By: Heng Pheakdey
In 1997 the ASEAN Leaders agreed to transform ASEAN into a stable, prosperous, and highly competitive region with equitable economic development, and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities. Ten years later, at the 12th ASEAN Summit in Cebu, the leaders affirmed their strong commitment by signing the Cebu Declaration on the Acceleration of the Establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015. This community will enable free movement of goods, services, capital investment, and skilled labor within the region.
ASEAN integration presents both opportunities and challenges for Cambodia, one of the least developed members in the region. Cambodia’s relatively low wages are likely to attract more foreign investment. However, the free movement of labor poses tough challenges for the Cambodian workforce as they will have to compete for jobs with their foreign counterparts.
Many Cambodian students have already expressed their fear of not being able to find jobs after graduation. Their fear is not unfounded. An ILO survey of 500 firms conducted in 2013 suggests that more than half of the establishments were not satisfied with their employee’s performance. On average, the skills and performance problems affect one out of five employees, according to the report. The lack of communication skill, knowledge of a foreign language, teamwork and the ability to take initiative are reported to be the common skills gap among Cambodian graduates.
The problems lie largely in the education system. Despite notable progress in the past decades, the quality of education in Cambodia still lags behind its ASEAN neighbors. A number of structural problems continue to plague the education system.The lack of teachers and school buildings limits access to education especially in the rural areas. When schools exist, the necessary infrastructure to facilitate learning is either non-existent or in poor condition. Teachers are not well trained, poorly paid and lack motivation to teach. Students from wealthy families do not value education as grades can be bought.
In higher education, the institution which is supposed to help prepare students for work, are also faced with persistent challenges. There is a shortage of skilled, well-qualified lecturers who can share practical experience with the students.The teaching is still largely based on the traditional teach-centered approach which is ineffective because it does not promote independent learning, creativity and critical thinking skill.
There is also a lack of diversity in the specialization being taught. One World Bank study finds that a large majority of the students (48%) choose business administration as their major and only 4% choose agriculture and rural development despite the fact that the agriculture sector supports the livelihood of 59% of the population. Soft skill training is missing and research activity is limited and is generally not perceived as a core mission of most universities.
For Cambodian youth to compete favorably in the ASEAN job market, reform in the education sector is necessary. Reform is effective when all stakeholders are invited on board. While the government should play a leading role, partnership with the civil society and the private sector is crucial to improve the education sector. For instance, NGOs can help to provide alternative access to education by offering non-formal and vocational training. They can also help train local teachers and mobilize the community’s resources to build classrooms and school building in the remote areas.The private sector, through its cooperate social responsibility budget, can offer scholarship to students or provide education loan to improve access to higher education. They can work with universities and vocational training centers to offer internship to students to give them hands-on working experience. The government should continue to build the capacity of teachers, update the curriculum and teaching method to respond to the market demand.There is also a need to promote critical field of study such as engineering, medicine, sciences, agriculture, and technology-based disciplines. Soft skills should be integrated into the curriculum and sufficient funding should be allocated for research activities.
The ASEAN integration opens an opportunity for Cambodia youth to catch up with other youths in the neighboring countries but Cambodia must prepare its workforce to be skilled and competitive to seize this opportunity. Education is a long term strategy in such preparation. Continuous improvement and innovation must be made in the education system to improve the quality and efficiency. It is important that the education meet the need of the people and respond to the current social economic situation and regional and global development.
Heng Pheakdey is the founder and advisor of Enrich Institute.
Note: This article originally appeared in the KhmerTimes on June 05, 201
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