University Students and Cambodia’s January Violence: Global Lessons from Cynical Youth

Massive public demonstrations in Phnom Penh, December 2013

Massive public demonstrations in Phnom Penh, December 2013

by Teri Yamada, CSU Long Beach

“It seems logical: College graduates have lower unemployment and earn more than less educated workers, so, the thinking goes, the fix for today’s anemic growth in jobs and wages is to make sure that more people earn college degrees. But that’s a common misperception, deflecting attention from the serious work that has to be done to create jobs and improve incomes” (Making College Pay, NYTimes Op Ed, Feb. 12, 2014).

I have been going to Cambodia during academic downtime to work on literacy issues since 1995; yet, this past December was quite definitely different. I imagine  Phnom Penh felt this strange prior to the 1997 coup— the palpable anxiety and underlying fear represented by the eerily uncrowded streets.  Something felt very wrong on December 30 just standing outside the arrival terminal at Pochentong Airport.  And unexpectedly, everyone I knew was talking about political change—including the tuk-tuk drivers—in an atypical expression of public outspokenness.  So I wasn’t that surprised to get an early morning phone call from a close Cambodian friend a few days later telling me not to leave my hotel room today no matter what.

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Cambodian monks at January 3 demonstration threatened by the special police.

The previous day at the office, the Cambodian staff—all college graduates—had been live streaming the massive demonstrations of garment workers in “Freedom Park” near the new American Embassy. Organizing was taking place via Facebook and other social media while the “real situation” was missing from the official Cambodian TV evening news .  On January 3, the “special police” disbursed the large gathering of garment workers and their supporters, including youth and Buddhist monks, by shooting into the crowd—killing five and wounding an estimated forty others, including onlookers observing from second-story balconies—as many of us watched or received updates via social media.   This violence included clubbing saffron-robbed Buddhist monks.  A lesson seen before in Cambodia and elsewhere: State power trumps cultural values.  For the rest of my short stay,  I saw military police on every major street corner and huge rolls of nasty looking barbed wire distributed strategically along the major boulevards of central Phnom Penh.

The average garment worker in Cambodia is a rural young woman, age 16-30— now around 600,000 in number working largely in sweatshops— most of them unable to read or write Khmer fluently, working up to 80 hours a week for $125 a month including overtime. Next time you walk by Target, check the label on the designer T-shirts: “Made in Cambodia.”

Investors see Cambodia as an ideal place to make garments given its low wage costs and huge supply of young workers, many from rural areas where jobs outside of subsistence-level farming are scarce.… Chan’s dreams for the future are not uncommon. She’d like to have a family and children. And she’d like to have the money to send them to school so they can get good jobs and not have to work in a garment factory. While she is not ashamed of what she does, she doesn’t want her future children or even her 13-year-old sister following in her footsteps. “I’ve told her not to quit school,” she says resolutely. “I’ve told her not to come here, never to come here. ( DW, “Cambodia garment worker dreams of better future,” Feb. 02. 2014.)

 “Though progress has been made in terms of encouraging girls to attend primary and secondary school, a third of Cambodian adult women are still illiterate,” Ms. Channay said.  (The Cambodian Daily“Females Still in Need of Better Access to University Education” Oct. 8, 2012)

Not mentioned in any of the reportage about garment workers’ organizing was the support of a large number of college students now facing unemployment in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in Cambodia.  What unifies college students and garment workers is their mutual despair and disgust over government corruption, with its tentacles in the education sector as well.   The garment worker Chem Chan, mentioned above, has a younger sister who will encounter “barriers to success” in her school due to the very people running the public education enterprise.

 An investigation by two NGOs has uncovered a network of Education Ministry officials stealing schoolbooks that were intended to be given free to students, and then either selling them back to schools or in local markets. The investigation, conducted in December and January, found that officials at district education departments had intercepted the delivery of the official school textbooks, funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and had created three revenue streams for personal enrichment. (The Cambodian Daily,  “District Education Offices Stole Free Books for Students,”  Feb. 13, 2014. )

