Cambodia's high school exam woes reveal deeper economic troubles

Phnom Penh (dpa) – Srey Leakheana was one of a dozen students waiting for a ride home outside Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh after a gruelling day of testing on Monday. 

She’s been out of school for a year, but the 19-year-old donned her old school uniform that day to retake the grade 12 exit exam that she needs to qualify for university. 

The two-day exam, which continues on Tuesday, is her second time attempting the exam after she failed in 2015 like thousands of other Cambodian youth.

“I feel so nervous because I don’t know what is going to happen to me,” Leakheana told dpa on Monday. “I hope for a 50-per-cent pass [grade].”

The exam has become a quiet embarrassment for Cambodia, since a national crackdown on cheating in 2014 saw the national grade 12 pass rate drop from over 80 per cent to 25 per cent.

Last year, the pass rate crept back up to around half, but three-quarters of students scraped by with less than a “D”, according to the Cambodia Daily. 

While high school exams may seem trivial to outsiders, Cambodia’s grade 12 results indicate larger economic and societal problems ahead, with only a third of youth completing high school. 

Since the 1990s, Cambodia has coasted on low-skilled industries like tourism, agriculture, and garment manufacturing employing its large and youthful population, but it’s already hitting the wall as it tries to diversify, say groups like the Asian Development Bank and the International Labour Organization. 

“There is little doubt that skill shortages are a significant constraint to meeting Cambodia’s aspirations for sustained rapid growth,” they said in a joint 2015 report on Cambodia’s skill gap.

“At the moment, Cambodia’s labour force has relatively low skills and low educational attainment, and skill shortages are already apparent.”

The result is that Cambodian industry has seen little improvement in productivity and many companies are forced to import “mid-level skilled workers and managers”, according to the ADB.

It has also lost out on more complex manufacturing that requires employees to have formal education to match Thailand and Vietnam.

A workforce mismatch is also a common complaint of foreign companies entering Cambodia.

The European Chamber of Commerce told dpa that over half of its respondents in a recent business survey said finding qualified staff was a major obstacle to doing business in Cambodia.

For reasons such as this, the World Economic Forum ranked Cambodia’s education system 123 out of the 140, the second worst in Southeast Asia, in its 2015 Global Competitiveness Report.

The culprit is clear, according to the ADB, ILO and other organisations. 

Poverty forces a huge number of children out of school after the primary level, education is poorly funded, and teachers are poorly trained. In 2015, Cambodia budgeted just 433 million dollars for education, roughly 2.4 per cent of GDP.  

The country has had some success with its alternative vocational training program, but it still suffers from major obstacles. High school as an institution is less than a century old - the first high school only opened in 1936.

Post-independence strides were cancelled out when the Khmer Rouge took power from 1975 to 1979 and killed anyone with an education, particularly teachers and professors. 

Since then Cambodia has slowly rebuilt its education system, but for students like Leakheana, who hopes to study accounting at university, it has a way to go. 

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