding from the world’s French-speaking nations. “So, we have French,’’ said DeFossez. ‘’But there is no hostility to English. Every student must be fluent in English as well, or they won’t graduate.’’
DeFossez said that the school’s foreign staff also shares a goal with many NGOs and international workers in Cambodia: to turn more of the institution’s responsibilities over to Cambodians.
“Nearly every employee here is a Cambodian civil servant,’’ he said. Within a few years, “it should be run by a Cambodian.’’
It will not be a painless process. Donor funding has enabled the school to charge no tuition or fees. He said that may change, as early as next year. Universities elsewhere get money in a series of time-consuming and mundane ways, none of which will be particularly easy in Cambodia.
For example, the ITC does not yet have a Bill Gates-style graduate who is looking for places to donate his millions. But administrators have been working to raise standards for students and faculty, so that ITC can exchange information and personnel with universities worldwide. Such contacts can lead to lucrative grants and research partnerships.
Other technical schools earn substantial income from testing or other analytical services provided to business. DeFossez said ITC will increasingly seek to do so. Faculty members have also been revamping the curriculum in recent years, to reflect shifts in technology and the Cambodian workplace.
Students who major in food technology and chemical engineering, for example, will find good job prospects in brewing, distilleries, and soda and noodle factories; students in energy and electrical engineering might be working in solar energy.
And regardless of whether French or English ultimately wins the language wars, students like 17-year-old Lay Sreyrath will continue to defy the odds just to attend. She is one of only 15 girls in the first-year class of 160 students, which itself was winnowed from about 3,000 applicants from all over Cambodia.
She said she hopes to study computer science. She plans to work very, very hard to try to graduate. And she is very happy to be at the school, although it is so far from her home in Banteay Meanchey province. ‘’Sometimes, I miss my parents so much,’’ she said, wistful for a moment.
Then she laughs and, with her friends, settles back to work.