Address by Dr. Kao Kim Hourn

President, University of Cambodia

 The Role of the University in a Changing World

and the State of Education in Cambodia

 At the Conference of Asian University Presidents 2003 on

“The University and Society”

 November 7-9, 2003

Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand



President Tatchai,


Dear Presidents and Distinguished Participants,



     I wish to begin by thanking President Tatchai Sumitra, Chulalongkorn University, Mahidol University and Thammasat University for hosting this very important and timely conference and for bringing everyone together so we may continue with the task of rethinking and re-conceptualizing the seminal link between “the University and Society.” I believe the bases of human needs and the primary missions of the university—that of teaching, research and service—are not different today than they were during the reign of King Chulalongkorn whose contributions in the field of education are celebrated here this year as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

However, as we become citizens of the 21st century, the age of cyberspace, free-trade, transmigration and globalization is no longer the domain of science-fiction or a thing of the future, it is a reality. And indeed, it is a reality that we members of the academe have to concern ourselves with, but at the same time we must remain deeply committed to the community that we serve and its own sets of needs and realities. The “global” and the “local” should not be thought of as two antonymous words but should co-exist side by side if the role of the university today is to remain the leading agent of change as it has purported to be for thousands of years. How we go about bringing the two together, the “global” and the “local,” in a meaningful and fruitful way is a focus of debate in the East as much as it is in the West, in rich nations and in poor nations. We have much to learn from each other, and perhaps for once on this issue the divide between East and West, rich and poor can be cancelled out as we all strive to find answers that will ultimately bring us closer together, and thus uniting us for a common purpose.

The case of Cambodia, I would argue, can provide a rich terrain for exploration in this debate for several different reasons, provided that we keep in mind the Taoist concept of the pairs of opposites that make up our world. The negative cannot be conceived without the positive, the East without the West, the rich without the poor. There is no denying that in the aftermath of more than twenty years of war and destruction, the Cambodian educational system, along with many other aspects of social, cultural and economic life, have been left in a state of chaos and inertia. However, from chaos arise form and order as we attempt to redesign and redefine our society and ourselves. And the university should be a trendsetter in that effort. It has a very privileged role to play and must be an active participant in the reshaping of the country.

To be sure, this is a daunting task and there is no easy answer. Cambodian universities have the challenging task of providing students with a knowledge-based and technology-based education so that we may begin to catch up with the rest of the world but funding, tools and expertise remain limited. Standardization, a method of accreditation, collaboration and reforms in higher education in Cambodia are very much needed. Equal efforts should be placed in elementary and secondary education reforms so that students can be better prepared for the university. Finally, as we look toward outside models to enhance our educational system for quality and effectiveness and to bring the world into the classroom, we must also help our students learn the true meaning of education today, as well as recover and rediscover their own culture and tradition.

Because Cambodia is an emerging and rapidly changing society, it provides a perfect observation point for the reforms that could be adopted at the university if it is to “remain relevant to the society in which [it is] located” as it is written on the Chulalongkorn University greetings to the conference participants. Changes in Cambodia are very noticeable and very visible even to the untrained eye. Signs of growth, the import of new technology and media, the sectors in dire need of human resources and sectors in need of further development offer no subtle hints as to what areas of study the university should develop and focus on in order to prepare our students for the job market today and tomorrow. But changes are so noticeable in Cambodia also because the country is still very poor and the division between the haves and the have-nots only serves to underline the critical role education should play in order to help bridge this widening gap. Likewise, in a society that is rapidly changing, the university can serve as an agent of stabilization by providing the necessary tools for people to become more adaptable, more adjustable to changes.

Because Cambodia is an emerging and fast changing society, it also leaves much room for creativity and innovation. The same can be said about many sectors, including the sector of higher education, but we must also be cautious about the direction we need to take. We must be critical of adopting systems of education that might work well elsewhere, but does not necessarily correspond to the needs of Cambodia. We must balance outward with inward expansion. And more importantly, we must have a gradual approach to changes and an educational policy that is pragmatic and standardized while remaining sensitive to new ideas.

In the last few years, Cambodia has seen a proliferation of private universities, compensating for the lack of space in public institutions, and responding to the growing population of young adults in the country, as well as individuals who have come to realize that they need to further their education or train for a different career. The privatization of education in Cambodia, which has come about as a result of the liberalization of the educational sector by the government, brought both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, students are given more choices and have become more selective and demanding of the services they are being offered. The competition for students brought on innovative thinking about education to meet the needs of a more selective clientele. There is also a positive shift from “faculty-centered” to “student-centered” activities and from a “provider-centered” to the “customer-market” mentality. And, finally, there is a shift from the notion of the university as an elitist entity to the provision of cost-competitive, high-quality services, from “prestige-driven” to “market-driven” philosophies. On the other hand, the promise of cost-competitive services does not necessarily go hand in hand with the promise of high-quality services and the “market-driven” objectives remains just that—“market-driven” objectives without much philosophy attached to it.

Still, from this expansion in higher education, I believe, there will be a positive outcome. The proliferation of private universities has forced policymakers to take a more critical look at the state of education in Cambodia and to begin the process of educational reform. Talks about accreditation, standardization and curriculum review have begun to resonate throughout public and private education circles alike, having in turn the effect of keeping all institutions on their toes.

Providing a high standard of education while remaining cost-competitive is at this time a top priority for a more equal opportunity-based society in Cambodia. Gender equality is another issue that we need to address in higher education as the number of male students far exceeds the number of female students, especially at the university level. Practical and hands-on learning in the forms of internship, volunteering and apprenticeship should be perceived as an integral part of education along with traditional learning in the classroom. Theory and practice must go hand in hand, and the university has to work closely with the public as well as the private sectors, local and international, in order to afford its students the opportunity to have hands-on experience and the necessary networking with public agencies and private corporations once they finish their studies. In a sense, we are calling on agencies and corporations to participate in the education process which is mutually beneficial to students and companies: being intimately involved in the process of educating students, companies can in turn guarantee for themselves a better qualified and better trained workforce for today’s digital economy. Creating a curriculum that provides not only the training specific to a profession but the tools for students to think for themselves, to think about the world in a more critical and creative fashion is paramount if we are to prepare them to become well-adjusted and active participants in their society.

Finally, the university should be a good detector of trends and areas rich in opportunities to be explored and should offer its students creative and opportunity-based curricula geared toward the future in sight instead of replicating what has already been done. Likewise, research must recover its place at the university in Cambodia so that more people can meaningfully participate in the social, political and economic discourse of the country.

We, at the University of Cambodia, are calling on such challenges and are ready to take on these exciting, albeit daunting, tasks. We are the first university in Cambodia to be fully committed to research and are establishing links with other national, regional and international universities for future collaboration and exchange. We fully realize that such undertaking, be it research, rethinking the roles of universities, or curriculum development can never be pursued in isolation, it requires collaborative efforts, and I thank Chulalongkorn University for bringing us together and I look forward to further dialogues with, and presentations from presidents and other participants.  

Thank you very much.