When I asked about research progress in Cambodian higher education institutions (HEIs), most of the participants in my study (a year or so ago) did not have much to say. A university administrator said research was beginning to take off gradually and pointed out that the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports has recently established a scientific research institute to promote research activities. The administrator was, however, quick to acknowledge that “the institute was not in operation.” A few other participants said the government had taken steps to promote research through policy development. Nevertheless, they argued that the policy on research was not adequately developed and thus was ineffective, as it lacked mechanisms and tools for implementation.
According to participants, research seemed to be the least developed aspect of the Cambodian higher education (HE) sector. The majority of participants referred to research as “weak,” “piecemeal, fragmented,” and “inactive” due to several difficulties. Funding was highlighted, among other things, as the most challenging aspect that led to weak interest, development, and commitment to research.
One participant pointed out that the World Bank was planning a project to support the implementation of the existing policies involving research in Cambodian HEIs. However, he insisted that the project would not be sustainable due to funding issues and bureaucracy around funding.
At private HEIs, an interviewee warned, the research situation was even worse. This interviewee said no one there, as far as he knew, “conducted research for any reason.” He maintained that teachers did not want to do research because they did not have time; some teachers were teaching 30-40 hours or even more. If they had time, the financial support for research activities was not available. He said that private HEIs only had one financial source: student fees. Therefore, they “could not do anything else except paying for the teachers.”
Using his own experience, a participant said, “Cambodian universities did not focus on research activities much.” He alleged that the leaders considered research as “a challenge to their leadership” and that “some even regarded those who conducted research as members of the opposition party.”
The Khmer tradition also contributes to the lack of research activities in Cambodian HEIs. This view was corroborated by many respondents. They further confirmed a claim made by past researchers that Cambodia did not have this research foundation (see Pit & Ford, 2004; Chet, 2006; CDRI, 2010; HRINC, 2010). One participant argued that the “old paradigm” prevented faculty members from participating in research activities.
From students’ perspectives, poor research development in Cambodia resulted from the unavailability of training and research programs at HEIs. They said that a large majority of universities do not offer any research courses to students.
In response to a specific question about how Cambodia can improve research capacity, almost all respondents from students to faculty members to university administrators as well as HE officers and employers stressed the need for financial support for research promotion and development. They said funding would help faculty members to get more involved in research and help institutions to strengthen and promote research activities and capacity.
A faculty member saw an alternative way to encourage faculty to be involved research development. He wanted the government to recognise research effort through providing those committed to research with a promotion and other recognition if it could not afford to give them money. He said the government could “use research to make an appointment in academic or management structure.”
During a time when financial and human resources remain a considerable challenge for the country, a participant suggested that HEIs reach out to other institutions inside and outside Cambodia to mobilise necessary support for capacity building and research development.
As a scholar who has been actively involved in research (mainly through funding from international agencies), a faculty member commented that any effort to build or strengthen research capacity in Cambodia required more than just funding. The interviewee agreed that faculty members often became less motivated to engage in research because of the lack of financial support or reward. But he also blamed a wrong mindset for research inactivity and/or low interest and poor development in research. He proposed that developing research in Cambodian HE should begin with “changing that wrong mindset about research.”
The same faculty member said, “with money, we can promote research. But through my teaching and work, I heard people say again and again that we cannot do research like other countries do – that we don’t have money and educated people and equipment to do that. I think if people understand the research that way, we won’t make anything. Why do we need to be like Europeans or Japanese? Their research is great – we can’t do like them. I think we should start thinking about research based on our own needs and expertise. Well…agriculture is a good strength we have. We can focus on that. Or why not just focus on small research, but useful for our daily life? For example, we can just test how much salt or bichneng (monosodium glutamate – MSG) restaurants or food sellers use in their food and then make a product people can use to test that themselves when they go to restaurants or eat out – maybe something like we test pregnancy. But we Cambodians never want to do this, thinking that it’s not a big thing – we want to make aeroplanes or ships like developed countries. I noticed that many Cambodians, including our university president, often reacted to what they saw overseas. When they returned home from foreign trips, they often told their staff, you see, in this or that country, they have gone a long way; they made this, they made that. The question is why do we have to do like them or can we? Why not focus on what we can do?”
Aside from the inadequacy of the research budget and qualified researchers and the lack of infrastructure, the participants said Cambodian HEIs can still and should still encourage faculty members and students to get involved in simple research that is most relevant to Cambodia. They pointed out that focusing on this kind of research would allow faculty members and students learn how to conduct simple searches that, in the long run, could help Cambodia in the development of research capacity.