Landscape-wide, not much has changed in the effort to transform public higher education (HE) in the past 20 years, and there is little synergistic effort to strategise its development to serve the national aspiration for economic development and social progress. Perhaps with the exception of quantity, quality and relevance of HE institutions is a big concern, and their contribution to the national development aspiration of a higher middle-income economy by 2030 and an advanced society by 2050 (i.e., the visions and aspirations) is next to impossible. If the development is to take a natural course and if there is little endeavour to systematically strategise the required development, there is little chance that Cambodia can produce adequate skilled, well-rounded talents and advanced innovation to achieve its national agendas.
Selected development in the past 20 years
Viewed against its dark past, little resource, and limited state capacity, higher education has achieved fairly impressive growth, especially in quantitative terms. This is possible due to improving individual purchasing power and a cost-sharing programme against the backdrop of a neoliberal economy and laissez-faire state. However, there are concerns, especially in terms of quality and relevance, limited expansion of the university missions, poor collective university leadership and management, and the inability of higher education to catapult the nation to achieve its national aspirations.
Gross enrolment has increased nearly tenfold, increasing from 28,080 in 2000 to 223,221 in 2010, and 201,910 in 2020 – the gross enrolment rate stands at 10.75%. If enrolment is left to natural growth based on an annual average growth rate of 8.75% in the past 20 years, by 2040, we may have 510,758 students. Despite the promising figures, there are concerns. The enrolment is relatively low and concentrated in non-science and non-technology programmes. This is caused by the lack of proactive counselling for student programme selection, rigid enrolment schemes, and low national investment to expand enrolment in these and other priority programmes in social sciences and humanities.
Data on faculty and staff indicate promising albeit “natural” evolution. Faculty have increased from 2,397 in 2000 to 10,711 in 2010 and 16,676 in 2020. To serve projected increases in enrolment, 17,025 full-time faculty and a comparable number of support staff will be needed in 2040. With external support and expansion of local graduate programmes, improvement in the number of terminal degrees can be seen. Nevertheless, in absolute terms and relative to more prominent HEIs in Malaysia, Thailand and even Vietnam, the number of PhDs and competent professionals is very low. Besides, the faculty teaching loads are very heavy, and the faculty generally regard research and service as being of secondary importance. Against the background, career management is traditional and rudimentary, and there is little national investment in postgraduate qualifications, especially in priority fields and important professions.
Another development is the rapid increase in the number of academic programmes and HEIs. The latter has increased from 23 in 2000 to 97 in 2010 and 128 in 2020. Major concerns include much fewer STEM programmes and relatively low-quality programmes: few programmes accredited, poor internal quality assurance systems and graduate employability. HEIs are predominantly teaching enterprises, and there is little strategic national orientation and investment to promote research and development (R&D). The few leading HEIs have been struggling to promote research, mainly with external funding. While some HEIs are accredited by the national agency, only one private HEI is accredited by the ASEAN University Network. Results from employer surveys and tracer studies indicate concerns over skill gaps and low incomes from first jobs.
Against this backdrop of HE “underdevelopment” vis-à-vis the required graduates and innovation is the limited state capacity to steer the development, rather low collective will to achieve a common national agenda, absence of a committed champion for important initiatives and a pool of transformative leaders (those who perceive leadership as not merely holding positions, but as an obligation for institutional development and social transformation), and frank and sincere dialogue amongst the key leaders at multiple levels.
Potential scenarios in 2040
Given limited quality data availability and no comprehensive database, it is rather challenging to systematically assess higher education development, let alone to portray the scenarios. We simply attempt to project three broad scenarios based on data available and our experience and knowledge.
One scenario, which is very unlikely, is that higher education will be left to take a natural course. There would thus be little strategic national steering and investment. Higher education development, including graduate and programme quality, access, university governance and management, and university missions would not be much different from now. There would thus be little hope that higher education would produce adequate qualified talent and innovation to drive economic development and social progress, i.e., to achieve national visions. There would be little major orientation and counselling, and students would be left to choose what they could pay for available programmes. There would be little national investment to expand enrolment to produce a large pool of quality graduates, especially in strategic priority fields. There would be little proactive national steering and investment to increase and enhance priority academic programmes to make them internationally competitive and nationally relevant. There would be little attempt to systematise and strictly implement progressive careers for faculty and staff. Career development would be left to evolve naturally, and talented academics and professionals would be further sucked up by the growing, more promising private sector and regional economies. Those staying behind would be absorbed with teaching and continue to exhibit little commitment to research and services. The government would show little interest in strategic investment to promote R&D, and public and private HEIs would continue to be profit-oriented teaching enterprises, producing graduates mainly to serve the lower end of the market.
