Case Study on Opportunities and Challenges of Higher Education in Cambodia

By Pou Sovachana

“Nations will march towards their greatness in the direction given by its education. Nations will soar if its education soars; will regress if it regresses. Nations will fall and sink in darkness if education is corrupted or completely abandoned,” Simón Bolívar (1783-1830, a South American Liberator).

The key to the future is in the hands of the students of Cambodia. But to use that key, they must work hard and be supported and nurtured by the educational institutions. They deserve the very best education, but they must be willing to fully participate in the process. I want to do my part. I want to give and share something priceless, the gift of learning. I want to fulfill my social responsibility to assist the young generation becomes responsible learners and develop their full potential. I want to help these young learners find their role in making a lasting contribution to Cambodia’s future. These graduates are the future leaders, key decisions makers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, managers, economists, entrepreneurs, artists, writers and intellectuals whose contribution will allow Cambodia to prosper and flourish. These young scholars will have the ability to respond more effectively to the challenges of poverty, economic development, and social dissonance only if we help them along the way.

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others, and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them,” said Dalai Lama. I have tried to live this tenet by providing quality education to the poor and destitute children at the Buddhism Education For Peace Center at Wat Unnalum and now by lecturing at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia (PUC). I wholeheartedly want to express my kataññū katavedī (gratefulness and humility) to Dr. Kol Pheng, PUC Founding Father, for offering me the unique opportunity to make a positive difference. I have been assigned to work with students and faculty in order to make lasting contributions to my beloved country. I teach English Communication, Cultural Anthropology, Introduction to Ethics, Academic Reading and Writing English, and Fundamentals of Communication to foundation year students; a good number of them are well off. Most importantly, though, I teach these young students to think, to solve problems, and to view new situations by acquiring and using knowledge, facts, and techniques. I firmly believe all of them can learn, and they learn more when I stimulate their interests. I understand first- hand the great needs our students and our academic programs. At the same time, I have also witnessed the full impact education can have on students and our society.

My task at the university is to set the course, not to steer the ship for the young intellectuals of Cambodia. More specifically, I focus on students’ innate personal strengths, develop critical and creative thinking, establish integrated learning, instill academic growth, and help to develop relevant teaching materials. I also provide input on curriculum and assessment designs on the specifics of student learning that faculty most value and which reflect using what one knows presently. Furthermore, I propose that while the conventional interactions among faculty are rewarding and comforting, there is a need to move from interesting conversations to intentionally planning as a basis for developing a solid foundation for collaborative work. New faculty orientation and initial training, regular staff meeting and development, curriculum planning workshops, and faculty retreats must take place on a regular basis to weave together approaches to teaching, learning, assessment, and curricular design. Furthermore, faculty members could also be offered regular workshops on improving teaching effectiveness and receiving recognition on performance reviews. I hope through these efforts, we are founding a learning community through partnership with all faculty members.

As idealistic as I am, I am also a realist. I encounter many ‘cultural’ difficulties (lack of cultural learning) and intricate challenges (different learners having varying cultural backgrounds). While I find myself at times to be excessively accommodative to cultural variations, I constantly look for creative, and subtle ways to achieve my objectives by focusing on my teaching approach, classroom management, and using practical research based solutions to learning i.e. integrated learning for students. I work on creating a learning milieu where the educational environment is a caring, nurturing, yet challenging so that all students feel free, safe, and comfortable to express their views, ask questions, and seek answers without fear of rejection or criticism. All of my instructions and assessments are organized around the students’ needs, abilities, skills, interests and my intended outcomes. After all, what students understand and how well they understand it is deeply connected to our teaching practices (Malnarich and Lardner, 2003).

Teaching at the university level has given me an ample opportunity to learn about the higher educational system in Cambodia where most students are passive recipients. They seem to be capable but unwilling to put in the hard work required at the university level. Most of them lack the necessary intrinsic motivation. They know what’s good for them, but they often don’t do it. They wait for an instructor to tell them what to do. They wait for me to tell them what to learn and follow. They copy everything I write on the white board. They are dependent learners. In the instant gratification
Cambodian society, they have forgotten that anything valuable takes time to obtain and produce. I believe that who they want to become is formed by key components and elements that take years, decades, and lifetimes to perfect. Good study habits, morality, ethical character and integrity don’t materialize overnight, especially in today’s polluted Cambodian society where the immorality is acceptable and the impossible becomes possible (bribery). I constantly remind them there are no shortcuts or substitutions to hard work. These skills must be learned and built step-by-step, stone-by-stone, and instance-by- instance over time. They must learn to do the right things while prioritizing their lives. They must understand and value the importance of hard work, discipline, and strong determination (adhitthāna). After all, the majestic temple of Angkor Wat wasn’t built in a day, neither is a good reputation, honor or moral character.

As an Academic Lecturer, I believe that all students are capable of accomplishing greatness, but few ever do. Only them know what they are capable of achieving. According to Buddha, they are their own master (in learning); they make their own future (Attā hi attano nātho. Attā hi attano gatti). I have noticed that most students are eager and capable of learning, but they also carry some negative values and futile habits that allow the culture of cheating and dishonesty to thrive when they move to university. I believe they lack a sense of integrity and pride in academia because they live in a corrupted society that does not value real education (a diploma earned through disciplined effort). For instance, very few value the importance of reading and writing. A good number of them often miss classes or arrive late because they attend two or more universities. They come unprepared because they are not taught to read the required textbook and supplemental materials prior to class, which are part of real and advanced learning. They frequently fail to complete their necessary assignments to master the subject. Most of them are capable but unwilling to put in the hours and the dedication. They believe that the best way to get good grades is not through hard work but through cheating and personal connection. They seem unwilling to study hard and persevere. If they don’t change their attitudes about the value of knowledge and learning they will be left behind. They must be taught that no life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, and filled with discipline.

