Farewell to the King Father

By Vong Socheata

I was extremely overwhelmed by the passing of the King Father on October 15, 2012. The whole nation was in profound grief. As part of Cambodia’s youth, I have learned both positive and negative viewpoints about the King including: the legacy of how he achieved independence for Cambodia from France in 1953; his Sangkum Reastr Niyum (the unopposed era); the year he was deposed (1970); his observation of the country’s descent into genocide and civil war; his 1991 homecoming; his political deal for the first-ever co-premiership; and his 2004 abdication. The King Father’s final years were marked by his expressions of melancholy and frequent complaints about the poverty and abuse in what he called “my poor nation.” Such a mixed legacy over a long period of time made him an icon and Cambodia is unlikely to see such a personality ever again.  King, politician, bureaucrat, diplomat, playboy, teacher, judge, monk, filmmaker, actor, worshiper, communist collaborator, peacemaker; he was all these things and more.  I felt like I was reading a simultaneously joyous and tragic tale.  Sadly, his passing marks the end of an era for Cambodia. I had an opportunity to pay my final tribute to him at the Royal Palace on January 12, 2013, and I also joined thousands of Cambodian mourners at the final cremation on February 4, 2013. As a Cambodian, all I wish to express is that he left our nation and our people with profoundly bittersweet nostalgia beyond words.

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Guidance on Thesis Topics, Not Ban, Should Improve Quality

OPINION
The Cambodia Daily

Despite its good intention to discourage plagiarism, the ban of research topics at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) should be much discussed; as it could have many negative consequences; “Law Students Told to Avoid Thesis Topics,” Monday, page 17. First, such a ban violates academic freedom as stipulated in Article 66 of the Constitution. Second, it discourages critical thinking of students who are interested in the barred topics and their potential contribution to our society. Topics such as drugs and land disputes are very important and still deserve answers from many perspectives. And it is too early to conclude that these topics have been well researched. Third, such a ban can kill student’s curiosity and the process of learning to do research. If we are not wrong, most of the new ideas and findings so far are achieved during and after the research. Such things apply even among world’s top researchers.

In research, in spite of the same topic and questions, students can still come up with different answers or different approaches to the same answers. If universities want to discourage plagiarism, they should come up with a good punishment system and a warning letter, rather than simply the ban. In addition, it is the role of the schools and their academic staffs to guide student to contribute new things in the topics of interests to students. In other words, if a student is interested in a specific topic, the school and supervisor should encourage and guide, rather discourage them.

Indeed, the depth of today’s knowledge stock is based on the persistent research on the same topics. That is why economic and social policies, technology, and medical science, for instance, get upgraded and improved over time.

Cambodia lost a lot of human resources during the wars and the Khmer Rough regime. Now, let us work together to accumulate Cambodia’s human capital. In this regard, only through encouragement and intellectual challenges can Cambodia produce a pool of clever, respected, caring, committed, and responsible citizens with high dignity. Cambodian society should therefore be re-engineered based on this rather than such a ban of research topics.

Where countries are today affects where they can go. Cambodia’s future and its development capacity in the coming decades depend what this country does today to promote the intellectual ability, critical thinking, talent and skills of its people. Thus, our journey to the next stage of development is to promote intellectual prowess and innovative thought by letting our students pursue research of their interest.

So, our plea to all universities – not only RULE – in Cambodia is please remove any ban on research now, otherwise we will be again a laughing stock of the world.

Heng Dyna, Oum Sothea, Chan Sophal and Vong Socheata
Cambodian Professional Group
Phnom Penh

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More Appropriate Survey needed to measure the effects of Banks on business growth

By Heng Dyna

A Khmer version of this article was published in the Phnom Penh Post on January 13, 2012

In general, the concern on a financial sector is at least two-fold: the concern on the health of banks, and the concern on the effect of financial sector on business expansion and growth. So far, the media and the bankers report the high profitability and very low non-performing loan (NPL) which reflect the health (i.e viability and sustainability) of the bank/MFI. With these indicators, they also jump to the conclusion that their customers’ business expansion must be good too; otherwise we should not have growth in customer base, profitability, and low NPL.

Arguably, they can be right, but the conclusion is still crude as they lack other important indicators such as  the number of borrowers’ asset sale to pay back the loans , and  the number of SMEs that have high returns yet remain chronicle or stagnant. Indicator of borrowers’ asset liquidation would attack directly on the NPL/profitability-based argument. As much of the loans in Cambodia is collateral-based, the banks are able to recover its loan and thus secure safe returns despite borrowers’ bankrupt business. In such cases, we would expect low NPL/high profitability and high rate of bankruptcy.  Unfortunately, bankers might want to report only the low NPL and high profitability.

