The development of higher education in Cambodia is not only recent, but also uneven. The country’s first modern university was established only in 1960 and expanded briefly before it was interrupted during the first civil war (1970–1975) and then shuttered during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979). It then remained underdeveloped during the second civil war (1979–1991). Only fairly recently has higher education become an important pillar of Cambodian development strategy.
Up until 2013, the country did not have a policy document laying out a vision for the higher education sub-sector. In the meantime, however, a whole higher education sub-sector had transformed dramatically: from just a few universities in the mid-1990s, Cambodia boasted a total of 45 higher education institutions by 2005, of which 32 are private universities; and by 2018, 121 universities, of which 73 are private owned. Student enrolment accordingly increased from around 10,000 in the 1990s to more than 30,000 in 2005, and nearly 250,000 in 2018.
THE WORLD BANK (WB): THE HEQCIP AND HEIP FOR CAMBODIA
At the national level, so far, WB is the only main development partner within the higher education sub-sector. While WB has been engaged in higher education in Cambodia since the 1990s, its systematic intervention only dates from 2010 when it rolled out its first sector wide project intervention, the Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project (HEQCIP 2010–2017) and recently the Higher Education Improvement Project (HEIP 2018–2023).
This initially seemed to be a promising opportunity for Cambodian higher education to make a qualitative leap. However, the outcomes of the HEQCIP proved to be a disappointment when the project ended in 2017. Instead of laying the groundwork for a robust higher education sub-sector, an institutional capacity and a local research culture, many of the desired project outcomes were stillborn.
One of the authors of this article was closely involved with the implementation of the project. He was struck by the fact that there was almost no mention of the specific Cambodian local context within the HEQCIP policy documents; the impact of the Khmer Rouge regime on the development of higher education in Cambodia only merited a single paragraph within
the project outline for example.
n addition to the superficial treatment of local specificities that could have had a major impact on the HEQCIP’s successful implementation, the author noted an even more troublesome trend: when problems arose during the implementation of the project, these problems were almost without exception attributed to failures on the Cambodian side.
That the project design or its premises could be flawed themselves did not enter the equation in the HEQCIP policy documents and evaluation. Towards the end of the HEQCIP project, WB mobilised a team to design a new project called “Higher Education Improvement Project (2018–2023)”. Though the outcomes of the HEIP 2018-2023 remain to be seen, the way the project is designed is not all that much different from the HEQCIP, demonstrating the same lack of context specific details for failure and successful project strategic implementation.1
THE DEVELOPMENT DISCOURSE OF THE WORLD BANK
On a conceptual level, one could question the validity of the premises of WB’s development discourse in general.
A 2017 independent evaluation of its own performance (titled “Higher Education for Development: An Evaluation of the World Bank Group’s Support”) is indicative of WB’s understanding of “development”.
The overview of the report says that the evaluation is meant to “enhance understanding of the design of the World Bank Group support for higher education and its contribution to development,” without further specifying what it understands “development” to be. Under the section on “Higher Education Context”, the report eventually does define what it holds to be “context”, but its understanding of the concept is disappointing. It says that “specialists often identify three distinct but interrelated missions [of higher education]: (i) teaching and learning; (ii) research; and (iii) community engagement.” It is telling how this evaluation document subsequently discusses “community engagement”: “Higher education can serve as a ‘development pole’ that engages with the community to improve productivity” (emphasis added). WB thus understands “community engagement” primarily in economic terms, demonstrating a thin understanding of “context” and what “development” might be.
Yet, it is not only WB that has difficulty in taking the local context seriously. Many international development agencies continue to operate within narrow definitions of human, social, and educational development that ignore the irreducible idiosyncrasies of local context as well. Though the racist notion of “educability” of the indigenous population that existed in colonial times is fortunately no longer with us today, the ahistorical and acontextual notion of “equivalency” continues to underpin much of international education development literature on “best practice,” which some of our partner institutions and indeed our own colleagues assist in spreading around the globe.2
We would like to emphasise that our critical stance towards the current higher education development discourse of WB by no means implies that we think that economic prosperity should not be one of the outcomes of higher education. A flourishing higher education sector is one in which students receive a quality education with which they are well-equipped to realise their personal and professional ambitions including economic well-being.
We believe, however, that the role of higher education within society is far greater than simply churning out qualified graduates for economic gain. Rather than defining the “what for” of a university education within ever more fine-tuned parameters and key performance indicators predetermined by economic calculus, we would like to stress the university’s central importance as a place for personal growth, creativity and freedom. Instead of just enabling students to realise their ambitions, the university should also proactively help define what meaningful ambitions could look like.
Especially in a country like Cambodia, where there is barely a public sphere to speak of, it is of paramount importance to think of higher education as a part of an intricate texture of changing socio-economic circumstances and cultural horizons.
Leang Un is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Lars Boomsma is Lecturer and Program Coordinator Assistant, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
For further information, see the project appraisal document of the HEQCIP and HEIP.
Keita Takayama, “Beyond Comforting Histories: The Colonial/Imperial Entanglements of the International Institute, Paul Monroe, and Isaac L. Kandel at Teachers College, Columbia University,” Comparative Education Review 62, no. 4 (November 2018): 459–481.