The students’ poor habits and work ethic have grave consequences. It will make students’ higher education worthless and reflect a poor quality of education while diminishing the human resources. There is a real cost to this behavior. Will investors want to invest in a country with a sub-standard work force? I think not. The effect to our national development, economy and general wellbeing are at risk with the lack of quality of our human resources. These poor ethical work habits must be transformed and replaced with a culture of hard work and developing the right attitude to achieve desired goals. Students learn what they study, and how much they learn in large measure is determined by how much time they are engaged in that study. They must recognize homework, class participation, research, exams, and all the other difficult parts of learning are essential and necessary. They must understand that results don’t just happen, they are the product of commitment (cognitive process), energy (behavior), and time (perseverance).

We, as educators, parents, government officials and citizens must do what we can do to improve\ both the cultural as well as the practical aspects of education. We must strive to coordinate our efforts, to help each other improve our teaching methods. We must work with parents to give them better tools to motivate their children and show them that getting a college education is a path and key to success. I applaud the government stand on wanting to improve the quality of higher education (tertiary education) and their capacity building project (World Bank Project). We must all recognize that without an educated and competent workforce, Cambodia cannot compete on an equal scale with its neighbors. Providing quality education for all is one of the most important developmental tools to combat poverty, promote prosperity, and create a better Cambodia where inequality and lack of opportunity devastate families, hamper growth and cause instability. As citizens, we must demand from our government as well as our higher educational institutions a commitment to students’ knowledge, rational and critical thinking. We need to do better to support these students personal and intellectual development if we do not want to sink further into darkness and despair. Students are the seeds and we are the soil. No matter how vigorous the seeds are, if the soil does not provide nourishment for the heart and mind, the seeds will not flourish.

Buddha once said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I believe the primary function of education is to not only impart intellectual ability, but also to support and develop students’ innate wisdom (paññā) throughout the entire time they are in school. I also believe good teaching never comes from fear or force. The best teaching sermons are lived not preached. Often, in a classroom setting, the instructor makes decisions regarding the information that is covered and the skills that should be developed. However, I think students learn best when they can be part of decisions regarding what materials or strategies should or should not be taught. Learners should be full participants and engage in the learning process. Decisions should be made with the learners, not for the learners. All the contents and activities will be student-centered. Students need to gain their own skills; not just see a demonstration of the skills an instructor possesses. They ought to be able to use what they know as evidence of learning.

At the university, we need these students to be the best they can be. And that means making Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia the best it can be. We must work on developing a wide range of creative solutions together using student centered approach, combined with communicative method and resiliency. This kind of teaching is different from a more traditional approach to education. To develop responsible learners, one must listen to the students’ interests. Listening is learning. Consequently, listening to students will prompt the students to begin to listen to teachers and teachers begin to listen to students. From this practice, great mutual understanding and respect develop. Students will learn to manage their learning, discover their own learning needs, think and problem solve by themselves. They will begin to see the whole picture. They become proactive learners, self-motivated, and competent lifelong learners. Furthermore, since learning is an inside job (intrinsic motivation), I encourage students to explore, experiment, reflect and answer their own questions through critical thinking activities. After students become convinced through resilient strengths they have what it takes to succeed; they persevere in the face of adversity and rebound from setbacks, emerge stronger and become self directed. In this way, they learn how to think and believe in themselves. Then, real learning and understanding start taking root; students learn to make better choices and start being accountable and responsible for their own behaviors. In this case, according to the Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire, “Education is a constant process for the liberation of human beings.”

Academic life is fascinating and challenging. Teaching at a university is a rewarding experience; working with the young adults and faculty is a paradox where the “Commitment to Excellence” (PUC’s slogan and ideal culture) and the lack of standards, discipline and learning values among students clash. The wonderful opportunity to share my knowledge with students, make new friends, and establish collegial relationships in my own country is always fulfilling, professionally and personally. I hope that this exercise will serve as a means to communicate a reflective inquiry for enhancing the quality of higher education, offer suggestions and possible solutions to the critical problems Cambodia faces such as:

     •  Adopting education as a number ONE national priority
     •  Strengthening institutional capacities
     •  Improving university management and governance
     •  Providing a living wage for faculty and incentives
     •  Improving the existing curricular
     •  Delivering high quality education through heuristic teaching and learning
     •  Supporting higher caliber research activities
     •  Providing integrative experiences of learning to students
     •  Designing substantive curriculum and assessments
     •  Modernizing buildings, libraries and classrooms to improve efficiency
     •  Using relevant textbooks and latest information technology
     •  Investing in training and professional development
     •  Involving parents, community members and all stakeholders

May the next generation of Khmer students grow up to be an ideal generation with the seed of Dhamma (natural and capable sentient being). May all students experience the joy of real and advanced learning.

Pou Sovachana
Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia (PUC)

The views, opinions, and interpretations expressed in this paper are solely mine and do not represent those of any other. They are only intended to reflect the quality of higher education in Cambodia, opportunities and challenges through my experience.

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