Trying to summarise briefly the challenges for higher education in Laos and Cambodia presents its own challenges — one being the risk of superficiality, and the other being the risk of not acknowledging sufficiently the distinctiveness of each country’s culture, history and political circumstances.
That said, this short article focuses on three broad challenges shared by the two countries in providing higher education services. It is relevant by way of background to point out that both countries are now experiencing rapid and sustained economic growth, which is having many beneficial outcomes. However, each country remains quite poor by international standards, each has high levels of income inequality, and there is widespread poverty amongst rural communities. Corruption is also prevalent in both countries, including in the higher education sector.
In both countries, significant improvements in school retention rates have resulted in bottlenecks in the access to public higher education. The response in both countries has been to allow private higher education to absorb the excess demand. In Cambodia, this response has resulted in the private higher education sector becoming larger than the public higher education sector.
In 2015, the most recent year for which reliable data are available, Laos, with a population of over six million, had five public universities, eight public colleges and 43 private degree-granting colleges. It also had more than 90,000 higher education students, about one-third of whom attended private higher education institutions, though often on a part-time basis. Cambodia, with a population of over 15 million, had 109 universities and institutes, including 66 that were private providers. It had over 260,000 higher education students, a little over one-half of whom attended private universities and institutes.
The first challenge for higher education in both countries concerns the need to provide public-sector higher education institutions with more institutional autonomy. In both countries, public universities have the committee structures required to exercise institutional autonomy, but their governing boards and academic committees do not have the authority to decide anything of significance because all matters of any significance must be decided by a government ministry or another. In Laos, for example, there is effectively a “command and control” model in place whereby even modest changes to training programmes must ultimately be approved by the Ministry of Education and Sports. In Cambodia, where there are 15 different government instrumentalities each managing their own public universities and institutes, the situation is effectively the same. In Cambodia, though, nine public universities and institutes have been declared to be “public administration institutions”, which enables them to have marginally greater financial autonomy.
The consequences of the lack of institutional autonomy available to public-sector higher education institutions are widely evident in both countries. Academic managers are weighed down by bureaucracy, initiative is stifled, and there is a culture of decision-making avoidance for fear of reprimand from further up the line-management hierarchy.
In contrast, private-sector higher education institutions in both countries function more or less independently of ministerial control. These institutions are mostly profit-driven, and are often owned by wealthy individuals or families. Their governance structures are typically corporate, but strategic priorities for these institutions are more likely to be determined by the owners than by their governing boards.
The second challenge concerns the need for more resources. As Laos and Cambodia are relatively poor countries, it is inevitable that their higher education sectors will be constrained by the lack of resources.
Both countries are committed to spending more on their education systems, but in both countries the first priority is to build early childhood, primary and secondary education. Additional funds for public higher education institutions are, therefore, more difficult to find. Infrastructure development in the public higher education sector often depends heavily on funds received through Overseas Development Assistance.
Government in both countries keep a tight cap on student tuition fees in the public sector. This policy is often defended on grounds of not wishing to make public higher education unaffordable to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This argument is, however, rarely supported with data about the socioeconomic profile of students attending public higher education institutions. To most observers, these students come disproportionately from better-off families that have a capacity to pay higher tuition fees.
The tuition fees charged by private-sector institutions are typically many times higher than those charged by public-sector institutions. This situation frustrates public-sector academics because they observe that the training programmes being delivered by private sector institutions are often being taught by public sector academics who are “moonlighting” for the purposes of augmenting their incomes. Public-sector academics also argue that there seems to be no shortage of demand for the more expensive programmes offered by the private sector, in which case tuition fee levels for public-sector programmes could easily be increased without causing any adverse social impact, especially if more scholarships were provided to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The third challenge concerns the need for better quality. In both countries, the qualification levels of academic staff members are poor by international levels. In Laos, for example, no more than 5 per cent of all academic staff members have a doctoral qualification. Teaching skills are also not well developed, with little or no professional support available to assist with teaching improvements. Though there is an expectation in both countries that academic staff members at public universities should engage in research, research productivity at these institutions is negligible, in part because academic staff members may not have the skills or the resources required to engage in research, and in part because many of them prefer to supplement their meagre salaries by taking on additional teaching duties.
In both countries, system-wide quality assurance policies and procedures have been introduced, but their implementation to date has been slow and evidence of their impact is at this stage difficult to identify. Government ministries from both countries do, however, acknowledge openly the existence of quality-related problems. Of increasing concern to ministries in both countries is a perceived mismatch between the needs of the labour market and the kinds of training programmes being delivered by higher education institutions. Also of concern, though sporadically, are scandals that emerge involving private higher education providers who have become excessively greedy.
In summary, the major challenges for higher education in Laos and Cambodia involve governance, resources and quality. These challenges are, of course, related, and to an extent embedded with one another. Addressing them requires strong political leadership. In both countries, the political rhetoric about the need for improvement is loud and persistent, but evidence of rapid progress being made is remarkably difficult to find.
Martin Hayden is Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at Southern Cross University.