March 16, 2017 10:00 am JST

Cambodia's teachers cannot afford to be professional

Bribery has become part of a 'systematically corrupt' education system

KEN KOYANAGI, Editor-at-large, Nikkei Asian Review

PHNOM PENH Few teachers in the public system anywhere in the world will tell you that high salaries are one of the perks of the job. Educators in Cambodia, however, face an uphill battle just to get started in the profession.

Recently, a 43-year-old veteran teacher, who asked not to be named, spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review in Phnom Penh and explained how the country's teacher training and posting processes are "systematically corrupt."

After finishing senior high school, prospective teachers need to complete a two-year training program to start work at a public elementary or junior high school. According to the interviewee, a student typically pays a bribe of $4,000 to a local government official to pass the program's entrance exams, although this could not be verified. Greasing palms is also commonplace when it comes to passing final exams, she added.

After graduation, a new teacher then often pays another couple of thousand dollars to a ministry official so as to be assigned to a particular district.

Classes only run until lunchtime at Cambodia's public schools. Children from affluent families in big cities tend to get private tuition for the rest of the day. Private classes provide public-school teachers with a much needed supplementary income. Many, therefore, are happy to shell out to avoid being posted to rural areas where it is difficult to find second jobs.

While carrying out official duties at public schools, teachers also often sell copies of their lecture notes to pupils for 500 to 1,000 riel (12 to 25 cents) per day per subject in Phnom Penh. Kids from families who cannot afford it are sometimes made to sit at the back of the classroom, where they inevitably end up with poorer grades, according to a number of other sources.

"Teachers also need to eat," she said, in defense of herself and her colleagues. Public teachers' salaries have been raised significantly over the past four years; now a primary school teacher takes home about $200 a month. But that is "still too low to make ends meet," she added.

Such practices have led to a culture of bribery in Cambodian classrooms.

When the education ministry launched a nationwide crackdown on cheating in the national grade 12 final exams in 2014, the pass rate fell from 83% to 26% in the space of a year. Until 2013, many students would bribe supervisors to bring answer sheets into the exam room or ignore them looking up answers on mobile phones, according to local media reports.

Since 2014, candidates have been banned from having anything but pens, pencils and rulers on their desks, and there are security checks at the entrance of the hall. Supervisors are now supervised themselves to make sure money is not changing hands.

The pass rate improved to over 60% in 2016. Most international observers believe it is a genuine improvement, rather than a return to cheating. If reforms like these can be sustained, this generation might be the first to see bribes as the exception rather than the norm. But with kickbacks so entrenched in the system, it will take a good deal more to clean up Cambodia's classrooms.

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