While in Cambodia this January one of my Cambodian colleagues, who works in the government sector, asked me to review an English translation of the Prime Minister’s forthcoming education reform policy that proposed changes in both the public and private education sectors.  Anyone involved with the education sector in Cambodia hears about corruption in the public schools.  This has worsened over the years, starting with underpaid school teachers whose salary has increased so slowly from $60 to $120 a month during the past 15 years or so depending on your status as a K-12 or college instructor.  (Over the past few months garment workers were striking to improve their monthly wage from $90 to $130/$160 a month).   This means most teachers must have outside jobs to survive or ways of making money in the classroom: they may sell paper and pencils to their own students, or work independently as  motorcycle taxi drivers after school.  If you are a college teacher, you probably teach at three or four different institutions even if you are lucky enough to have a full-time job at one university.  This makes it impossible to update knowledge of your discipline or conduct research.   The salary for a full–time job at a public university is about $180 a month, plus some options for overtime; some private universities may pay more, but my colleagues tell me that outside teaching jobs are about $8 an hour.  It takes at least $400 a month to have a middle-class lifestyle with a family of four in Phnom Penh these days, with the cost of good private education for your children a significant expense.

I was pleasantly surprised by the new education reform policy since it actually listed many aspects of corruption known to everyone—the first step for change is to admit there is a problem.  Aspects of this corruption includes teachers and other ‘entrepreneurs’ selling the test questions and answers to the national university-entrance exams prior to the test; an online business where one can call or text  and get the answers to the test.

 In the past few years these examinations have been fraught with increasing amounts of large-scale bribery, cheating and intimidation, with the collaboration of many teachers and Education Ministry employees who occupied important supervisory positions in administering exams. Some of the bribing and cheating methods are outlined by an eleventh grade math teacher who sought anonymity in an interview with the Post.  He said: “The principal examination supervisor, sent from the Ministry of Education, had many ways of being corrupt because he controlled all aspects of the testing process, oversaw both the students sitting the test and the markers who corrected the students’ papers.  School teachers usually just monitored the exam. If they wanted to be corrupt they normally had to collaborate with the principal supervisor.”   (The Phnom Penh Post, “How $200 can buy exam pass,” 17 June 1994)

National High School Exam candidates each spent an average of 120,000 riel – about US$30 – on bribes over this year’s two-day testing period to secure exam answers, according to independent research released yesterday. Social researcher Kem Ley’s report Turning a Blind Eye purported that 92 per cent of students were involved in bribery or cheating during the exam, which is conducted under the supervision of high- school proctors, teachers and police officials. “We also see that 55 per cent of answers were copied from their hand phone after the answer was made and sent around by email,” Ley said, noting social media site Facebook had emerged as a popular means to cheat during this year’s exams, which took place on August 6 and 7. (The Phnom Penh Post, “Exam cheating rampant: report,” Aug. 22, 2012).

Not mentioned in this new education reform document for Prime Minister Hun Sen is the lack of training for proctors or examiners (since one gets paid for grading these examinations, connections will determine who gets the job not qualifications); no option to get a copy of your child’s test to see if it has been graded correctly; no process of appeal.    Essentially there is no accountability or transparency in the national college-entrance examination system.   How a child does on this exam determines whether he or she will receive a scholarship for university education or get into a free public university.

When you talk to Cambodians about this corruption among teachers in the education sector, many are surprisingly sympathetic.  That is because they know that survival on $60-$120 a month is tough, especially if one has a family.  Therefore it doesn’t shock them that schools are selling textbooks that should be distributed for free or that teachers are selling test questions and answers in advance of the national exam.  At the same time, they are outraged; but that anger is directed toward the government not the individual teacher perpetrator.

Once these “successful” high school graduates have advanced to college and completed their BA degrees, they face enormous competition for scare jobs:

As a recent university graduate with a degree in accounting, one might expect Sady Seang Saoly to be ideally placed to take advantage of Cambodia’s rapidly growing economy. Instead the 23-year-old from Kampot province is downbeat about his prospects two years after leaving university. “I and many friends I graduated with still have no jobs. We are very worried,” he said in a recent interview….Despite the Education Ministry citing a 37 percent rise in university graduates from approximately 8,000 in 2005 to around 11,000 last year, coupled with one of the most rapidly growing economies in Asia, high unemployment continues to plague young Cambodians. Only about one in 10 recent university graduates were holding down a job, according to statistics in 2005 from the Youth Star NGO. Between 1996 and 2006, the youth labor force in Cambodia grew by 78.7 percent from 1.29 million to 2.3 million, compared to 6 percent on average in ASEAN countries… “Economic growth in the last few years has been driven mainly by growth in the garment, construction and agricultural sectors, which don’t necessarily employ a lot of university graduates,” Hem said.

