Po Poeu, a sixth-year architecture student at the Royal University of Fine Arts, said the idea that someone would take bribes to admit students to his school makes him furious.
“I am angry because I spent a lot of energy, working hard to get in, and some just spend money,” he said as he stood with a group of classmates outside the architecture building.
These students say they didn’t pay to get in. They would not say who took bribes, or which students paid them. But they said they had all heard that the going rate for admission was as high as $2,500 per student.
“Please, tell Unesco to eliminate the corruption at the school,” another student said earnestly. “We want it to reach international standards.”
Officials at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization say they know of problems at the school, and are working behind the scenes to resolve them. But they also say they are supposed to be training students, not policing the institution.
“We hope soon to have some practical plans for improving the administration” to suggest to the government, says Etienne Clement, Unesco’s resident representative. “And we have sent strong messages to the government, on occasion, to say that we will not continue unless certain management practices were changed.”
Seven months after a student protest at the School of Architecture over allegations of bribe-taking by school officials, the institution remains in flux.
The main target of the protest, Dean Sisowath Kolchak, has retired. Delays in appointing a new dean led Unesco to suspend its teaching operations at the school until a new administrative structure was in place.
Unesco lecturers returned to work Nov 5 after vice-dean Vang Morin was appointed as temporary dean. Ouk Lay, director of international cultural cooperation at the Ministry of Culture, said that a permanent dean has not yet been named.
Asked if bribery is a problem at RUFA, Ouk Lay did not deny it. “In Cambodia, that has become natural in all schools,” he said, adding that it will not be completely eliminated until school officials are paid a living wage.
He said the ministry is committed to ending bribery at RUFA. “We will wipe it out,” he vowed.
But advisers who have worked closely with RUFA say the institution’s problems are deeply rooted and difficult to solve—in part because it is overseen by the Ministry of Culture and not the Ministry of Education.
That could change next spring, when the National Assembly is expected to pass a draft law governing higher education nationwide. The law would standardize student fees, admissions procedures and curriculum, while setting up university councils to govern each institution.
In the meantime, RUFA remains in limbo. The students look to Unesco for help because the school receives about $500,000 annually from the Japanese government through Unesco. The agency’s involvement with RUFA dates back to 1993, when it began to administer a Japanese-funded program to train Cambodians to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage sites.
Malcolm Innes-Brown, who was recently dismissed from his one-year job as a UN volunteer assigned to RUFA, has been harshly critical of Unesco’s role at the university, saying it has not done enough to battle corruption.
Innes-Brown, an academic who specializes in administration at the Curtin University of Technology in Australia, says too much of the budget goes to pay foreign professors and lecturers, instead of being used to help the university become self-supporting.
“The result is a very run-down institution with enormous inequalities in the salaries of the teaching staff, especially between international and nationally paid Unesco staff and local staff,” he wrote in a report to his Unesco supervisors.
He also wrote that the schools suffer from “very poor equipment and facilities, a library and laboratory unable to support [college-level] study, little effective training of Cambodians being achieved despite the very large Unesco project, and no prospect” that the school can support itself if it loses outside funding.
Clement noted that graduates of the Unesco programs have little trouble finding work, and some have been recruited by other countries for preservation work.
Teruo Jinnai, Unesco’s culture program specialist, said Innes-Brown’s observations, while often accurate, were unduly negative. “Our mandate is capacity building, not setting policy,” he said.
Jinnai said Unesco’s goal is to train increasing numbers of Cambodians in the fields of archeology and architecture, with a goal of eventually replacing international staff. They are making progress toward that goal, hiring more Cambodian lecturers each year, he said.
He said Unesco deplores the idea that corruption exists at the university, and urges change at every opportunity. The agency has fired no-show teachers and two years ago challenged admissions officials who admitted 49 students to classes designed for 30.
Jinnai said this year’s entering class is expected to be below 40. “The government is making an effort, and you have to acknowledge that,” he said.
Clement said the problems of income disparity and corruption plague all areas of Cambodian society, not just RUFA.
“We would like to see the salaries of civil servants reach a level that allows them to do their work under the best conditions,” he said. “That’s the main goal of the whole UN team in Cambodia.”