Working Paper   98

Cambodia’s Skill Gap: An Anatomy of Issues and Policy Options

Author(s): Srinivasa Madhur

Published: 01-Aug-2014
English PDF (30)


There is growing consensus that an emerging skill gap could impose human costs and constraints on Cambodia’s economic growth and development. The country is facing a shortage of skilled human resources even for low-to-medium skill intensive industries. There is a widening gap between the skills that industries and businesses need and what the education institutions, whether academic or vocational training, are producing. Cambodia’s skill gap is emerging at a time when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is preparing to launch the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. The AEC will allow a freer movement of certain kinds of skilled labour across national borders. That could put further pressure on the country’s growing but inadequately skilled young workforce. Cambodia’s emerging skill gap can be seen as the sum of two educational gaps: a schooling gap and a learning gap. The schooling gap is mostly about numbers—low enrollment rates, high dropout rates and low completion rates at various levels of education. The learning gap is about the quality of education—students may not be learning enough even if they go to school, stay there, and complete their respective grades and college degrees. Simply put, the schooling gap arises because not enough children are getting to school and staying there to complete the required grades, while the learning gap arises because students are not learning enough workplace skills that are demanded by the labour market.

Cambodia’s youth is thus in need of not just more schooling but also better learning while in school and college if the country is to narrow the skill gap. No doubt, in the last two decades Cambodia has made huge strides in improving its education system. Government efforts to strengthen the education system have aimed at both stimulating the demand for education and augmenting the supply-side of the education system. Supply-side measures have focused on reconstructing educational hardware—school buildings, classrooms, textbooks and other school supplies, and infrastructure facilities connecting schools to homes, as well as rebuilding the software—improving the curriculum, and hiring and training a large number of teachers.

Despite the rebuilding of the education system, many constraints on the learning environment and quality of teaching need to be overcome. This paper identifies the shortage of trained teachers at all levels of education but particularly at the primary level as the single most important constraint on narrowing the country’s skill gap. The teacher shortage problem has persistently plagued the country’s education system. The clearest and perhaps the single most important indicator of teacher shortage in Cambodia is the very high pupil-teacher ratios in schools, especially at the primary level.

Cambodia’s pupil-teacher ratio for primary schools is the highest among ASEAN countries; at 46.2, the ratio is close to twice that of Laos (27) and Myanmar (28), and two and half times that of Vietnam (20). Indeed, Cambodia’s primary pupil-teacher ratio is the 16th highest in the world and the highest among countries outside of Africa. Moreover, Cambodia belongs to a short list of 26 countries in the world with a primary teacher ratio of more than 40, the upper limit beyond which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says the quality of education suffers; and 23 of these are from Africa. Added to the shortage of numbers, inadequate educational qualifications and lack of teacher training seem to cut across the country’s entire education system. That, in turn, translates into significant learning gaps for students.

The shortage of trained teachers is a self-perpetuating problem, resulting in a vicious circle of poor education over generations—today’s students are poor because today’s teachers are poor, and tomorrow’s teachers are poor because today’s poor students become tomorrow’s teachers, and so on. Inadequately trained teachers in primary and secondary schools also lead to a poor student pool entering higher education resulting in inadequately equipped graduates coming out of higher education institutions. That subsequently leads to the next batch of poor primary and secondary school teachers and another generation of poor students entering higher education institutions. The sooner Cambodia breaks this vicious circle of poor education, the better equipped youth will be to both contribute to and benefit from the country’s growth and development.

The country, therefore, needs not only more but also better teachers. There is merit in the country implementing a strategy of teacher development that has three interconnected elements—prepare them well (quality pre-service and in-service training), pay them well (better remuneration package), and ensure they perform well (better teaching and learning). Many countries that have been successful in developing a solid education system have followed such a PPP teacher development strategy. This is a kind of “conditional teacher preparation and pay” model. The long run objective should be one of having a teacher cadre that is drawn from the top echelons of the workforce.

Given the lack of qualified teacher trainers in the country, importing well-qualified teacher trainers from abroad would be crucial for the success of the PPP teacher development strategy.

To enhance the effectiveness of the teacher development strategy in providing quality education, there is huge merit in pursuing a set of complementary measures that ensure children are adequately prepared for schooling, continuous review and update of the curriculum, continuous improvement of the teaching pedagogy, and local community involvement especially parent involvement in school management. As all these reforms would take time and the country cannot delay tackling its emerging skill gap, a well-designed and effectively implemented technical and vocational education training (TVET) programme could be the medium-term bridge builder for skill development. A significant shaping up and scaling up of the country’s fragmented TVET system would be required to enable it to play that role.

True, education is a culture—highly path-dependent and slow to change. Yet, it can be nurtured and shaped, as proven by countries as apart in culture, distance and initial conditions as Finland in Europe and South Korea or Singapore in Asia. It is also true that building a skilled workforce is a shared responsibility between government, education institutions, development partners, private sector firms and employees, training providers, students and parents. But such expectations cannot be realised without significant increases in spending on education, whether public or private. Moreover, success in re-calibrating the country’s education culture depends on strong political leadership. Without clear vision and direction, it would be impossible to bring about the mindset change needed to create conditions for the education culture that is envisaged and to mobilise the resources required for financing the kind of education reforms that are badly needed.

The cost of not prioritising education reforms—for tackling the skill gaps and empowering its youth through productive employment and decent jobs—would be prohibitively high. Cambodia is still experiencing a youth bulge in its population. Crucial to converting the youth bulge into a skill bulge is more schooling (narrow the schooling gap) and better learning (narrow the learning gap). This window of demographic dividend will gradually close as the populationages. Unless the country acts now, today’s education gap will simply become tomorrow’s skill gap, just as the past gaps in education now show up as a major skill gap.

It took almost two decades to make some significant amends to the education system under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s strategy of “people with low education teach the ones with no education and people with high education teach the ones with low education”, a major departure from the Khmer Rouge regime’s slogan of “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution”. Despite the significant achievements of the past two decades, a major skill-gap is now emerging in the country. Cambodia’s own experience surely highlights the fact that putting education to work—to enable it to close the skill gap—is a long-term project. Most initiatives taken now will not yield immediate results, producing tangible benefits only after many years. This is another major reason why the time to act is now and not much farther in the future.

There is no reason why Cambodia should not be able to build a modern education system that can provide high-quality education to Cambodian children and youth. It is equally clear that a business-as-usual approach that would only involve some tinkering of polices here and there is not an option. In rethinking the country’s education system, it is equally important to follow through with the institutional changes required for timely and effective implementation of the reforms necessary for accomplishing that feat. Political commitment at the highest level would be the sine qua non for that. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” (Albert Einstein).   

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