Mao Sreng is the country director of IDP Education and the Australian Centre for Education in Cambodia, and founder and interim president of the United States Alumni Association of Cambodia (US-AAC).
He speaks to B2B about higher education in the Kingdom, and the benefits of studying abroad.
B2B: Could you describe the variety and quality of schooling available in Cambodia?
Mao: Education in Cambodia has been through a remarkable process of growth in the last ten years in both the state and private sectors. With a population currently at an average age of 24, this means the majority is at education age.
The government has largely succeeded in reaching the target of universal education for primary school children, which is a significant achievement. It has also embarked on an ambitious program of reform in the state sector. In particular, the reform of the high school exam system in the last two years under the leadership of Minister Hang Chuon Naron of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport is an exceptionally positive step forward in universally raising standards and building the foundations for the future.
English language skills are a cross-cutting need, and demand for this is rising significantly thanks to the growth in the tourism and hospitality sectors and, more significantly, ASEAN Economic Integration. English skills are widely seen as a means to education and scholarship opportunities, better paying jobs, business and investment partnerships etc.
However, Cambodia currently faces a specific skills gap in the education and employment sectors, most significantly in technical areas such as STEM (Science / Technology / Engineering / Maths) Education and English language skills. This is why IDP Education is working with the British Embassy Phnom Penh and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to help promote interest in STEM subjects for major and career choices among Cambodian students.
B2B: What are teaching standards like in Cambodian Universities?
Mao: Tertiary institutions – both state and private – are offering an increasingly broad range of courses and improved facilities to cater for the widening range of skills graduates require. Under the reform agenda of MOEYS, it’s hopeful that Cambodian higher education institutions will work harder to accelerate their speed in the improvement of the quality of their academic program deliver, the quality of their teaching staff, campus and learning facilities to produce even better quality graduates.
B2B: What are some of the cultural barriers that Cambodian students struggle with when studying in the West?
Mao: The extent of self-study, research and reading which needs to be done at a university overseas can present difficulties for Cambodian students who may be more familiar with guided learning environments. However, the excellent student support services provided at Western universities help enormously.
In general, living and studying independently are the biggest challenges Cambodians face when learning overseas, but once they overcome these barriers, they find themselves not only surviving but also thriving, with the vast majority doing so.
B2B: What is the personal and academic value of pursuing a semester or a year abroad?
Mao: The experience not only gives students the opportunity to access some of the world’s best academic facilities, courses and lecturers, but it also opens their world to new ideas, new places and, most importantly new people. Friendships made at these times can often last a lifetime.
Students who study overseas often come back with completely fresh perspectives both on themselves and their home country. The experience builds self-confidence, self-awareness, independence, the ability to think critically, a better understanding of the world and the ability to adapt to new circumstances. Graduates with these soft and hard skills are more attractive to employers – especially the increasing number of multi-national corporations entering the Cambodian and ASEAN markets.
Many graduates also go on to become active members in alumni associations back in Cambodia where they can network with those who have had similar experiences and use their individual and collective knowledge to bring benefits to their nation.