Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Cambodian Education System Remains Corrupt

By: Olivia Harlow
Produced and edited by: Zainab Kandeh
For thirty-five years, Cambodia has strived to overcome its haunting history in regards to Khmer Rouge.  Today, Cambodia focuses on reclaiming various cultural identities, especially through restructuring an education system that was completely obliterated not too long ago. 
During the infamous 1975-1979 genocide led by communist leader Pol Pot, Cambodian intellectuals were completely eradicated from the country.  Approximately 2 million were killed; specifically those Pot felt were academically superior to him.  According to NGO Education Partnership research, nearly 90% of teachers at the time were murdered, while the rest fled the country.   
Cambodia has progressed but still struggles to replenish what had become a broken, practically nonexistent, educational system.  Cambodia’s constitution disseminates free education for nine years to all of its citizens; however, this service is rarely coerced.

© Olivia Harlow 2014
Wath Saw, is the first of his family to have completed more than six years of education.  Today he attends one of Cambodia’s top universities, Pannassastra, where he studies International Relations. “School doesn’t provide really free and fair education to everyone,” he says.
Almost all schools in Cambodia require students to purchase uniforms, which many cannot afford.  Getting to and from school almost always requires owning a bicycle or motorbike, which again, students cannot easily afford.  Additionally, many teachers require to be paid, regardless of the constitution’s assurance of a zero-cost education.
Poverty remains ubiquitous. According to UN Human Development Report studies, 18.6% of Cambodia’s population lives below $1.25 a day; that’s nearly 20% of a country’s population living below a $456.25 annual income.  The average annual income in Cambodia is $750.    
Even if students could afford this “free” education, without tuition costs and attendance policies, students lack incentive to attend school.
Sadly, around 4% of Cambodians are uneducated their entire lives, with literally no exposure to even one year of primary schooling.  While the other 96% begins attending primary school, only 34% percent of students continue on to lower secondary education (grades 7-9) and only 21% continue to upper secondary education (grades 10-12).  
Sen Su, Deputy Director of This Life Cambodia, says that when he started in primary education, he would walk to school with a group of thirty-five students, but that this number quickly plummeted. Only two people from Sen’s community, including himself, went to high school.  
Sen says parents and friends have a huge influence on drop out rates.  It can become a trend.  “If majorities of parents aren’t sending students to school, then others won’t as well,” states Sen.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues stems from the fact that poorer, more rural areas lack easily accessible education. Roughly 85% of Cambodians as farmers, and 36.1% of Cambodian children work jobs on these farms that, in the United States, would be deemed unfitting for their age.  Because many children are born into families who don’t recognize the importance of education, a large majority of kids are raised with the mindset that labor should be their main focus. “In their image, there is only farming,” Wath says. 
The few schools that exist in pastoral areas oftentimes lack quality in more aspects than general education.  These schools also lack access to clean water, electricity, proper healthcare, and manageable roads during rainy seasons. This contrast when compared to Cambodia’s urbanized educational structures makes it clear that education favors large cities.  
There is an evident disparity between the wealthy and poor, leading to a consequential gap in terms of academic success. Private sectors exist only in high-class areas, proving that typically only the wealthiest children can excel academically.
Without adequate funding for educators and implementation of increased accessible schools in rural areas, Cambodia has no hope to create permanent changes within its education system. 

© Olivia Harlow 2014
Teachers cannot rely on teaching salaries, causing many to pursue better paying jobs.  Many teachers are forced to work two or three additional jobs in order to survive. When trying to maintain various careers, teachers have less time for updating curriculum, building relationships with students, and interacting with students’ families.  It’s clear that low income for teachers drives quality of education down. 
Many teachers generate income by requiring students to pay fees for classes, despite the fact that education is meant to be free.  This corruption can go as far as teachers’ willingness to sell answers and degrees to students. According to Oxfam Country Director, Chris Eijkemans, “You can buy your grades.”
Further economic assistance is crucial. Recent studies reveal that Cambodia’s education expenditures in terms of its gross national product spending are merely 2.6%.   The government pledges $1.50-$1.75 per student in primary schools, in order to fund annual teaching materials and operating costs. This subsidy is insufficient for even the most basic needs.
The absence of proper funding for education results in further corruption and a heightened disparity between the wealthy and poor.
Sen says that had he not paid for private tutoring, he would not have been able to pass the national exam and attend high school. Again this stresses the idea that only wealthier families are able to obtain quality education in Cambodia. 
 “I’m not from a rich family,” Sen clarifies, “but I am lucky to have parents that wanted me to have education.” 
Since Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has expanded education.  The country intends to give equal opportunity to all children.  The number of schools has increased, along with student and teacher populations.  However, drop out rates, inconsistent attendance, crowded classrooms, inaccessible schools, corruption, and disparity persist. UNICEF Reports show that Cambodia’s illiteracy rates remain high, with nearly 75% of men and 45% of women yet to learn their ABCs.
“Education is the basis for everything.  If you don’t build it right from scratch, then it won’t happen in any case.  So what I really hope is that government takes responsibility,” says Eijkemans.
Sen claims that although education has evolved since he was in school, “Compared to now, it’s not really different.” 
While this seems discouraging, the rise of forward thinking, progressive organizations, as well as international aid, have helped push Cambodia in the right direction. 

Self Help Community Centre (SHCC) is one of many NGOs, that provides free education and social services for Cambodia’s underprivileged youth.  Founder and director, Choan Sambath, established SHCC with the dream of providing unique and quality education. “I knew people were struggle, and I decide when I have enough money, I would open school to bring change,” Sambath says.

© Olivia Harlow 2014

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