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Higher education divide and Industry 4.0: A blessing or a curse for Cambodia’s rural graduates?

Top Proleong / Share:

In an age of constant technological change, Cambodia’s rural students face several challenges in preparing themselves for an increasingly competitive global labor market, Proloeng Top writes.

Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, allows countries to prosper by means of the Internet of Things – physical devices that are connected to the internet, collecting and sharing data. At the same time, however, this new industrial era presents several obstacles for developing nations. Cambodia, for example, has been experiencing great difficulties in adopting modern technologies.

Among the most affected are many unskilled Cambodians currently competing in the job market. Rural graduate students find it especially hard to find work once they finish their studies and this incentivizes them to migrate to the cities or abroad due to the absence of opportunities in the local labor market.

Though the country is producing more university graduates than before, workforce participation still remains relatively low. Labor participation amongst those with higher or tertiary education stands at 14.7 per cent in the 20 to 24 year age group and at 31.3 per cent in the 25 to 34 age group.

At the same time, there is also a geographical split. Some 19.8 per cent in Phnom Penh and 9.4 per cent in other urban areas have higher education qualifications, while only 2.5 percent of students hold these in rural parts of the country.

Though Cambodia’s youth unemployment rate is only 0.4 per cent, rural students and graduates suffer disproportionately when it comes to not being able to find work.

This is a direct result of the relatively lower quality of education available to rural residents. Moreover, there exists a mismatch between skills taught in rural institutions and those demanded by employers – leading to an oversupply of poorly trained graduates. Most find themselves working in fields unrelated to their areas of study.

The Cambodian government has prioritized lowering early drop-out rates in poorer communities. In collaboration with international organisations – such as the World Bank and UNICEF – it has worked to provide scholarship programs for the less advantaged.

Under the World Bank’s Cambodia Education Sector Support Project (ESSP), a $60 per year scholarship was provided to the poorest recipients and $45 to other at 100 remote schools that have high dropout rates. Following the roll out of this program, the Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project (HEQCIP) was also introduced to provide 1,050 special-priority scholarship to disadvantaged students based on pro-poor targeting and educational criteria.

Unfortunately, rural students still lack access to information on these initiatives and are unable to take advantage of the same quality of education as others. Some schools and courses are especially out of reach for them – in particular, courses that teach in English and other foreign languages.

The disparity is significant enough to aggravate the existing knowledge and skills gap between students from different parts of the country and between those of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

Higher education is essential to students in developing countries like Cambodia in that it yields higher lifetime earnings and improves quality of life in the long run. It is also crucial as globalization – especially among ASEAN nations – has only intensified competition in the job market.

Increased interconnectedness in the region has led to freer movement among skilled labor in eight broad areas of expertise: doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, architects, accountants, surveyors, and tourism industry professionals.

In an environment of increasing global competition, Cambodian youth are placed at a disadvantage, with opportunities only given to the most highly skilled. The majority of low-skilled workers, particularly unqualified rural graduates, are the most severely affected, even in this context.

Opportunities to prosper, however, exist for Cambodian students provided that they work towards adapting their skills to the technological advancements to come with the expansion of Industry 4.0.

In late 2015, the Cambodian government took its first steps in this direction when it piloted the New Generation School scheme – a program designed to advance STEM education. This initiative aims to help young Cambodian students build and improve their basic skills in relevant fields and to further prepare them for the newest waves of technology.

The government’s intentions, however, are yet to be translated into effective action in rural communities. At present these students simply are not ready to deal with the challenges that come with the Internet of Things.

Without a doubt, Cambodia’s rural students are in dire need of equal access to quality education if they are to stand a chance against what lies ahead. And in an age of intensifying competition, they must get the help they need as soon as possible, for the sake and that of Cambodia’s long term economic growth.

Top Proleong is a Young Research Fellow at Future Forum, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh.

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