Another scenario, the most probable, is that the development will be “partially” steered by the government, within a fragmented higher education system and a “routine” national policy, which receives selective investments. This will result in “islandic development” or “pocket of higher education development” as the government and development partners will invest in selected priority areas, programmes and fields, and/or HEIs. The ability of the sector to produce adequate quality graduates and innovation to drive the desired economy and society will be impossible, and the extent of its impact on achieving the national visions will hinge on the scale of investment, extent of the collective steering from the government, commitment of key leaders, and individual purchasing power.
Strategic enrolment orientation to achieve the required number of qualified graduates in targeted priority fields may not be a national priority, and the government may continue its routine major orientation.
Strategic, targeted national investment to increase adequate enrolment in priority fields to achieve the visions will be unlikely, although the government and development partners may inject random, partial investment to promote certain fields and research areas. Academics will prioritise teaching; support staff will provide basic administrative services; and an academic career and university employment will continue to be less attractive to top talents and expatriates. Their career paths will probably be left to evolve by themselves and at a slow pace. There will be little strategic steering from and collaboration among the key institutions to create a progressive, professional career management system to promote transformative academic leadership and to attract talents from outside academia, the expatriate community, and from overseas. There will be inadequate steering and investment to promote academic programme orientation to enhance the priority programmes to produce sizeable professionally competent graduates to drive the national visions.
Depending on priority and budget availability, the government may conduct random investments to promote selective fields. Given the aspiration to see some centres of research excellence, there will be some national investment in R&D, although it will be ad hoc and can be “islandic” and will not be strategically planned or large enough to produce the required innovation to achieve the visions. Quality will evolve rather naturally, and the aspiration to have a higher education system comparable in quality to contemporary peers in the high middle-income countries in ASEAN can be far-fetched.
The final scenario is the existence of an advanced system, one that can produce qualified graduates and innovation to achieve the 2030 and 2050 aspirations. If the past 20 years provide an accurate inkling, this scenario is unlikely. It could happen only if there were systematic transformation, within and beyond the sector, and strategic mobilisation of collective genuine commitment at multi-layers of administration, and firm demonstration of championship and transformative leadership in each HEI, across key government institutions, and the higher education system.
To achieve the scenario, it would basically start with accurate data on the types, number, and attributes of graduates and types and scale of innovation the nation needs to achieve the visions, and firm commitment to national investment and to implementing such a programme with good faith. Higher education development would then be steered by an overarching national blueprint, translated into each individual HEI’s development strategy to promote teaching, learning and research, especially in priority fields and research clusters. It would need adequate strategic investment, and strict execution and monitoring. The implementation would require strong support from wholehearted, committed transformative technocrats at all levels, politicians and policy makers, and genuine transformative academic leaders who value academic excellence.
Higher education would need to be treated as a critical national agenda — one that is core to driving other national developments. At the pinnacle of the system, there needs to be a national champion who will hold its development as the core political portfolio and be empowered to grip it tightly and close to the heart. First, there would need to be a politically competent, adept political champion who dares to simplify the multi-faceted complex system, mobilise and manage the complex coordination and communication at the national level and who can hold all key institutions and agents at all levels accountable for achieving an advanced higher education system. Second, there would need to be a large pool of wholehearted, genuinely committed politicians, policy makers, senior technocrats, and university leaders to demonstrate genuine, sustained commitment to open and frank dialogue — who are willing to talk to each other openly and amicably, listen to each other attentively, and work collectively and accountably for the common good of higher education and national development. Besides professional competence, this would require skills, attitudes, personal and professional ethics, an open heart, and certainly transformative leadership. Third, it would call for professionally competent university leaders to mobilise university resources, especially faculty and staff, to execute the national and institutional agenda. To nurture committed, professionally competent transformative academic leaders and professionals, it is necessary to establish excellence in teaching, research, and service. Establishing collegiality, strong academic cultures, professionalism, committed transformative leadership, and entrepreneurial endeavour is important.
Besides money and its sound management, strong political goodwill, transformative university leadership, and excellent faculty and professionals are core driving forces for such advancement. Given its tragic history which almost depleted its most valuable resource — the “knowledgeable”— to achieve its national aspirations for 2030 and 2050, Cambodia has no choice but to invest in its most valuable natural resource: its people, and higher education development holds the key.
The authors wish to thank Dr Vicheth Sen of the University of British Columbia, Sivhuoch Ou, a PhD candidate of the University of Guelph, and The HEAD Foundation for their insightful comments on a previous draft.
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.
Rinna Bunry is a deputy chief of the Policy and Curriculum Development Office of the Department of Higher Education and is the head of the Governance and HEI Management Sub-Component of HEIP.