My step-son is about to graduate high-school in June. He is attending one of those private schools that sprang up like mushrooms in Cambodia, although this one has been around a few years. When we enrolled him there 2 years ago (after we had researched the background and interviewed the principal) we thought he is on the way to a better education than what he would get in a public school and would pave the way for a decent college education and a good job here after that.
In fact, he has been getting a better education insofar as they offer an English language curriculum; the Khmer classes are a sort of an add-on. The main emphasis there is on that international program. He had not been doing so great at the previous school (Zaman); he simply didn’t like it there. Well, the change didn’t help much either. He did like his school in the U. S., but mostly for its athletic program. Academics is not his thing. Let’s just say he is not the best student.
Initially we also thought that he would graduate from a school that would have an internationally recognized diploma. Fact is that though the school had applied for international accreditation it obviously did not pass muster as now they simply bestow an in-house diploma on their students. Also, the sort of funny thing about this is that their 12th grade students shrank from initially 8 down to 3, 2 Koreans and he. Most of the more affluent parents had sent their children to Australia or the U. S. for their high school diploma. After paying dearly for this quasi-education we will be left with a diploma that is recognized only by a handful of Cambodian institutions. If he were to go abroad he would have to take an additional high school year and possibly graduation there to qualify for college admission; this apart from being able to show qualifying SAT or ACT scores, which have become the yardstick internationally to prove one’s aptitude. I am sure many parents are faced with the same dilemma. Your offspring is an average student at best and now we need to search for something that both fits their abilities and, not the least, meets with their enthusiasm. For most young people it is hard enough to choose the right studies or profession. Most people change careers at least once, some twice or even three times, and that includes me.
Aggravating this whole situation is the fact that Cambodia’s job market does not really offer many opportunities for college graduates, not to mention just high school graduates. A simple high school diploma is not worth much in the West, so one can imagine what you can with a Cambodian diploma here. After college, only the brightest will find a decent paying job. They may even get a scholarship abroad.
Here again we can see one of the most striking failures of the government in the past decade. It has not invested in its education system. The population growth is quite remarkable as most families still regard the number of their children as a guarantee for their support when they have retired. A huge 52 % are younger than 24; that includes 31% under 14. This is the number of children that will be and are in need of an education and the jobs afterwards. An unqualified workforce does not attract qualified investors, that is, investors that would bring more than garment processing into the country. What we have seen is an emphasis on agriculture, which in itself is an important sector for Cambodia. But huge tracts of land have been granted to foreign, mostly Vietnamese, companies for rubber plantations. This industry does not provide qualified jobs (I know about that; I own one, albeit small). Is does not create added value to the economy either. Profits are repatriated and the workforce is below minimum wage labor.
Tourism is the next largest foreign exchange earner and provides about 20% of the jobs in the country. Again, this is minimum wage labor for the most part and the workforce is mostly unskilled and needs to be trained on the job. It is very hard to find halfway skilled employees in the hotel and hospitality business. Lower and middle management is usually recruited from expatriates, e. g. Filipino. The BA in tourism is not much to speak of. Graduates hardly know anything about accounting or marketing their product abroad. But they do know Angkor history.
All this leads me to believe that my initial estimate of a generation (about 20 to 25 years) it would take Cambodia to catch up with its Western neighbor needs to be recalculated. After all, Thailand took about 30 years to raise itself from developing country to a threshold economy. Judging from the progress this past decade Cambodia, despite having made great strides in its overall development, will take more than those 30 years to emulate their neighbors. Too much precious time is lost in this most important field – education - for the future generations.
Coming back to my step-son; considering this situation we are hard-put to point out the right direction to him. I must admit that I personally misjudged the prospects in Cambodia for younger people. We just may have to find a way to send him abroad for studies that will give him the tools to make a decent living when he comes back, if he then comes back at all.