Cambodian higher education institutions need to improve quality to strengthen their relevance to the labour market needs. I am well aware that Cambodia lacks resources to do this critical job well, but that should not become a justification for poor quality higher education. Building on the strengths of the current system, I recommend that Cambodia act quickly to promote the quality of higher education programs.
Improve the national accreditation authority
The first action is to further strengthen the national quality assurance agency- Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC). The creation of the ACC shows the government recognises the importance of quality at the higher education institution. However, for the ACC to fulfil its functions effectively, its shortcomings require attention. Arguably, the most persistent weakness is its poor human capacity. In other words, the ACC does not yet have a sufficient number of adequately trained staff to oversee the systematic quality assurance (QA) process.
Lack of a transparent staff recruitment procedure significantly contributes to this flaw. According to Vann (2012), most staff members are recruited from the university teaching pool with no solid knowledge in quality assurance matters. The ACC leaders are appointed by the government, mostly through political or social connections. They, too, lack the skills and knowledge to manage quality assurance. Capacity training, therefore, has to be a top priority as the integrity, credibility, and legitimacy of the ACC depend on the quality of its professional and technical staff. I am sure staff training has already begun, but more must be done to respond to the practical needs and growth of the higher education system.
Establish quality assurance units in higher education institutions
To complement the ACC in a move geared toward quality improvement, the government should also encourage all HEIs to establish their quality assurance units. As evident, the majority of higher education institutions do not yet have this mechanism or any QA policies in place. They need internal tools to self- assess programs, progress, and performance to ensure that they are fulfilling their goals as well as the standards that apply to higher education. Introducing quality assurance units at this level will, as Glonti and Chitashvili (2006) stress, allow institutions to develop ownership of academic programs and outcomes, foster contacts with external stakeholders, and react dynamically to their changing needs. Institutionalizing quality assurance hence can be a useful tool for enhancing and maintaining the quality of education provision.
Tighten licensing for higher education institutions
Another impactful action that needs to be taken to enhance quality is to impose stricter requirements for the establishment of new institutions and for existing ones to obtain accreditation or reaccreditation. This is not a new idea; scholars and researchers have already raised this issue. But it seems clear that there’s not much going on at the moment.
As many stakeholders in my study pointed out, the low quality of many higher education institutions has resulted from the practice of charging excessively low fees to attract students and then cutting corners to save money. To prevent this practice, I see the urgent need for the government (through the ACC or the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport) to enforce stricter regulations and requirements for the registration of new higher education institutions and for existing ones to obtain accreditation and reaccreditation. For example, if higher education institutions do not have adequate facilities, a sufficient number of lecturers, or a suitable library, they must be denied authority to operate as universities or denied accreditation and reaccreditation.
At the same time, there should be proper standards to judge how well individual higher education institutions perform. For those that do not perform to the minimum standards, actions must be taken to lower their status, say, from university to institute.
These days many Cambodian students are registering in the fields that correspond poorly to the labour market needs. I strongly believe it is high time Cambodia controlled the expansion of the supply of graduates to ensure the efficiency of higher education institutions. Drawing from international experience, it can use accreditation as an instrument to assure that students make sound career study choices. The ACC should ensure, among other things, that all accredited institutions have a labour market relevant qualification embedded in the programs they offer. The ACC should award accreditation status based on the condition that higher education institutions include skills and requirements that the business sector needs. Employer representatives need to be invited to participate in implementing and monitoring the process.
Improve staff capacity
Last, but not least, the development of the teaching staff is also critical to quality improvement. Staff need the pedagogical expertise to support the students’ learning needs and the skills and abilities to best supports the missions and goals of the higher education system. It is hence essential to mobilise resources to establish teaching staff development centres or offices in higher education institutions to plan training and strategise staff needs and capacity development.
My recommendations here are in no way meant to be inclusive. Cambodian high education is constantly evolving. It is very likely we face new challenges and therefore need to find ways to solve them. Nevertheless, achieving the approaches proposed here would help improve quality while in the meantime provide Cambodia’s predominantly young population with opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge that benefit them, the labour market, and society.
Glonti, L., & Chitashvili, M. (2006). The challenge of Bologna: The nuts and bolts of higher education reform in Georgia. Higher Education Dynamics, 12, 209-226.
Vann, M. (2012). Stakeholders’ perceptions of quality in Cambodian higher education (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.