SEEDS OF OP­TI­MISM

Of­ten held up as the poster boy for pro­gres­sive re­form in Cam­bo­dia, ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Hang Chuon Naron sat down with South­east Asia Globe to dis­cuss how a coun­try that is strug­gling to pro­vide ba­sic pri­mary level ed­u­ca­tion can com­pete on the world stage

Southeast Asia Globe - - Education Special - WORDS BY EUAN BLACK PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY LUKE DING

For Cam­bo­dia to catch up, our young peo­ple must im­prove their skills

It's 8am on a Wed­nes­day and Hang Chuon Naron, an econ­o­mist who has been Cam­bo­dia's ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter since 2013, has spent the past five min­utes dis­cussing the myr­iad ways in which ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will change the world. Af­ter pon­der­ing the moral am­bi­gu­ity of killer ro­bots and the in­evitable ad­vances in the med­i­cal and le­gal worlds, he turns his at­ten­tion to a more spe­cific con­cern: the po­ten­tially dev­as­tat­ing im­pact that the so-called ‘fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion' will have on the coun­try's 700,000 gar­ment work­ers.

“More and more ma­chines will re­place work­ers, es­pe­cially in the fac­to­ries be­cause there are lots of stan­dard­ised pro­cesses,” he says from be­hind his desk at the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion, an Ap­ple Watch pro­trud­ing from the sleeves of a loose-fit­ting navy suit. “For Cam­bo­dia to catch up, our young peo­ple must im­prove their skills. Oth­er­wise, they will not ben­e­fit from these tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs. If they don't work hard and don't im­prove, their fu­ture will be de­nied.” Cam­bo­dia is not alone in need­ing to pre­pare for a fu­ture in which tech­nol­ogy will trans­form the role of hu­mans in ev­ery­thing from bank­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing to me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment, and in which 65% of to­day's pri­mary school stu­dents will be work­ing in jobs that don't yet ex­ist, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 re­port by the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum.

But the play­ing field is far from level: even the harsh­est crit­ics of Cam­bo­dia's gov­ern­ment would con­cede that the elim­i­na­tion of the coun­try's in­tel­lec­tual class at the hands of the Kh­mer Rouge has made re­build­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem within a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions a near im­pos­si­ble feat. Hav­ing grad­u­ated from a low- to lower mid­dle-in­come coun­try last year, how­ever, Cam­bo­dia has started to lose the trade ben­e­fits that gave legs to its re­cent eco­nomic growth spurt, a loss com­pounded by the coun­try's fail­ure to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity. Now it must forge a new path that veers away from labour-in­ten­sive man­u­fac­tur­ing to­wards knowl­edge-in­ten­sive in­dus­tries – and ed­u­ca­tion must pave the way.

Naron's first ma­jor pol­icy ini­tia­tive upon tak­ing over the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion was to put an end to cheat­ing, which plagued the coun­try's Grade 12 ex­am­i­na­tions. Af­ter draft­ing in mem­bers of the Anti-Cor­rup­tion Unit to pre­vent in­vig­i­la­tors from tak­ing any un­der-the-ta­ble pay­ments and stu­dents from bring­ing cheat sheets and mo­bile phones into exam halls, the exam pass rate dropped from 83% to 26%. The first set of dis­ap­point­ingly low re­sults af­ter the re­forms re­vealed stu­dents' crip­pling in­er­tia to­ward study­ing caused by years of ram­pant bribery and cheat­ing. But the re-sit a few months later, which only man­aged to bump up the pass rate from 26% to 40%, pointed to much deeper prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to Naron. “We re­alised the prob­lem might be the teach­ers. Dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge, 80% of the teach­ers were killed, so we had to re­cruit some not-so-qual­i­fied peo­ple to be­come teach­ers,” he says. “The qual­i­fi­ca­tion of the teacher is the most im­por­tant is­sue, and then how to pro­vide train­ing to the ex­ist­ing teach­ers. In­creas­ing salaries is also nec­es­sary to at­tract the best and bright­est to be­come teach­ers.”

Dur­ing his four years in of­fice, the gov­ern­ment has more than dou­bled teacher salaries, a de­vel­op­ment Naron de­scribes as a “com­mend­able” achieve­ment that will help ef­forts to stamp out bribery. The ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter has also made ef­forts to im­prove the level of qual­i­fi­ca­tions held by teach­ers, although most still en­ter the pro­fes­sion with­out a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion – and some with­out hav­ing com­pleted high school – ac­cord­ing to Naron.

“Right now, we have pri­mary school teach­ers that are 12+2. It means they passed Grade 12 and had two years of ed­u­ca­tion to be­come a pri­mary school teacher,” he says. “Start­ing from 2020, our ob­jec­tive is to raise the min­i­mum re­quire­ment of teach­ers from 12+2 to 12+4, or

We have to make a fo­cused in­vest­ment so that we can catch up very fast be­cause we need peo­ple now;

we can­not wait

bach­e­lor's de­gree. Our fo­cus will be on ne w re­cruits; they will have to meet that stan­dard. For the ex­ist­ing ones, we will en­cour­age them to take a fast-track pro­gramme to add an­other two years.”

