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Higher Education Development in Cambodia

By UN Leang, Ph.D. and Khieng Sothy, Ph.D.
Date: 29 th April 2016.

UN Leang, Ph.D. was educated in Cambodia, the Philippines and the Netherlands in philosophy and social and comparative education. He earned a Ph.D in Social and Behavioural Science from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 2012. Since 1995, he has been engaged in Cambodian higher education sub-sector in various capacity, at the institutional level as student, lecturer and director of education graduate program and at the system level as chief of research and innovation grant (Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project, funded by the World Bank), deputy director of Department of Higher Education and currently as deputy director general, general directorate of policy and planning, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS). He is also a research fellow at Education Research Council, MoEYS. He was a senior research fellow at the Center for Khmer Studies, a former research fellow at Mekerere University, Uganda, and a visiting scholar at the Northern Illinois University, USA. His research interests, publications and teaching focus on (comparative) education policy and its contribution to national development; curriculum reform and development, and assessment and pedagogy.

Khieng Sothy, Ph.D. received Ph.D from VU University Amsterdam. Dr. Khieng has been working with CDRI as a researcher since 2008 and in 2015 appointed as head of Education Unit. Dr Khieng is the co-editor of the Cambodia Education 2015: Employment and Empowerment and has been involved specifically in researching the challenges and policy options on higher education, TVET and skills development. He has more than 10 years of development research experience with organizations in Cambodia, the United States, Netherlands and Australia. Beside education, he also publishes in public health, development economics, cross border trade and civil society sector.Abstract:

The initial decades of Cambodia’s post-colonial history were tumultuous: less than two decades after independence in 1953, it was drawn into the Vietnam War, then descended into civil war (1970-75) before the notorious genocide (1975-1979) known as ‘Year Zero’. Subsequently, throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the country experienced a second civil war. The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement marked a significant step towards turning the country from a socialist and communist ideology to democracy, from planned economy to a market economy and from isolation to regional and global integration. The end of civil war in the 1990s also meant the end of the socialist model of higher education supported by Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries.

Peace in Cambodia coincided with the post-Cold War intensification of globalization and the growing prevalence of market-based models for the provision of public goods. Under the influence of ‘neoliberal’ ideas, countries have come to see themselves as constantly under the threat of competition and yet attracted by the potential for benefits of open trade, market and investment. Within this context, higher education has been cast as one major key to enhancing national competitiveness, but also as a field itself subject to the laws of supply and demand, with institutions competing to attract student-consumers and commercial ‘clients’. While such an instrumentalist vision of higher education’s social role has come in for significant criticism in ‘developed’ Western countries, the challenges it poses for low-income countries with under-developed systems of tertiary education are particularly acute.

In many such countries, leading multi-lateral organisations as well as bilateral aid agencies have played a key role in disseminating models for higher education predicated on neoliberal orthodoxy. Cambodia is a prime example: especially since the late 1990s, while receiving substantial assistance from these organizations, it has undergone a rapid transition from elite to mass higher education, with a proliferation of institutions (HEIs) and rising student numbers. New private providers have been established, while marketization has seen public HEI’s forced to compete for students and derive more of their funding from user fees. The number of HEIs has increased from less than 10 to over 100, and student enrollments from about 1% to 16%.

This talk will focus on the process of policy formulation in the heavily aid-driven Cambodian higher education sector, asking who introduces these reforms and who benefits, but also what questions and voices are forgotten in that process. Specifically, it will seek to answer the following questions:

1. Who have been the key players in debate over HE policy in Cambodia since the 1990s?
2. What have been their agendas?
3. How and why has the relative influence of different stakeholders shifted over time?
4. What have been the implications for the construction of Cambodia’s higher education system to date?

These four interrelated questions will reveal the extent to which direction that recent reforms of higher education would bring Cambodia to in term (national) development. By examining whose voice is heard and whose voice is forgotten in defining the issues in higher education, I will examine the final development goal of higher education in term of economic growth and current global development agenda VS social justice and public good/public life.

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