Ministry Set to Resume University Assessments

The Education Ministry will resume inspections of universities next month following a complete overhaul of the government’s higher-education accreditation body, with initial plans for experts to assess the country’s top 10 universities before expanding the initiative, the education minister said Thursday.

Once under the oversight of the Council of Ministers, the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC) was integrated into the Education Ministry after the 2013 national election. The ministry placed a partial freeze on registering new universities as it worked to transform the body with assistance from the World Bank and Unesco.

“This evaluation is a comprehensive evaluation of universities—starting with 10 universities—that will allow the public to know more about what Cambodian universities offer and help them make better choices,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said Thursday on the sidelines of the Second Higher Education Forum in Phnom Penh.

The minister said the quality of education offered by the country’s 105 universities was failing to meet the needs of employers and investors as Cambodia looked to expand its industrial development and create more highly skilled jobs.

“More than 70 percent of graduates don’t really meet requirements by employers—local employers or foreign direct investors,” he said. “Among the 50,000 students graduating annually, only 3 percent [study] agriculture. That is a problem because Cambodia is an agricultural country.”

The ACC will start inspecting Cambodia’s top 10 universities—six of them public and four private—in June, according to Mr. Chuon Naron.

The country’s higher education sector has expanded rapidly in recent years, with government oversight failing to keep pace. In an interview in August, the education minister said the number of students enrolled in universities had doubled in six years, from 125,000 in 2008 to 250,000 in 2014.

“The number of students increased very fast, but that means the quality is going down,” Mr. Chuon Naron said. “The privatization of higher education is a trend in the region. People look at higher education for making business, but now, because the number increases very fast, we want to make sure the quality is there,” he added.

“The objective of the ministry is to produce people who can find jobs,” he said. “University means you have a place to train people who can find jobs. That is the contribution of universities. Otherwise you cannot call them universities, you can call them factories to produce diplomas.”

The education minister said his ministry needed to undertake fundamental changes to the ACC in order to ensure that the body was effective in improving the quality of university degrees, noting that the reforms would take between five and 10 years to fully take hold.

“[S]ometimes when we sent out inspectors, they charge a fee [from the] university and then sign off. So we want to change that culture. They must do a good job to give a recommendation, not just take a fee and sign off,” Mr. Chuon Naron said.

“So the new framework would allow us maybe to have more independent evaluators, not just people who go and sign off—to provide independence and not to be under pressure, either by the ministry or the university,” he said.

Once inspectors have done transparent assessments of universities, the information they collect will eventually be shared with the public to allow for more informed choices and a more competitive higher-education environment, he added.

Khieu Vicheanon, deputy secretary-general of the ACC, said Thursday that since the ACC was moved to the Education Ministry in October 2013, the committee had developed about 70 indicators that a new crew of 50 assessors would use to inspect universities.

“For each of the more than 70 indicators, the higher education institutions must report evidence, and the assessors must identify this evidence,” Mr. Vicheanon said.

Indicators that will be evaluated include infrastructure quality, access to online libraries, professors’ qualifications, percentage of full-time faculty, and number of textbooks per course.

Asked whether universities would be shut down by the ACC, Mr. Vicheanon said the committee “does not mean to shut down universities, it is about quality improvements.”

Mr. Chuon Naron, the education minister, said that with greater access to information about universities, the public would decide which institutions thrive, and which ones go bankrupt.

“The problem is that the authorities authorized [these universities], so if you close them, you have to give the reason why you close. ‘Why did you authorize and now close me down?’” he said. “So that is why for us, the public should decide.”

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn and Phorn Bopha)

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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Unicef provided assistance to the Education Ministry in reforming the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia. Unesco assisted the ministry. 

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