Naron says the re­form will take ten to 15 years to be­come a re­al­ity, and he ad­mits that it won't be easy to bridge the ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide. Some teach­ers in dis­ad­van­taged prov­inces have as lit­tle as nine years of ed­u­ca­tion, sup­ple­mented by two years of train­ing, which means poorer stu­dents are re­ceiv­ing a lesser ed­u­ca­tion than their ur­ban peers. And while their wealth­ier ur­ban coun­ter­parts can dole out for ex­tra tu­tor­ing to com­pen­sate for their of­ten­sub­par ed­u­ca­tion, those study­ing in the prov­inces usu­ally can­not and, con­se­quently, per­form worse in their cru­cial grade 12 exam. This in­evitably re­in­forces the ex­ist­ing im­bal­ance be­tween Cam­bo­dia's rich and poor.

The is­sue is but one of a long list that Naron must ad­dress if Cam­bo­dia is to truly com­pete as an eco­nomic player on the world stage. Hav­ing tack­led cheat­ing and started to ad­dress low teach­ing stan­dards in pri­mary and sec­ondary schools, his min­istry is also work­ing to re­form the univer­sity sys­tem to en­sure that stu­dents grad­u­ate with the skills re­quired to be suc­cess­ful in the work­place. Add that to the need to im­prove the man­age­ment of schools, up­date the cur­ricu­lum and im­ple­ment stan­dard­ised test­ing at grades three, six and eight, and you be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate the scale of the task fac­ing the man who just four years ago was a sec­re­tary of state at the Min­istry of Fi­nance.

Mean­while, we are all rac­ing to­wards a brave new world of au­to­ma­tion and ma­chine learn­ing – a topic that comes back up to­wards the end of our con­ver­sa­tion. As I be­gin to ar­tic­u­late my in­com­pre­hen­sion at how Cam­bo­dia could pos­si­bly pre­pare for such a fu­ture when it is still strug­gling to pro­vide ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion to its cit­i­zens, Naron's face twitches ea­gerly, seem­ingly be­tray­ing an im­pa­tience at hav­ing to wait for his chance to speak.

“I think the world will be di­vided in two,” Naron replies. “Not just in Cam­bo­dia, but in de­vel­oped coun­tries also. Mean­ing that you can have peo­ple that are well-trained and can catch up with the trends, and peo­ple that lag be­hind. But how each coun­try reg­u­lates that is very im­por­tant.

“That's why we have a two-track ap­proach to ed­u­ca­tion. We want to im­prove the ex­ist­ing teach­ing and learn­ing, but we have to make a fo­cused in­vest­ment so that we can catch up very fast be­cause we need peo­ple now; we can­not wait. That's why we've cre­ated ‘new gen­er­a­tion' schools,” he says, re­fer­ring to a pro­gramme de­vel­oped with the World Bank to rapidly up­grade crit­i­cal think­ing and tech skills among some grad­u­ates. The min­is­ter says that the New Gen­er­a­tion Schools pro­gramme, which aims to pro­mote the role of tech­nol­ogy in schools by build­ing well-equipped ICT labs and to en­cour­age stu­dent-led learn­ing by train­ing staff on in­no­va­tive teach­ing meth­ods, will soon be rolled out to 200 schools in all 25 prov­inces. While it may run con­trary to his com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing “eq­ui­table and in­clu­sive ac­cess” to ed­u­ca­tion, Naron be­lieves cherry-pick­ing the coun­try's “best and bright­est” is Cam­bo­dia's only chance of re­main­ing com­pet­i­tive in the com­ing years. Per­pet­u­at­ing the knowl­edge gap be­tween top stu­dents and the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion is not the only crit­i­cism that can be lev­elled at the ed­u­ca­tion min­istry, but one of Naron's re­frains is that “re­forms take time”, which may be true for some of his more am­bi­tious aims but does lit­tle to com­bat con­tin­ued ac­cu­sa­tions of par­ti­san­ship and mis­use of funds within the min­istry. How­ever, Naron's rhetoric is not with­out re­sults. Un­der his watch, the Grade 12 pass rate has in­creased ev­ery year since re­forms were in­tro­duced and now sits at 62%, while the dropout rate be­tween grades ten through 12 fell from 23.8% in 2015 to 19.4% in 2016. The ed­u­ca­tion bud­get has in­creased from less than 10% of na­tional spend­ing in 2013 to 18.3% in 2016, sug­gest­ing that Naron has con­vinced his col­leagues in gov­ern­ment that ed­u­ca­tion is a nec­es­sary in­vest­ment. “Mo­men­tum has been cre­ated,” Naron says. In the end, of course, he will be graded on whether the push for re­form is sus­tained long enough for some of the most im­por­tant changes to take hold, giv­ing Cam­bo­dian stu­dents through­out the coun­try a chance at global suc­cess.

Whether Hang Chuon

Naron can sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove Cam­bo­dia's ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is yet to be seen

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