On the other hand, the number of SMEs which have high returns yet remain chronicle or stagnant would attack directly on the argument that the high rate is totally fine as the return rate of small business is high too. Indeed, the banks and MIFs can be right, but we need to delve deeper. First, the profit of many small businesses may be high enough to pay back the interest, but the profit usually does not take into account the wage of the small entrepreneur. Second, some business might have returns high enough to pay back the high interest rates and thus can survive for some years. But the high interest rate can gradually rip off their potential and resource to expand further, and leave them stagnant. Of course, sustaining the survival period of SME might be still argued to be the positive side of the bank. But the number of SMEs which have high returns yet remain chronicle or stagnant would help us understand more the “sustainability of the borrowers” in high-interest rate environment.

In addition, I believe that the current borrower base is still a small share of the potential borrowers. Thus, even the current borrowers are not doing well, the bank can still roll on to increase its borrowers by attracting new customers. Then, the increase in current borrower base could be a misleading indicator for the borrowers’ business expansion.

In short, the existing indicators are not enough and can even be misleading. National Bank of Cambodia should fund survey or require financial institutions to report (1) the number of borrowers’ asset fire sale to pay back the loan, (2) the survival rates and period of borrowers’ business, and (3). The component of bank’s borrower base (i.e old versus new borrowers, and their survival period)

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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
Lecturer
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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CAMPRO Friendly Dialogue on Bac II Exams

CAMPRO Friendly Dialogue on Bac II Exams
August 18, 2011
Le President Restaurant
Compiled by Vong Socheata

On August 18th, a group of 16 people from CAMPRO met for a friendly dialogue over dinner at Le President. The dialogue was moderated by Dr. Mey Kalyan.

Dr. Mey Kalyan kicked off the meeting by asking the group what the key focus for the dialogue should be. He allowed some members to give background before deciding over which key issues to focus.

Background

Mr. Sok Hach of the Golden Rice provided some background on the education in the 1960s in which education was essential and made top priority by the country leader then. He stressed that students who finished junior high school could serve as clerks and those who finished high school became highly-paid teachers. He went on to focus on the present high school education. He kindly shared the real experience as an employer, Golden Rice, which has three types of employees: top management, technicians and operators. There are currently about 200 technicians who do not necessarily possess Bac II certificate but who completed vocational skills. He suggested the policy on quality and quantity of students or graduates should depend on the country’s realistic economic development. He saw that Cambodia needs both serious technicians and unskilled labor. 

Dr. Huot Pum recalled the time when he took the Bac II exams in 1992 which were very strict and he stilled resisted his parents’ offer of significant money to help in case it was needed. He echoed the need to have a balanced approach taking into account both the short term and long term needs.

Mr. Chan Sophal put a focus on the cheating and bribery in the current Bac II exams which require serious attention and action from the Ministry of Education. He provided a strong recommendation on establishing a strict measurement as a way of the exams. He said any compromise for social concerns should be dealt by lower the bar, or the minimum score for passing, but not allowing cheating. This would lead to more accurate classification of grades (A, B, C, D, E, F) for Bac II certificate holders for their appropriate further education and training.

Dr. Mey Kalyan said that the economic factor plays a role in improving the education. However, he strongly recommended that a clear standard be established to track on the quality and quality of education. He stressed on the importance of establishing an achievable mechanism.

Main Discussion

Following background and brainstorming, many participants came to an agreement that improving the Bac II exams was the main focus.

Mr. Sao Sopheap stressed that we cannot simply compare the current education situation with the one in the 1960s, even with the ones in the 1980s and 1990s, as we have now more than 14 million people far bigger than the population in the 1960s. He acknowledged that irregularities happened not only during the recent exam but also in the past times and that improvement needs to be made not only at the exams but at students’ course of study more broadly. He questioned whether cheating exams used to happen in the 1960s. He said tertiary education was also important. He pointed out that the need to look at both economic and social reasons while attempting to manage Bac II exam strictly.  

Mr. Chan Sophal said that the education system is not getting worse but it seemed that the Bac II exams got worse over the years as bribery during exams was reportedly widespread. He was concerned that unqualified students passing Bac II would continue to be unqualified in universities for all degrees and likely in their professional world (they may continue to pretend to know). If students face strict exams and are classified according to their capacity, they would better receive benefits from further training. He stressed on the importance of the Bac II exams for students to study hard for it in many years leading to the Bac II exam.

Mr. Kung Seangly said he was particularly concerned about the poor quality of teachers due to the corruption.

Mr. Seng Hong said that parents factor in the bribery and corruption and that the corruption is systematic.

Ms. Phean Sophoan agreed with the recommendation that reform starting at the BACII exam is crucially needed and can be done in a short term, however, improvement on the quality of education should also be considered seriously as a longer term strategy. The improvement can be made throughout in order to ensure students’ continuous performance at school and to prepare students especially those who cannot perform well intellectually without assistance from teachers to meet the requirement and pass the exam. Quality of service delivery was questioned vis-a-vis the capacity of teachers and the minimal training and capacity development provided to the teachers. She raised an example from her high school alumni that she found some of her friends who had outstanding performance at school now become doctors and engineers while others who performed poorly now work as teachers and they barely had capacity building during 15 years of teaching let alone the supporting teaching materials. She said the whole system needs to be improved.

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