Working Papers   138

Cambodia’s Aspirations to Become a Knowledge-Based Society: Perspectives of Cambodian University Students

Author(s): HENG Kimkong

Published: 11-May-2023
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Cambodia envisages to become an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050. The country also aspires to develop into a knowledge-based society (MoEYS 2014). To support these goals, it is crucial to consider the role of higher education institutions (HEIs), particularly universities, in training, research and service. However, research has shown that Cambodian higher education is faced with many challenges ranging from skills mismatches to fragmented governance to limited research capacity and stakeholder involvement (Heng and Sol 2022a; Kwok et al. 2010). Within this context, it is vital to examine the perspectives of higher education stakeholders, especially university students, regarding Cambodia’s aspirations to become a knowledge-based society and how Cambodian universities can support such a vital goal.

Aims and research questions
This study is the outcome of a fellowship programme managed by the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI). It aims to examine the role of Cambodian universities in supporting the country’s aspirations to become a knowledge-based society from the perspectives of Cambodian university students. A knowledge-based society is defined as a society that relies on the acquisition, creation, utilization and dissemination of knowledge to enhance socioeconomic development (UNESCO 2016). The study seeks to answer three research questions:

  1. How do Cambodian university students perceive the concept of a knowledge-based society?
  2. How do Cambodian university students perceive the role of Cambodian universities in supporting Cambodia to become a knowledge-based society
  3. What suggestions do Cambodian university students have regarding Cambodia’s aspirations to become a knowledge-based society?


This study was designed as a qualitative inquiry, guided by a constructivist view of reality and knowledge creation. It employed semi-structured interviews as a data collection tool, supported by document analysis. There were 20 university students (seven females) who participated in the one-on-one interviews. Among them, there were eight students with bachelor’s degrees, eight with master’s degrees and four doctoral degree students. Their ages were between 18 and 52 years old, and eight (40%) of them were enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. These students were purposefully selected from four universities (three public and one private) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. Four interviews were conducted face-to-face, and the rest (80%) were held via Zoom. The interviews were carried out in Khmer and lasted between 22 and 40 minutes. The data were assessed using thematic analysis, supported by qualitative data analysis software NVivo 12, while ethical guidelines were adhered to throughout the research.

The study found that Cambodian university students who took part in this research had a varied and limited understanding of a knowledge-based society. Some of them had never heard of the term prior to participating in the interviews. The participants tended to associate the concept of a knowledge-based society with keywords such as education, knowledge, human resources, educated people and research. They believed that Cambodian universities had a moderate contribution to supporting the development of a knowledge-based society in Cambodia, although they also acknowledged positive developments in Cambodian higher education in recent years. The participants believed that universities should not only provide students with education, knowledge, and hard skills but also develop their character, morality, and soft skills. They offered several recommendations to help Cambodia realise its aspirations to become a knowledge-based society. The recommendations included improving education quality, improving facilities and resources, increasing higher education enrolment, promoting STEM education, providing capacity building for university teachers, providing internship opportunities for students, promoting research, developing a clear plan and policy for promoting research and education quality and promoting stakeholder involvement in Cambodian higher education.

Conclusion and recommendations
The study examined Cambodian university students’ perspectives on Cambodia’s aspirations to become a knowledge-based society. It answered three research questions that aim to understand how university students perceive the concept of a knowledge-based society, how they perceive the role of Cambodian universities in supporting Cambodia’s aspirations for a knowledge-based society and what suggestions they have for Cambodia to realise this vision. In light of the findings, the present study has six recommendations as follows:

  • Invest in higher education: Although the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has increased funding in higher education to improve the sector in recent years, more investment is needed. The investment should focus on establishing an ecosystem that supports and improves teaching, learning and research. To improve the quality of teaching and learning, it is important to introduce reforms to the curriculum and assessment, improve teaching and learning facilities and provide capacity building opportunities for university teachers and staff. To promote research, it is essential to introduce and implement an academic career pathway, a proper reward system, a competitive research grant scheme and a research capacity-building programme.
  • Increase higher education enrolment: To develop a knowledge-based society, it is essential to build an educated or high-skilled workforce that can contribute meaningfully to Cambodia’s aspirations for a knowledge-based society. Thus, concerned stakeholders, particularly the government and HEIs, including those providing technical and vocational education and training, should focus their attention on creating an enabling environment for a higher level of higher education enrolment. This can be achieved through various means, for example, establishing a clearer and smoother linkage between general education and higher education, as well as providing technical and/or financial support for high school graduates to better transition into higher education.
  • Provide capacity building for academic staff : With ample professional development opportunities that focus on teaching techniques, effective teaching methods, research and publication skills and other tailored or personalised training programmes, academic staff will be able to improve their knowledge and skills. When academic staff or lecturers can increase their research engagement, their teaching will likely be better-informed by research. Therefore, they may provide higher quality or more up-to-date learning content to their students. This may in turn improve students’ learning outcomes and employability after graduation. Therefore, it is imperative to provide in-service capacity-building and professional development opportunities for university teachers to enhance their teaching knowledge and skills, research capacity and ability to teach in 21st-century classrooms.
  • Provide internship opportunities for university students: Internship or on-the-job learning activities are essential to develop students into well-rounded and skill-equipped graduates needed to drive Cambodia’s socioeconomic development. In addition, internship opportunities will contribute to establishing a better link between universities and industries, enabling each party to better understand their needs and limitations, which in turn makes it easier to improve the current level of university-industry linkages.
  • Promote research: With better research capacity, Cambodian universities and HEIs will be able to contribute more effectively to society, particularly in terms of producing new knowledge and stimulating innovation needed to drive socioeconomic development in the context of a knowledge-based economy. To promote research in Cambodian higher education, it is crucial to ensure a clear vision and policy for research, revise any existing research policies that do not provide clear steps in promoting research, introduce and implement mechanisms that encourage and/or support research, and create an environment that enables research to develop.
  • Promote stakeholder involvement in higher education: Finally, active involvement from concerned stakeholders, particularly the government, HEIs, think tanks, research institutes, the private sector and university lecturers are essential to improve higher education in Cambodia. If the vision to transform Cambodia into a knowledge-based society is not shared by all key higher education stakeholders, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to realise such a vision. Thus, greater efforts and actions are needed to promote stakeholder involvement and collaboration in higher education to make a difference in the sector and support Cambodia’s aspirations to become a knowledge-based society.

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