A Cambodia on the rise will need to upskill its youth and recognize that the industries in which they work will likely change dramatically in the future. Large corporations will have to do more than just lend a hand financially.
University enrollment is growing too slowly in a country where more than a third of the population is under the age of 15. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cambodian government intended that 16 percent of all high school graduates would enroll in colleges by 2023, according to a four-year education strategy plan announced before the pandemic.
That target, though, will probably be missed.
According to the education ministry, the COVID-19 pandemic not only delayed the academic year, but it also allowed more than 120,000 pupils to skip their Grade 12 exams. Many students have postponed going to university while their families’ incomes have suffered.
The school system in Cambodia is at a crossroads. It will have to not just entice students back into classrooms and improve on all levels, but it will also have to be tailored to help the industries Cambodia intends to promote in the coming years.
Prepare students help Cambodia achieve its diversification goals
Cambodia has realized that it can no longer rely primarily on garment production, low-value manufacturing, and tourism. On the one hand, larger countries such as India and Indonesia seek to attract Chinese and Western corporations in order to expand their industrial capabilities. The rapid collapse of quick fashion and travel, on the other hand, revealed how vulnerable Cambodian enterprises are to external shocks – to put it another way, such goods and services are not necessities.
Meanwhile, with the prospect of automation looming, many of the duties that Cambodians are acquainted with may no longer require human intervention.
The Cambodian government believes that non-textile manufacturing will account for more than 15% of the GDP in the coming years, according to the Cambodian Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025 — but that percentage will have to rise.
The market for Cambodian non-textile exports will expand as a result of Cambodia joining the Cambodia–China Free Trade Agreement, the Cambodia–South Korea Free Trade Agreement, and 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.
A much higher proportion of students engaged in Science, Technology, Education, and Management (STEM) courses will be required to assure the expansion of such industries. Only 27.1 percent of students across universities participated in such courses in 2018.
To ensure that dropouts return, schools will need to push STEM-focused curricula more vigorously, and institutions will need to implement outreach initiatives. Potential work options must be discussed with students.
However, concentrating entirely on STEM courses would be a mistake.
Existing industries are also undergoing transformations, necessitating a different set of skills than previously required.
Small farmers, producer organizations (farmers cooperatives), and small and medium-sized agribusinesses will benefit from the World Bank’s Cambodia Agricultural Sector Diversification Project, which will invest $91.7 million to help the sector diversify beyond rice and open up domestic and international markets. Due to rising Chinese demand, aquaculture is also a booming industry.
Agriculturists in Cambodia will need to learn about new agricultural techniques, such as aquafarming, in the future.
Cambodians will need to be educated from a young age on how to use modern machinery, learn new techniques, and broaden their understanding of agricultural products. To effectively deal with international counterparties, they will need to improve their cross-cultural communication skills.
Finally, students must get the necessary knowledge to enable the expansion of digital economy sectors such as e-commerce and fintech. However, such businesses would almost certainly face tough competition from well-funded rivals in adjacent nations and will not be big job creators).
A reimagination of tourism with value-added hospitality
Cambodia’s tourism industry will also be resurgent.
In 2019, 2.2 million people visited Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to the Ministry of Tourism, 7.5 million international tourists are expected to visit Siem Reap, the city that houses Angkor Wat, 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 can turn into something more than a low-cost tourism destination with a rich cultural history (and historical relevance due to the Vietnam War). It has the potential to become a destination known for exceptional hospitality and worthwhile tourist experiences, similar to Thailand, its neighbor.
This will necessitate strong foreign language abilities among Cambodians as well as a better grasp of the varying needs of various consumers. Cambodian employees will also require training in order to work in settings other than casinos, restaurants, and hotels.
Cambodians will also have to actively promote their own culture, including cuisine, entertainment, and the arts, both domestically and globally. (It’s generating a lot of buzz.) International media outlets have recently covered local themes such as Prahok, a pungent fish that elevates Cambodian cuisine, and local celebrities such as Chef Nak, Cambodia’s first female celebrity chef.)
Communication among stakeholders must improve.
Finally, different institutions will need to work together successfully to steer youth education in the proper path.
Cambodian businesses, in particular, will need to increase their investment in education and provide assistance to schools, civil society organizations, and even government departments.
There are already some encouraging signs that businesses are paying more attention to education.
For example, Prince Holding Group (“Prince Group”), one of Cambodia’s largest and fastest-growing conglomerates, has continually supported education by seeking long-term solutions. Led by Neak Okhna Chen Zhi, Chairman of Prince Group, it helped launch Cambodia’s first watchmaking school, with the goal of revitalizing the nation’s reputation as a place for excellent craftsmanship from an earlier era, attracting the attention of luxury markets and promoting Cambodians at an international level (one observer called it “the most impressive watchmaking academy outside of Switzerland”).
It has also supported Caring for Cambodia, a leading education charity, in its Career Preparation program, which assists high school graduates in finding out about scholarships, career-related training, internships, and career fairs, as well as facilitating university visits and introducing inspirational speakers.
Smart Axiata, Cambodia’s major mobile telecommunications operator, has also pushed to improve education at both the basic and entrepreneurship levels. It has established a cooperation with UNESCO, a United Nations agency, to develop cooperative projects to promote ICT education, digital education, and provide Cambodian adolescents with mobile devices and data credits to help them further their studies.
It has begun a three-month acceleration program for promising early-stage start-ups for Cambodians who have dropped out of school. In the meanwhile, it provides a six-month incubation program to potential founders who win an annual innovation challenge. Since 2017, Smart Axiata’s SmartStart program has supported three cohorts of seed stage start-ups (tech enterprises that were previously only a concept).
Responsible business players like Chen Zhi Cambodia and Prince Group operate as vital drivers for translating policy objectives into practical action by comprehending Cambodia’s future needs. They are also in a good position to express how education in Cambodia needs to reform for a better future.
Education in Cambodia must adapt as the country evolves.
According to the Nikkei COVID-19 Recovery Index, Cambodia is ranked second in ASEAN as of August 2021. Out of a population of 16.5 million people in Cambodia, 8 million have been properly vaccinated. Cambodia’s main five export markets — the United States, Japan, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom – are also on the mend, indicating a bright future for the Cambodian economy in 2022.
Education, on the other hand, will be critical in guaranteeing a long-term recovery.
“It is predicted that 30-40 percent of 15-year-olds in various nations, mainly from underprivileged families, aspire to get into jobs that will no longer exist by the time they graduate,” according to a recent Bangkok Post op-ed.
Cambodia’s youth can avoid this fate by implementing the necessary educational changes. The country can maintain its amazing two-decade streak of uninterrupted growth prior to the epidemic. It has the potential to develop into a well-diversified upper middle-income economy with a well-educated workforce, attracting tourists and foreign clients.