Cambodian Education Reform Key for Preparing Youth for Post-pandemic Future

A developing Cambodia will need to upskill its young population and be aware that industries they work in will likely be very different in the future. Large companies will need to do more than offer financial support.

In a country where more than one-third of the total population is under the age of 15, university enrolment is increasing too slowly. According to a four-year strategic plan for the education sector released before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cambodian government had hoped 16% of all students graduating from high schools would enroll in universities by 2023.

However, that target will likely be missed.

Not only was the academic year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 120,000 students were allowed to skip Grade 12 examinations, according to the education ministry. As families saw a hit to incomes, many students have deferred university attendance.

Cambodian education is at a turning point. Not only will it need to attract students back into classes and improve at all levels, it needs to be geared towards supporting the industries Cambodia hopes to encourage in the coming years.

Prepare students to meet Cambodia’s diversification goals

Cambodia has realized it cannot rely solely on garments manufacturing, low-value manufacturing, and tourism. On the one hand, larger countries like India or Indonesia are looking to attract Chinese and Western companies as they look to build industrial capacity. On the other hand, the dramatic collapse of fast fashion and travel exposed how vulnerable Cambodian businesses are to external shocks – simply put, goods and services in such sectors are not necessities.

Meanwhile, the looming threat of automation means human workers might not even be necessary for many tasks that Cambodians are familiar with.

According to the Cambodia Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025, the Cambodian government hopes non-textile manufacturing will account for more than 15% of the economy in the coming years – that proportion will need to grow.

By signing up to the Cambodia–China Free Trade Agreement, the Cambodia–South Korea Free Trade Agreement, and participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the market for Cambodian non-textile exports will increase (provided they meet the high standards of customers). As a result, sectors like agro-processing, bicycle parts manufacturing, e-commerce, fintech, medical device and equipment manufacturing, electronics, auto parts and utilities should grow.

To ensure the growth of such sectors, there will need to be a far greater proportion of students enrolled in Science, Technology, Education and Management (STEM) courses. In 2018, only 27.1% of students took part in such courses across universities.

Schools will need to promote a STEM-focused curriculum more aggressively and universities will need to carry out outreach programs to ensure dropouts return. Students will need to be counseled about potential job opportunities.

However, it would be wrong to focus solely on STEM-related courses.

Existing industries are transforming as well and require a different set of skills than what was common in the past.

The World Bank’s Cambodia Agricultural Sector Diversification Project, for example, will invest $91.7 million to help the sector diversify beyond rice and open it up for domestic and international markets for small farmers, producer organizations (farmers cooperatives) and small- and medium-sized agribusinesses. Aquaculture is also a growth sector due to growing Chinese demand.

Agriculturists in the future in Cambodia will need to use modern methods and learn about new types of farming, including aquafarming.

Cambodians will need to be sensitized at an early age so they are comfortable with modern machinery, learn about new techniques and expand their knowledge of agricultural products. They will need to enhance their cross-cultural communication skills to effectively deal with international counterparties.

Finally, students must receive the education they need to support the growth of digital economy sectors like e-commerce and fintech. However, it must be remembered that such firms will likely face stiff competition from deep-pocketed competitors in neighboring countries and are not strong employment generators).

Reimagine tourism with value-added hospitality

Tourism will also return in full force to Cambodia.

In 2019, Angkor Wat, the Buddhist temple city and a world-famous cultural heritage site, received 2.2 million visitors. By 2023, the Ministry of Tourism anticipates that Siem Reap, the city containing Angkor Wat, could attract 7.5 million international tourists. As one of the first tourist havens in Southeast Asia to open up to the outside world, Siem Reap, and Cambodia, will be under the spotlight.

More than just a low-cost tourism destination with a rich cultural heritage (and historical significance due to the Vietnam War), however, Cambodia can transform into something more. Much like Thailand, its neighbor, it can become a destination renowned for excellent hospitality and worthwhile travel experiences.

That will require strong foreign language skills within the Cambodian population and a clearer understanding of the diverse needs of different clientele. Cambodian workers will also need to be trained so they can work in different work environments beyond casinos, restaurants and hotels.

Cambodians will also need to promote their own culture – cuisine, entertainment, the arts – actively both locally and internationally. (There’s growing interest. Cambodian affairs are getting international recognition lately as international media outlets have written about local topics like Prahok, the pungent fish elevating Cambodian cuisine, and local celebrities like Chef Nak, Cambodia’s first female celebrity chef.)

Improved dialogue between stakeholders needed

Finally, various institutions will need to collaborate effectively and guide youth education in the right direction.

Cambodian companies, in particular, will need to invest more actively in education and offer guidance to schools, civil society groups and even government departments.

There are already some positive examples that show corporations are beginning to take education a lot more seriously.

For example, Prince Holding Group, one of Cambodia’s largest and fastest growing conglomerates, has consistently contributed to education by looking for solutions with an eye on long-term impact. Led by Neak Oknha Chen Zhi, Chairman of Prince Holding Group, it helped launch Cambodia’s first watchmaking school (one observer called it “the most impressive watchmaking academy outside of Switzerland”), seeking to revitalize Cambodia’s reputation as a place for excellent craftsmanship from an earlier era attracting the attention of luxury markets and promoting Cambodians at an international stage.

It has also sponsored the Career Preparation program run by Caring for Cambodia, a leading education charity, helping high school graduates get access to information on scholarships, career-related training, internships, career fairs, and facilitate university visits and introduce inspirational speakers.

Similarly, Smart Axiata, Cambodia’s leading mobile telecommunications operator, has worked in improving education at both the foundational level and to support entrepreneurs. Recently, it announced a partnership with UNESCO, the United Nations agency, to develop joint programs that promote Information, Communications and Technology education, digital education and give Cambodian youths mobile devices and mobile data credits for out-of-school youths to further their education.

For Cambodians that have left schools, it has launched a three-month acceleration program for promising early-stage start-ups. Meanwhile, it offers potential founders (that win an annual innovation competition) the first cheque in their budding entrepreneurial careers and a six-month incubation programmed. Already, three cohorts of seed stage start-ups (tech companies that were previously just an idea) have received backing since 2017 by Smart Axiata’s Smart Startprogrammed.

By understanding Cambodia’s future needs, responsible corporate actors such as Chen Zhi (Cambodia)’s Prince Group act as important catalysts that help translate policy objectives into meaningful action. As employers, they are also well-placed to communicate how Cambodian education needs to change for a brighter tomorrow.

As Cambodia changes, education must also change

As of August 2021, Cambodia ranks second in the ASEAN region in the Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index. Cambodia has fully vaccinated 8 million out of a population of 16.5 million. Cambodia’s top five export markets – United States, Japan, Germany, China and the United Kingdom – are also on track for economic recovery suggesting a healthy outlook for the economy in 2022.

But education will have to play a key role in ensuring the recovery is a sustainable one.

As a recent Bangkok Post op-ed noted, “it is estimated that 30-40% of 15-year-olds, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds in many countries, want to get into jobs that will no longer exist by the time they graduate”.

With the right educational reforms, Cambodia can ensure its youth do not suffer this fate. The country can ensure it continues its impressive pre-pandemic run of two decades of continuous growth. It can transform into a well-diversified upper middle-income economy with an educated workforce and become popular with both tourists and customers in foreign markets.

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