A rising Cambodia will need to upskill its young people and be conscious that the industries in which they work will likely change dramatically in the future. Large corporations will need to do more than just provide financial assistance.
In a country where more than one-third of the population is under the age of 15, university enrollment is growing much too slowly. According to a four-year education policy plan announced prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Cambodian government planned that by 2023, 16 percent of all high school graduates will enroll in colleges.
That aim, though, will most likely be missed.
The COVID-19 pandemic not only disrupted the academic year, but more than 120,000 pupils were allowed to miss Grade 12 exams, according to the education ministry. As families’ incomes have been impacted, many students have postponed their university attendance.
Cambodian education is at a crossroads. Not only will it need to re-enroll students and improve at all levels, but it will also need to be focused toward helping the industries Cambodia intends to boost in the coming years.
Prepare the youth to contribute to Cambodia’s diversification efforts.
Cambodia has understood that it cannot rely primarily on garment production, low-value manufacturing, and tourism. On the one hand, larger countries such as India and Indonesia are attempting to attract Chinese and Western firms in order to increase industrial capacity. The rapid collapse of quick fashion and travel, on the other hand, revealed how vulnerable Cambodian enterprises are to external shocks — simply put, goods and services in such industries are not essential.
Meanwhile, with the prospect of automation looming, human workers may no longer be required for many occupations that Cambodians are familiar with.
According to the Cambodia Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025, the Cambodian government expects non-textile manufacturing to account for more than 15% of the economy in the future years – a figure that will need to rise.
The market for Cambodian non-textile exports will grow by signing the Cambodia–China Free Trade Agreement, the Cambodia–South Korea Free Trade Agreement, and participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (provided they meet the high standards of customers). As a result, industries such as agro-processing, bicycle parts manufacture, e-commerce, fintech, medical device and equipment manufacturing, electronics, car components, and utilities are expected to flourish.
To assure the growth of such industries, a much higher number of students must enroll in Science, Technology, Education, and Management (STEM) courses. Only 27.1 percent of students enrolled in such courses at colleges in 2018.
Schools will need to aggressively promote STEM-focused curricula, and institutions will need to implement outreach initiatives to guarantee dropouts return. Students will need to be counseled on possible career paths.
However, focusing entirely on STEM-related courses would be incorrect.
Existing industries are undergoing transformations as well, necessitating a different set of skills than was previously required.
For example, the World Bank’s Cambodia Agricultural Sector Diversification Project will invest $91.7 million to help the sector diversify beyond rice and open it up to domestic and international markets for small farmers, producer organizations (farmers cooperatives), and small- and medium-sized agribusinesses. Aquaculture is also a booming industry, thanks to rising Chinese demand.
Agriculturists in Cambodia will need to employ modern methods and learn about new types of farming, such as aquafarming, in the future.
Cambodians must be sensitized at a young age so that they are comfortable with contemporary machinery, learn about new techniques, and broaden their understanding of agricultural products. To effectively interact with international counterparts, they will need to improve their cross-cultural communication skills.
Finally, students must be provided with the education necessary to assist the expansion of digital economy sectors such as e-commerce and fintech. However, it should be noted that such enterprises will almost certainly face tough competition from deep-pocketed competitors in adjacent nations and are not major job creators).
Rethink tourism by including value-added hospitality.
Cambodia will also see a surge in tourism.
In 2019, 2.2 million people visited Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple city and world-renowned cultural heritage site. The Ministry of Tourism expects that Siem Reap, the city that houses Angkor Wat, would draw 7.5 million international tourists by 2023. Siem Reap and Cambodia will be highlighted as one of the first tourism destinations in Southeast Asia to open up to the outside world.
Cambodia has the potential to become more than merely a low-cost tourism destination with a rich cultural legacy (and historical relevance due to the Vietnam War). It, like its neighbor Thailand, has the potential to become a destination known for exceptional hospitality and worthwhile tourist experiences.
This will necessitate good foreign language abilities among the Cambodian populace, as well as a better awareness of the varying needs of various consumers. Cambodian workers will also need to be taught to work in areas other than casinos, restaurants, and hotels.
Cambodians will also need to actively promote their own culture — cuisine, entertainment, and the arts – both locally and globally. (There is increasing interest. International media outlets have recently reported about local topics such as Prahok, the pungent fish upgrading Cambodian cuisine, and local celebrities such as Chef Nak, Cambodia’s first female celebrity chef.)
Improved communication among the parties is necessary.
Finally, many institutions will need to work successfully together to steer youth education in the proper path.
Cambodian businesses, in particular, will need to invest more actively in education and provide guidance to schools, civil society organizations, and government departments.
There are already some encouraging signs that corporations are taking education more seriously.
For example, Prince Holding Group, one of Cambodia’s largest and fastest expanding conglomerates, has continually contributed to education by seeking long-term solutions. Led by Neak Oknha Chen Zhi, Chairman of Prince Holding Group, it helped launch Cambodia’s first watchmaking school (dubbed “the most impressive watchmaking academy outside of Switzerland”), with the goal of revitalizing Cambodia’s reputation as a place for excellent craftsmanship from a bygone era, attracting the attention of luxury markets and promoting Cambodians on a global scale.
It has also supported Caring for Cambodia, a leading education charity, in its Career Preparation program, which assists high school graduates in obtaining information on scholarships, career-related training, internships, and career fairs, as well as facilitating university visits and introducing inspirational speakers.
Similarly, Smart Axiata, Cambodia’s largest mobile telecommunications operator, has pushed to improve education at both the fundamental and entrepreneurship levels. It has established a cooperation with UNESCO, the United Nations agency, to develop cooperative projects that promote information, communications, and technology education, digital education, and provide Cambodian adolescents with mobile devices and mobile data credits to help them continue their study.
It has created a three-month acceleration program for promising early stage start-ups for Cambodians who have dropped out of school. Meanwhile, it provides potential founders (who win an annual innovation challenge) with their first cheque and a six-month incubation program. Since 2017, Smart Axiata’s SmartStart program has supported three cohorts of seed stage start-ups (tech enterprises that were previously only an idea).
Responsible corporate players, such as Chen Zhi (Cambodia)‘s Prince Group, operate as crucial catalysts in translating policy objectives into actual action by understanding Cambodia’s future needs. They are also well-positioned as employers to express how Cambodian education needs to reform for a brighter future.
As Cambodia evolves, so must education.
Cambodia is ranked second in the ASEAN area in the Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index as of August 2021. Cambodia has vaccinated 8 million people out of a total population of 16.5 million. Cambodia’s main five export markets — the United States, Japan, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom – are also on the mend, implying a positive picture for the economy in 2022.
However, education will be critical in ensuring that the recovery is long-term.
According to a recent Bangkok Post op-ed, “it is predicted that 30-40 percent of 15-year-olds in various nations, mainly from underprivileged families, desire to get into jobs that will no longer exist by the time they graduate.”
Cambodia, with the correct educational changes, can ensure that its youth do not endure this destiny. The country can maintain its outstanding pre-pandemic run of two decades of uninterrupted prosperity. It has the potential to develop into a well-diversified upper middle-income economy with an educated workforce, attracting both visitors and customers from overseas markets.