Cambodia's universities rise from the killing fields

April 9, 1999

The Royal Phnom Penh University, which lies on the chaotic road to the Cambodian capital's Pochentong airport, has a brief but tragic past.

Opened in 1960, it was shut in 1975 - the Khmer Rouge's "year zero" - and used as a holding camp for returning Cambodian ex-patriots before they were executed. When the campus was reopened four years later, the only literature left was kindergarten books used to tutor the children of top cadres.

Still starved of qualified lecturers in the wake of the Killing Fields, higher education in Cambodia is now crying out for an overhaul to draw the country's few postgraduates back into teaching posts.

Cambodia has no masters courses and the few western-educated postgraduates are invariably sucked into western organisations that proliferate in the capital, especially development agencies.

Private sector wages are between ten and 20 times higher than the state salary of a university professor at the peak of the educational pay scale, who gets about Pounds 20 a month.

Pit Chamnan, vice-rector of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says that of 200 teaching staff, only one fifth have a postgraduate qualification - mostly acquired in the former eastern bloc - providing them with technical skill, but a less helpful grounding in Russian and Czech.

Between 1975-79, some 70 per cent of teachers at all levels are believed to have died. After Vietnam ousted Pol Pot and installed a government, Cambodia became reliant on Soviet expertise and training. Today its higher education institutes, all based in the capital, still struggle under a socialist-style organisational structure.

Mr Chamnan is eager for a comprehensive package of reforms, which would help retrain academics, simplify the management system and formalise fee-paying by students.

A strike by lecturers over pay earlier this year has increased pressure on the government to make radical changes, already approved by an inter-ministerial national education taskforce in 1996, but resisted by sub-ministerial officials wary of change.

"The idea is to build a multi-campus, single university. Right now, cooperation is weak. For example, a science graduate from our university cannot cross to the faculty of medicine without starting the course from scratch," Mr Chamnan said.

Australia, the United States, France, Unesco and, most notably, the World Bank have all funded studies into how to reform higher education in Cambodia. There are novel ideas to shake up institutions, which produce 1,000 graduates a year, who have traditionally been guaranteed a state job on graduation.

Supote Prasertsri, Unesco education programme specialist in Cambodia, says the government is looking to make degree courses more responsive to market demand.

History graduates have usually walked into teaching jobs in secondary schools, which are adequately staffed. It is now planned to teach them less about events and more about arts and culture, to make graduates better guides to the growing numbers of tourists to Cambodia.

Faculties with courses in demand - such as foreign languages and business administration - are already charging fees, to cover costs and boost the wages of lecturers, who would otherwise dedicate time to private tutoring.

But less market-friendly courses could suffer. Beyond the Cambodian elite, few will be able to afford the Pounds 50 a year fee recently introduced at the foreign languages institute.

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