The Learning Curve

This month, The Cambodia Daily uncovered a first in its 15 years of education coverage: two exam proctors were sanctioned for alleged bribe-taking during the annual high school graduation exams.

It was a milestone of sorts in the Cambodian education system’s recent history. But what it means for the future of Cambo­dia’s education sector is uncertain.

“It’s ironic in the sense that 1,000 or 10,000 [exam proctors] take bribes and just two people were caught,” said Chea Van­nath, former president of the Cen­ter for Social Development.

“Before you penalize them, you have to ask: Do they get decent pay? Basic food and shelter?”

A front-page Daily story on July 30, 2001, began: “The government is falling short of its responsibility to educate Cambodia’s child­ren, contributing to a cycle that encourages students to bribe their way through school—and eventually use bribery to get a job, education officials said.”

Teachers, due to low salaries of $25 per month, were forced to take bribes from students, Daily reporters found. And students, used to paying bribes to teachers, expected bribes to carry them through life.

“Some students think, ‘Why should we study hard, because in the future there will be no job to do unless we have money for bribes,’” one teacher was quoted saying. “If they want to work with a private company or a state ministry, again bribery will help them.”

Indeed, the Daily education coverage over the past 15 years has tended to sound like a broken record.

“Phnom Penh Students Score Lower, But Cheating Persists,” (Sept 2, 2002).

Perhaps under-paid teachers taking bribes didn’t come without reason.

Nevertheless, education continued to see less funding in 2002: “Teachers’ Union Head Says Education Funding Skimmed,” (May 17, 2002), and in 2003 when the UN concluded that teachers’ wages had progressively eroded.

“Teachers cannot fulfill their jobs because of the low salary,” Rong Chhun, head of the Cambo­dian Independent Teach­ers’ As­so­ciation, said at the time.

By 2002, an increasing number of high school students were graduating and more universities were opening to meet the higher-education demand.

But Cambodia still lacked both the system to handle these students and the qualified teachers to instruct them, according to “Educators Look To Create Ac­credi­tation System” (July 31, 2002).

While a dozen private universities appeared between 2000 and 2002, the schools lacked reliable accreditation and employers were reticent to take their certificates seriously.

“When the quality is not there, we are creating a market that is not hirable,” Education Secretary of State Pok Than was quoted saying a year later (“World Bank: Education Loan Still Waiting,” Feb 24, 2003).

With The World Bank weigh­ing in on the issue, expressing concern with the pace of the higher-education system reform and the status of a stalled government sub-decree meant to create an academic accreditation board, it was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s turn to speak up.

“We must try to ensure education and training to achieve quality and effectiveness, and to make our degrees recognized and respected overseas,” Hun Sen said (“PM Urges Donors, NGOs to Support Education,” Oct 1, 2003).

While Hun Sen was calling for international help on the issue, he also received an honorary doctorate from the little—known Irish International University —but more on that later.

In defense of the Education Ministry’s track record, Pok Than pointed to its lack of government funds, saying that the Finance and Interior ministries regularly overspent their annual budgets while the government failed to provide the Education Ministry funds on time.

According to a 2003 story on the preliminary budget figures: “The Ministry of Education spent about 79 percent of the money allocated to it in the 2003 budget law. The Interior Ministry spent 167 percent of its 2003 allocated budget and the Finance Ministry spent about 199 percent.”

On Dec 30, 2005, the Educa­tion Ministry launched its first campaign ever aimed at stopping teachers from demanding bribes from students, The Cambodia Daily reported.

The campaign, however, lack­ed teeth and, since teachers had­n’t received a raise in two years, little would change.

But another controversy was about to erupt, this one surrounding the aforementioned Irish International University, which was now in partnership with Build Bright University.

The Cambodia Daily uncovered that the Malaysia-based “Irish” university was not too Cel­tic, nor too renowned, even though Cambo­dian students were forking out $4,500 for doctorate degrees.

Digging deeper, The Cambo­dia Daily found IIU was registered at a false address in the Irish capital, Dublin, as a real estate business and that, while IIU had told BBU that it was accredited to deliver university degrees in the United Kingdom, official academic accreditation authorities said they had never authorized IIU to award degrees.

On Jan 10, 2008, The Cambo­dia Daily reported that Build Bright University had severed ties with IIU and the Irish government was considering taking legal action against the “Irish” school, which was revealed to be “an elaborate hoax.”

Not to be overshadowed, im­por­tant developments in education over the past 15 years de­serve applause.

Public education enrollment in grades 1 to 12 was 3.2 million for the 2007-2008 academic year, according to the Education Mini­stry’s department of planning. Female enrollment comprised 47 percent, up 3.2 percent compared to academic year 1997-98, when 2.3 million students had enrolled.

New foreign schools are operating at international standards, such as Zaman International School that opened a high school in 1997 and added an elementary school in 2004.

In Ratanakkiri province, al­though only 130 of the province’s 240 villages have schools (“Indi­genous Communities Falling Behind on Education Goal,” Dec 4, 2007), new ones open every year thanks to foreign donors and local NGOs like the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association, said Sek Sophorn of the Inter­national Labor Organization who fol­lows the situation among rural minorities.

While teachers need better wages and indigenous peoples need to be protected from land grabbing, he said the situation is improving.

“Some indigenous children have graduated from high school and had the chance to go to the city through scholarships,” he recently said by telephone.

Regarding school material, a history book on the Khmer Rouge, now in 256 high schools nationwide, is on track to becoming a fixture in high school curriculum, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which published the book.

DC-Cam first distributed the textbook in May 2007. Even though the Education Ministry initially threatened to seize the books if they affected “children’s opinions,” ministry officials now are working with DC-Cam to train 3,000 high school teachers to teach Khmer Rouge history in the country’s 1,321 high schools by 2010, he said.

Many of the teachers, said Youk Chhang, will themselves be Khmer Rouge survivors, children of victims or even former members.

“They are living history, they can put it into perspective. We hope that they can share and educate others,” he said.


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