LIBERTYVILLE, Illinois – On July 29, 2021, the European Union (EU) announced at the World Education Summit a $2 billion commitment to transform education systems in 90 different countries, including the Cambodian education system. This funding will go to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), representing the largest donation to date. Cambodian education reform has the potential to significantly reduce poverty in the country.
Invest in education
Essentially, an investment in education is also an investment in the future prosperity of Cambodian children. Higher education opens more doors to economic opportunities. Lower-skilled jobs in Cambodia are not sustainable as industries such as garment manufacturing and tourism regularly face vulnerabilities that render these sectors prone to instability. Factory jobs, in general, are seeing their opportunities steadily diminish, as automation removes the need for so many human workers. Thus, higher education not only enables children to move up the socio-economic ladder, but also enables Cambodia as a whole to develop different sectors of its economy.
State of the Cambodian education system
Over the past 14 years, Cambodia has made great strides in improving preschool education. Around 2018, 97% of children were enrolled in primary school. Despite the high enrollment rate, many children fail to meet the learning expectations of children their age. For example, according to UNICEF, almost 25% of third-grade children “still cannot write a single word in a dictation test”. When students reach the age of 17, 55% of them drop out.
The COVID-19 pandemic is further hampering the education of many Cambodian students. With families experiencing job losses and growing financial hardship during the pandemic, “many students have postponed their college attendance.” Cambodia had hoped that at least 16% of secondary school graduates would attend tertiary education by 2023, but now that goal appears not to be materializing.
Caring for Cambodia
Madeline Kuntz, a sophomore at Indiana University majoring in economics and international studies, has first-hand experience of the Cambodian education system. In the summer of 2017, she traveled to Cambodia with the Caring for Cambodia career readiness program to help build schools and teach English to Cambodian students.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Kuntz explains the main difference she noted between the American education system and the Cambodian education system. In Cambodia, “there was much more emphasis on getting children to actually show up for school through incentives such as free meals and free transportation.” Many kids’ days centered around “when they were going to get their free lunch for the day.”
Since many students have to help their parents and work to support their families, academics are often not given priority. In addition, the physical infrastructure of many schools is not of good quality and floods and storms threaten to destroy buildings. Kuntz spent a lot of time building rock levees around the school where she worked to divert water in the event of a potential flood.
The systemic problems of the Cambodian education system are therefore cyclical: education is a way out of poverty, but poor students are often unable to prioritize education as they have to work to support their families.
Objectives of education reform in Cambodia
According to the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, the country has two main goals: “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. [and to]provide effective leadership and management of education officials at all levels. Not only does this mean increasing the number of students enrolled beyond primary school, but it also means increasing the number of teachers and school leaders with higher qualifications, such as master’s degrees.
The EU grant will help train and hire new teachers who will focus on the skills needed for the 21st century, including skills related to technology as well as sustainability. It will also invest in girls’ education to empower women, in line with the EU’s Gender Equality Action Plan III. These contributions will significantly support Cambodia’s journey towards its education goals.
Working towards common goals
Although the EU will fund many programs needed for education in Cambodia, there is still work to be done. Many other organizations are doing their part to strengthen the Cambodian education system. Private groups partner with non-profit organizations to achieve this common goal. Prince Holding Group, a Cambodian real estate and financial conglomerate, has partnered with Caring for Cambodia to fund a career preparation program through the Prince Charitable Foundation. This effort will bring free education to 7,000 students in the 2022 school year.
Smart Axiata, a Cambodian telecommunications company, in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), will set up digital education programs so that children can continue their studies in the context of COVID-19. The partnership will also provide “mobile devices and mobile data credits to out-of-school youth to continue their education.”
Through non-profit programs such as Caring for Cambodia, citizens can help transform the Cambodian education system. These endeavors not only benefit the students, but are also enriching experiences that can lead to personal growth. As Kuntz tells The Borgen Project, her work with Caring for Cambodia sparked a new experience of gratitude and appreciation when she realized that Cambodian children cannot go to school because their families demand that they work and earn an income.
By reforming the Cambodian education system, many Cambodians can lift themselves out of poverty, ensuring a brighter future for their children. EU engagement is a good start, but it is only part of the journey. Through other giving, service work, and internal pressures for change, Cambodian education reform is possible.