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Cambodia’s education minister on reforms and the fourth industrial revolution

Hang Chuon Naron talks in his office at the Ministry of Education in Phnom Penh

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.

Whether Hang Chuon Naron can significantly improve cambodia’s educations system is yet to be seen

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 bachelor’s degree. Our focus will be on new 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.”

We have to make a focused investment so that we can catch up very fast because we need people now; we cannot wait”

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 often-subpar 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.

Naron believes cherry-picking the country’s “best and brightest” is Cambodia’s only chance of remaining competitive in the coming years.

“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.

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