To His Excellency Minister Hang Chuon Naron, members of the Fulbright and Undergraduate State Alumni Association of Cambodia, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Good morning and thank you very much for inviting me to speak at this year’s FUSAAC Education Convention. It is an honor to be here with you all today to discuss how young Cambodians can better prepare – both academically and professionally – for the integration of the ASEAN Economic Community. I would like to congratulate FUSAAC President Sopha Ratana and the entire FUSAAC team for continuing its tradition of providing valuable information to students and professionals seeking opportunities for a brighter future. With over 500 people participating in EdCon 2015, it is clear that FUSAAC is doing a fantastic job.
I am excited to see so many talented and enthusiastic young people here. Some of you may know that I previously served in Cambodia more than 15 years ago, and I can honestly say that one of the changes that I am most impressed with since my return is the growing number of educated and engaged Cambodian youth. And just as education has been a vital part of the progress that the country has experienced over the past two decades, it is also a means to prolonged success as Cambodia gets ready for ASEAN integration.
In today’s global economy, human capital is a valuable resource. Approximately 65 percent of people living in Southeast Asia are under the age of 35, giving the region a substantial number of people that can contribute to ASEAN’s prosperity. With over half of Cambodia’s population under the age of 24, wise investments in higher education can lead to tremendous benefits for the country, both now and in the future. With an educated and skilled workforce, Cambodia can better compete with its neighbors and become an even more attractive place to do business for both foreign investors and local entrepreneurs.
Thanks to an active and engaged Ministry of Education under the leadership of His Excellency Minister Hang Chuon Naron, Cambodia has made key strides in the area of higher education. Over the past two decades, we have seen substantial increases in the number of both public and private higher education institutions in the country, offering specialized degrees in more than 100 academic fields ranging from law, economics, foreign languages, health sciences, agriculture, tourism, business management, and much more. University enrollment in Cambodia has steadily improved, particularly among young women. And I’m very proud of the fact that a number of projects, programs, and partnerships that are funded by the U.S. Embassy are helping to build up the capacity of Cambodian universities, as well as providing more students with opportunities to pursue an education in the United States. According to the latest Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the number of Cambodians studying in the U.S. grew by 25% in just the last two years to nearly 500 students.
While we recognize and celebrate these advancements, there is still much more work that needs to be done to develop higher education in Cambodia. Enrollment in higher education institutions in Cambodia is still low by international standards. Additionally, current enrollment patterns show significant urban/rural and gender disparities. Enrollment is concentrated in a select few academic disciplines such as business and management, resulting in skilled labor shortages and mismatches. Furthermore, a large number of Cambodian university graduates face the prospect of unemployment or underemployment. Despite these and other challenges, I strongly believe that the quality of higher education in Cambodia can and will be improved, helping the country take full advantage of the new opportunities that will arise from ASEAN economic integration. Here are five things that Cambodia can do to take the next step towards this goal.
In today’s interconnected world, economic success has become linked to the science and technology sectors, which require workers with highly specialized education and training. Key sectors in Cambodia – for example, the medical, infrastructure, and manufacturing industries – are currently in desperate need of skilled workers and home-grown talent. So in order for Cambodia to compete with other ASEAN countries, there needs to be a greater focus on promoting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.
English is the most commonly used language in international business, science, and higher education. Furthermore, English is recognized as the common language between ASEAN nations. With ASEAN integration, continued advancements in English-language learning and teaching are needed in order to better communicate with more people, both in the region and around the world. Learning English will enable more Cambodian youth to pursue educational and economic opportunities, allowing them to positively contribute to the country’s development.
It is noteworthy that in its 2014-2018 Education Strategic Plan, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport addresses the need for better quality control and accreditation policies in Cambodian higher education institutions. Quality assurance in higher education is becoming increasingly important in Southeast Asia due to ASEAN economic integration. The Ministry’s Department of Higher Education, the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia, and a number of local, regional and international stakeholders each have vital roles to play in improving the quality of higher education in Cambodia.
The presence of reliable counseling services is another key element for a quality higher education system. Unfortunately, most high schools and universities in Cambodia lack academic advisors and career counselors. Each year, FUSAAC’s Major and Career Fair helps to address this challenge, and I commend the alumni here today for using your experience to help prepare future generations of students for the road ahead. And for those with hopes to receive college and advanced degrees in the United States, the EducationUSA Advising Center has consultants that can help students plan and participate in the college admissions process.
Finally, I believe that the development of Cambodia’s higher education institutions cannot be the work of the Ministry of Education alone. The knowledge, networks, and expertise found in the private sector and civil society organizations can be better leveraged to focus on improving the quality of education in Cambodia. Internships, training opportunities, scholarships, mentoring, and much more can be the result of a greater number of public-private partnerships in education. For Cambodia to take full advantage of the new opportunities that ASEAN integration will bring, comprehensive and sustained investment in education is essential.
I would like to close by once again expressing my gratitude to His Excellency Minister Hang Chuon Naron, and thanks to the members of FUSAAC for inviting me to speak at this special event. Your commitment to improving the quality of education in Cambodia is not only inspirational; it has the power to transform the entire country. As we enter ASEAN economic integration, the future will depend on the presence of a well-educated Cambodian labor force that has the skills necessary to succeed in today’s global economy. The United States will continue to stand by Cambodia to help make sure that this exists. Thank you very much.