The Cambodian higher education landscape has changed dramatically during the last 25 years. While at the end of the last millennium there were only a handful of universities and university students, Cambodia now has over 100 higher education institutions and around a quarter-million university students. What has not changed, however, is the neo-liberal agenda behind higher educational development. From the 1990s until now, educational reforms have been consistently informed by the neo-liberal thinking of international institutions and donors. These institutions believe that for Cambodia to turn into a modern, knowledge-based economy, its higher educational framework would have to satisfy the demands of the neo-liberal market. This development, however, has led to the obfuscation of another primary function of higher education: that of being a public forum. By simply being a vehicle catering to the needs of the market, Cambodian higher education has not developed its own critical discourse. Instead of focusing solely on implementation and measuring progress in terms of numbers, Cambodian higher education needs to develop an identity of its own. Having been elevated from a poor country to a lower-middle-income one, it is now the time for Cambodia to take ownership of its development. In order to do so, Cambodian higher education has to provide the institutional framework and conceptual foundation to address social injustice and generate the public goods for future generations of Cambodian graduates to be able to critically engage with neo-liberal discourse. That would bring sustainable and inclusive progress for all in Cambodia.
The Cambodian education landscape has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. The country’s emergence out of civil war in the 1990s coincided with the rise of a global neo-liberal development agenda, regionalisation and globalisation. Dependent on foreign aid and lacking a strong traditional intellectual culture, the Cambodian government fully embraced the overall objective of the international community’s Technical Assistance Projects, which attempted to assist Cambodia to move from a planned economy to a market economy. Reforming higher education was considered to be instrumental in achieving this goal. At the time, higher education in Cambodia was exclusively provided by the state, comprising solely of eight higher education institutions (HEIs) with a total enrolment of about 10,000 students. Promoted by the donors, especially the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, from 1997 onwards the Cambodian higher education landscape came to be defined by a public-private partnership policy. This policy allowed both the private sector to establish HEIs and gave public HEIs permission to open fee-paying programmes, resulting in the mushrooming of HEIs: as of 2018, there are 121 HEIs (of which 73 are private) with a total student enrolment of about 250,000 (MoEYS, 2016; Un & Sok, 2014). While the higher education sector thus vastly expanded, the Cambodian government basically adopted a laissez-faire approach. Up until 2006, higher education was not included in the strategic plans of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS). From the mid-2000s onwards, the ministry started more earnestly to formulate goals for Cambodian higher education. In the three Education Strategic Plans (ESP, 2006–2010, updated ESP 2009–2013, ESP 2014–2018) published since then, MoEYS has consistently maintained that educational reform in Cambodia should respond to the reality of globalisation and regionalisation and to the labour market demand and to immediate and long-term need of economic growth and the country’s competitiveness, which is a perfect carbon-copy and paste from the global neo-liberal beliefs.
What had been lacking altogether (especially up to 2014), however, was a distinctly Cambodian outlook on the ultimate goal of higher education. Several researchers have observed that the ESPs have been greatly influenced by outsiders as reflected in the overwhelming presence of foreign consultants and advisors. No less than 19.5–27.34 percent of the total budget for reforming education has been allocated to “technical assistance”, for example (Un, 2012). Even if this technical assistance was suspected of being unnecessary or dysfunctional, Cambodia did not refuse it, leading to a proliferation of ill-informed foreign consultants visiting on short-term contracts (Un, 2012). Taking the neo-liberal development discourse for granted, these consultants principally focused on issues surrounding technical implementa- tion, leaving fundamental questions concerning the raison d’être of (higher) education in Cambodia untouched. Since this international development agenda and strategy were well received by a majority of technocrats and politicians, it has dominated Cambodian educational policy-making and goes unquestioned. Educational reform on the ground has been derived directly from these ideological premises.
Fundamental questions concerning social justice and the public good are hence not addressed. There is, however, a real urgency for these questions to be taken up. While Cambodia has experienced tremendous economic growth (7 percent on average), the issue of inequality is growing fast. Economic progress thus far is gearing towards a small proportion of society including foreigners and foreign companies, rather than the majority of the Cambodian population. Although the percentage of people living below the poverty line has been reduced substantially during the last two decades, in absolute terms the number of people living under the poverty line is only marginally less. In addition, by leaving higher education to the private market, those who are poor do not have access to quality schooling and will remain disadvantaged. In order to curb these trends, it is imperative for Cambodia to develop its own critical development discourse. Instead of focusing mainly on the“how”, Cambodian higher education should occupy itself with the “what”. What is education for? For whom? Who decides?
