LIBERTYVILLE, Illinois — On July 29, 2021, the European Union (EU) announced during the Global Education Summit a pledge of $2 billion to transform education systems in 90 different countries, including the Cambodian education system. This funding will go to the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), standing as the largest donation to date. Cambodian education reform has the potential to significantly reduce poverty in the nation.
Investing 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 make these sectors rife with instability. Factory jobs, in general, are constantly shrinking in opportunities as automation removes the necessity for as many human workers. Thus, higher education not only provides a path for children to climb the socioeconomic ladder but also provides a way in which Cambodia as a whole can develop different sectors of its economy.
State of the Cambodian Education System
Over the past 14 years, Cambodia has made great strides to improve early 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 children in grade three still “cannot write a single word in a dictation test.” By the time students reach the age of 17, 55% of them become dropouts.
The COVID-19 pandemic further hinders the education of many Cambodian students. With families experiencing job losses and increasing financial difficulties during the pandemic, “many students have deferred university attendance.” Cambodia was hopeful that at least 16% of high school graduates would attend tertiary education by 2023, but now, it appears that this goal might not manifest.
Caring for Cambodia
Madeline Kuntz, a sophomore at Indiana University double majoring in economics and international studies, has firsthand experience with the Cambodian education system. During the summer of 2017, she traveled to Cambodia with the career preparation program Caring for Cambodia to help build schools and teach Cambodian students English.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Kuntz explains the main difference she noted between the U.S. education system and the Cambodian education system. In Cambodia, “There was a much heavier focus on getting the kids to actually show up to school through incentives like free meals and free transportation.” Many children’s days were centered around “when they were going to get their free meal for the day.”
Because many students have to help their parents and work to support their families, academics are not often prioritized. Furthermore, the physical infrastructure of many schools is not high quality and floods and storms threaten to destroy the buildings. Kuntz spent a lot of time building levees with stones around the school she was working at to divert water in the case of potential flooding.
The systemic issues in the Cambodian education system are thus a cycle: education is a way out of poverty, but students in poverty are often unable to prioritize education because they have to work to support their families.
Cambodian Education Reform Goals
According to the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, the country has two main goals: to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all [and to]ensure effective leadership and management of education officials at all levels.” Not only does this mean increasing student enrollment beyond primary school but it also means increasing the number of teachers and principals with higher qualifications, such as master’s degrees.
The donation from the EU will help train and hire new teachers who will focus on skills necessary in the 21st century, including skills related to technology as well as sustainable development. It will also invest in girls’ education to empower women, as aligned with the EU Gender Action Plan III. These contributions will significantly support Cambodia’s path to its education goals.
Working Toward Shared Goals
Although the EU will fund many necessary programs for education in Cambodia, there is still more work to be done. Many other organizations are doing their part to build up the Cambodian education system. Private groups are partnering with nonprofits to work toward this shared goal. Prince Holding Group, a Cambodian real estate and finance conglomerate, 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 establish digital education programs for children to continue education amid COVID-19. The partnership will also provide “mobile devices and mobile data credits for out-of-school youths to further their education.”
Through nonprofits programs such as Caring for Cambodia, individual citizens can help transform the Cambodian education system. These endeavors not only benefit the students but also serve as rewarding experiences that can bring about personal growth. As Kuntz tells The Borgen Project, her work with Caring for Cambodia brought about a newfound experience of gratitude and appreciation as she realized that Cambodian children cannot attend school because their families require them to work and bring in an income.
By reforming the Cambodian education system, many Cambodians can rise out of poverty, guaranteeing a brighter future for their children. The EU’s pledge is a great start, but it is only one step in the journey. Through other donations, service work and internal pushes for change, Cambodian education reform is possible.
– Jessica Li