Sandra D’Amico, managing director of human resources and recruiting agency Hr Inc, said that despite the large number of graduates, many are unprepared for the rigors of the business world. “There remains a mismatch between the education provided at university versus what employers need,” she said. One major problem is the emphasis on rote learning at Cambodian universities, D’Amico said, when critical thinking skills are needed to learn quickly on the job. Another is that universities offer students little in the way of career guidance (Cambodian Daily,” “Recent Graduates Find Job Prospects are Bleak”  Sept. 9, 2007). (1)

The anonymous authors of the Prime Minister’s new education reform policy, echo D’Amico’s comments above.  They complain about the higher education sector producing graduates with majors and skills that are not aligned with business needs.  Sounds like U.S. politicians’ complaints about higher education in America.

We also have our own special form of higher education corruption in the U.S., the result of a poorly regulated private ed industry—both for-profit and non-profit—that promised future non-existent jobs and used federal funds to subsidize an education scam that indebted millions of young adults.  The 2010 Frontline expose College, Inc. about inflated and false data used to seduce students into debt still remains relevant four years later.  For an update see Forbes reportage “How the $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis Is Crippling, Students, Parents and the Economy.”  And then there is the example of Corinthian Colleges under investigation by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris:

A year ago, if you were Jack Massimino, CEO of  Corinthian Colleges, you might have been feeling pretty good.  Despite extensive evidence from congressional and media investigations that Corinthian, along with other big for-profit colleges, has been abusing students — luring them with deceptive recruiting, offering high-priced, low quality programs, and often leaving them without jobs and deep in debt — you seemed to be getting away with it.  Almost 90 percent of the revenue for the schools you operated — Everest, Heald and WyoTech colleges — was easy money: federal taxpayer dollars from student grants and loans, about a billion dollars a year.  You yourself were taking home over $3 million a year in compensation some years (Huff Post Business, “Federal and State Law Enforcement Dramatically Escalate For-Profit College Probes” Feb. 6, 2014).

I’m thinking, in the State of California, of the Bureau of Private Post Secondary Education, which remained legislatively impotent and underfunded for over  twenty years  while scam, predatory vocational training schools established themselves in our under-regulated state.  There are scores of online law schools in California, none accredited by the California ABA.  The issue of law schools, even those accredited, attracting students into an overcrowded profession while leaving them in deep debt, is addressed in  Brian Tamanaha’s controversial Failing Law Schools (U Chicago P, 2012).  As quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Law School Professor Gives Law Schools a Failing Grade,” Tamanaha writes : “Law schools are thriving, kept afloat by students making poor judgments to attend, while the federal government obligingly supplies the money to support their folly.”  (2)

povertyrates

What we can say about a college education is that those with one have the lowest rise in poverty rates in the U.S.

And some law firms complain  that law schools are not training students as they should, in practical skills like writing contracts. An Education Week article frames it this way, “it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.”  Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame,  observes:  “tests have increasingly come to be seen as a ritualized burden that encourages rote learning at the expense of good thinking”. That assessment is confirmed by empirical data, including a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, which characterizes the learning of high test performers as “superficially engaged.”   “The students are not to blame, but it does mean that law teaching now involves shaping learning for a generation that has been encouraged to memorize rather than engage in critical thinking” (The Chronicle of Higher EducationLaw School’s Failure to Prepare Students…It’s Complicated,  Dec. 11, 2013).

Our situation sounds more and more like Cambodia’s: children trained in rote learning (teaching to the test via No Child Left Behind); an essentially unregulated private higher education sector without quality control; an increasing number of college graduates who don’t fit the job market, which is actually underperforming or collapsing.  And we also see flawed management in our own institutions and misuse of funds.

In a world where globalization with its glossy ideological promise of ‘raising all boats’ has stalled out, while  higher education is still advocated religiously as the path to economic success, we should contemplate the creation of new policy that actually produces economic restructuring so that all these college graduates might find meaningful employment instead of taking to the streets.  As a recent op ed (Feb. 12, 2014) in The New York Times points out: “On its own, more college won’t change the economy’s low-wage trajectory.”  That is so both  in Cambodia and the United States.

NOTES

(1)  See Sandra D’Amico’s excellent study, “Higher Education and Skills for the Labor Market in Cambodia” (2010)

(2)  See also “Law Schools on the Defensive Over Job-Placement Data” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

OTHER REFERENCES

“State of the Union: The Poverty and Inequality Report, 2014,”  (The National Report Card), The Stanford Center on Poverty