It is only recently that policy ownership has become more prominent on the political and policy agenda. Acknowledging the need to improve Cambodia’s low productivity to increase economic growth and development, thus trickling down to the rest of the popula- tion, the government has committed itself to strengthening and expanding the population’s technical skills. The specifics as to what technical skills are needed remain under-defined, however. Also, recently, the goal of higher education has been made more balanced, with the passage of the Higher Education Vision 2030 in 2014 and the Cambodian Higher Education Roadmap 2030 and Beyond in 2017. These two policies aim to gear contribution from higher education towards not only attaining economic growth, but also achieving broader national development.
However, the government budget is too limited to invest in such a mission. Support from foreign institutions have often hampered rather than supported the development of such a discourse. Programmes by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, for example, have strongly contributed to the dominance of a neo-liberal development discourse within Cambodian higher education. Donors suggest reforming only areas such as “governance and finance” and “autonomy and accountability”, as Cambodian higher education produce qualified graduates to fulfil its unrealised industrial and capitalist potential, thus bringing about development. It is our belief, however, that such reforms could miss the mark. While privatisation, governance reform and financial transparency are all needed, they should above all be seen as means within a broader social-progress discourse. Changes in governance and finance are changes advocated by the reform agenda, but they do not constitute deep and foun- dational change in terms of educational discourse. Especially until 2014, educational policy was made without adequately heeding the Cambodian context and taking adequate account as to how it impacts Cambodian society. We maintain, however, that one of the primary goals of higher education in Cambodia should be to facili- tate societal debate. Instead of taking the neo-liberal development discourse for granted, Cambodian higher education has to give shape to a proper Cambodian social-progress discourse. It can only do so, however, if both donors and Cambodians themselves develop a different understanding of the role of higher education within the Cambodian society.
While the output of a qualified work force is undoubtedly one of its major goals, this should not come at the cost of neglecting Cambodian higher education’s role as a public forum. In order for Cambodia to take policy ownership and ownership in project-inter- vention formulation, it needs to be able to critically raise questions surrounding societal justice and the public good. Universities are to take the lead in this respect. They have to constitute what Jurgen Habermas calls “the public sphere”, an area in social life where indi- viduals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion, influence political action (Habermas, 1991). Co-extensive with public authority and other institutions, universities have to function as a space for public intel- lectual discussion and informed opinions, rather than driven by the neo-liberal discourse and global force to only produce skilled workforce for the global market. Cambodia needs its own market- place of ideas. Not just “how?”, but above all, “what for?”.
It is nevertheless increasingly rare today to find a public sphere that has not been influenced by neo-liberal logics and policies. This can be seen in the rise of corporate culture at public universities: the institutional focus lies on managerialism to achieve and maintain efficiency and effectiveness rather than promoting academic intel- lectual inquiry and an academic culture of collegiality and esprit de corps. More specifically in Cambodia, this neo-liberal trend has fused with the politicisation of higher education. Both commercialisation and politicisation prevent universities from properly functioning as a public sphere. To re-orient public universities and to develop and shape what are genuinely its own national policy path(s), Cambodia needs to become the champion of its own policy and project-inter- vention formation. The current Cambodian neo-patrimonial state has to transform itself from being restrictive, reactive and ad hoc to being more “developmental”. (Pak, et al., 2007; cf. Evans, 1995; Evans, Dietrich, & Theda, 1985; Wu, Ramesh & Howlett, 2015) in thinking, planning and implementation. “Copy and paste” policy borrowing, with little contextualisation, finds an easy foothold in countries where the state has limited capacity, especially policy capacity (cf. Midgal, 2001; Evans, 1995; Sok, 2012; Portnoi, 2016). Cambodian state capacity, especially policy capacity, should be strengthened accordingly.
Furthermore, the country needs local leaders in important societal institutions, especially in the public universities to meaningfully engage with public policy formation. Policy debates at the state level should revolve around the ultimate goals of higher education and national development. Higher education policy, more specifically, should be re-oriented to produce graduates and products that not only to serve the economy, but also society at large. Only then could a just Cambodian society come into existence.
- Ball, J. S. (2012). Global education Inc: New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Evans, P. B. (1995). Embedded autonomy: States and industrial transformation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Evans, P., Dietrich R., & Theda, S. (1985). Bringing the state back in. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
- Hill, H., & Menon, J. (2013). Cambodia: Rapid growth with institutional constraints. Manila: ADB.
- Knutsson, B., & Lindberg, J. (2012). Education, development and the imaginary global consensus: Reframing educational planning dilemmas in the South. Third World Quarterly, 33(5), 807–824.
- McNamara, V. (2015). Cambodia: From dependency to sovereignty – Emerging national leadership. Journal of International and Comparative Education, 4(2), 79–92.
- Migdal, J. (2001). State in society: Studying how states and societies transform and constitute one another. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- MoEYS. (2001a). Education strategic plan 2001–2005. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- MoEYS. (2001b). Education sector program 2001–2005. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2003). Education for all national plan 2003–2015. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2004). Education sector program 2004–2008. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2005). Education sector program 2006–2010. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2010a). Education sector program (updated) 2009–2013. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2014a). Education strategic plan 2014–2018. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2014b). Education sector program 2014–2018. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2014c). Policy on higher education vision 2030. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- . (2014d). Statistics of higher education. Phnom Penh: DHE.
- . (2016). Education Congress 2016. Phnom Penh: MoEYS.
- Painter, M., & Pierre, J. (2005). Unpacking policy capacity: issues and themes. In M. Painter, & J. Pierre,
- Challenges to state policy capacity (pp. 1–18). United Kingdom: Palgrave.
- Pak, K., Horng, V., Eng, N., Ann, S., Kim, S., Jenny, K. & David, C. (2007). Accountability and neo-patrimoni- alism in Cambodia: A critical literature review. Phnom Penh: CDRI.
- Portnoi, L. M. (2016). Policy borrowing and reform in education: Globalized processes and local contexts. New York: Palgrave.
- Un, L. (2012). A comparative study of education and development in Cambodia and Uganda from their civil wars to the present (Ph.D. thesis). University of Amsterdam.
- Un, L., & Sok, S. (2014). Higher education governance in Cambodia. In S. Bergan, E. Egron-Polak, J. Kohler, and L. Purser (Eds), Leadership and governance in higher education: Handbook of decision-makers and administrators (pp.71-94). Berlin: RAABE.
- Un, L. & Sok, S. (2018). Higher education systems and institutions, Cambodia. In Teixeira P., Shin J. (eds), Encyclopedia of international higher education systems and institutions. Springer, Dordrecht. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-94-017-9553-1_500-1.pdf.
- Sok, S. (2012). State building in Cambodia (PhD thesis). Deakin University.
- Sok, S. (2014). Limited state and strong social forces: Fishing lot management in Cambodia. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 45(2), 174–193.
- Soudien, C., Apple, M. W., & Slaughter, S. (2013). Global education Inc: New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(3), 453–466.
- Steiner-Khamsi, G., & Waldow, F. (Eds.). (2012). Policy borrowing and lending in education. Abingdon: Routledge.
- World Bank. (2012). Putting higher education towork: Skills and research for growth in East Asia. Washington DC: World Bank.
- Wu, X., Ramesh, M., & Howlett, M. (2015). Policy capacity: A conceptual framework for understanding policy competences and capabilities. Policy and Society, 34(3), 165–171.
Leang Un is the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Royal University of Phnom Penh. He obtained his doctoral degree in Social and Behavioral Science from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Lars Boomsma is a lecturer and programme coordinator assistant at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Royal University of Phnom Penh. He obtained his master degrees in Philosophy and Literary Studies from Leiden University, The Netherlands.
Say Sok is an independent educator and researcher. He is currently working as the national technical advisor on governance, policy and planning in the Higher Education Improvement Project (HEIP). He serves as a board member of the Cambodia Development Center, and an advisor to and adjunct lecturer of the Department of Media and Communication of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.