Degree Mills – Its Effects on Education in Cambodia

1.1 Background

The proliferation of schools in response to the increased demand for education in Cambodia has led to the emergence of degrees being awarded without proper trainings. These schools received a common name – degree mills; they either operate without proper licensing from the government or offer substandard education to the students. The phenomenon is on the increasing trend today and significantly taints the country’s education system. Moreover, it is typical of many other developing countries, in which the demand for the educated and qualified professionals is high. Consequently, the quality of education has deteriorated so much that some students who graduate with flamboyant degrees are not able to compete in the market. It also means that many students from the country look for any opportunities to learn abroad arguing that the quality of education in the country is not able to meet their professional demands. The trend affects even those few schools that offer the quality education. Such schools have had to cope with the high populations of students, which they try to drive off by raising the school fees. Notably, many degree mills in Cambodia affect the national education in more than one way. The effects range from the substandard quality of education to the increased fees at schools that would otherwise charge normal fees. In addition, the government, through the Ministry of Education, is forced to come up with the policy framework in order to control the quality of education offered by numerous schools in the country.

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1.2 Statement of the Problem

The issue of the quality education has attracted considerable attention in Cambodia. Because of the worsened standards offered by colleges and universities in the country, the stakeholders necessitated the introduction of a quality assurance system in the learning institutions as a way of improving the quality of education. This step partly aims to respond the high market demand for a workforce that is well-equipped to operate in the emerging sectors of the economy. Cambodia with its social, economic, and political difficulties has experienced the need to improve the quality of education as a driver of development. This event was preceded by proliferation of the learning institutions since the dawn of the 21st century. The increase in the number of learning institutions can be seen as a step towards the development of the country. However, it is basically caused by the need to provide the wider opportunities for the students in terms of the higher education. On the other hand, a number of critics have described some schools as the mere degree mills and certificate shops that generate half-baked graduates, who cannot contribute to the national development. On the other hand, the critics have pointed out the need to implement quality assurance systems supported by the government agencies responsible for the education sector.

1.3 Objective of the Study

This study aims at investigating the quality of education in Cambodia and how it has impacted the education sector in the country. The study seeks to highlight the ideas of the stakeholders in the education sector concerning the quality of education in the country. It also looks at their perception when it comes to the effects of education on the social, political, and economic development in the country. By pursuing these objectives, the following research questions are used to guide the research;
What are the factors that contribute to the increase in the number of the degree mills and certificate shops in Cambodia?
How is the education sector affected by the degree mills from among the institutions of higher education in Cambodia?
What measures have been taken in the education sector for ensuring the quality education in the higher learning institutions in Cambodia?

1.4 Importance of the Study

This study will support the efforts of the stakeholders in the education sector aimed at ensuring the quality education in higher learning institutions in Cambodia. The study will also help identify the factors that have contributed to the increase in the number of the degree mill learning institutions. Therefore, it will help identify the ways, in which such institutions can improve their methods of training the students. In an extension, the study will help address the problem of substandard graduates, who cannot satisfy the labor needs of Cambodia.

1.5 Extent and Limits of the Study

The study will explore the factors that have contributed to the degree mills from among the public colleges and universities and their impact on the education sector. Moreover, the efforts of the regulators in improving the quality of education at the public colleges and universities are considered in this study. However, it does not consider the issues in the primary and secondary education. In addition, the private sector, which is also an important part of the overall education in Cambodia, is also excluded from the study. The study will not cover the demands in the market even though it may contribute to a high demand for the better education graduates.

1.6 Organization of the Study

Five chapters are used to carry out the study. The first chapter outlines the background, problem statement, research questions, and objectives, as well as the extent and limits of the study. The second chapter presents a literature review on the degree mills and their effect on the education in Cambodia. The third chapter explores the research methodology. This chapter covers the sources of data, the methods used to analyze the data, the procedure for collecting data, and areas, from which these data were collected. The fourth chapter presents and analyzes the data in order to infer the findings including the qualitative approach to analyzing the data. The fifth chapter presents the recommendations to stakeholders in line with the questions of research stated in the first chapter.

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2.1 Literature Review

The quality of education offered by the higher education institutions and colleges has an effect on the socio-political and economic development of a country. In the case it is compromised, a country may experience difficulties in meeting the demand for the skilled labor force in the market. This phenomenon is rife in many developing countries where the demand for higher education is high. In Cambodia, for instance, after the political stabilization in 1991, following the signing of the Paris Accord, the country focused on the social and economic development. It means that the country requires the skilled employees in order to work in national agencies, as well as in the public institutions.

2.2 Government Investment in the Education Sector

Coupled with a strong investment in the education sector by the government and creation of an environment that facilitates learning, the higher institutions of learning can fill in a gap in the labor force (Ford). The government policy on the education targets the need to provide qualified workers to the public and private sectors. The short-term effect was the design of the technical and vocational programs for higher education, as well as the professional degrees in all areas of the economy. A rapid increase was noted in the number of higher institutions that emerged to offer the so much needed education to the public (Anaam, Othman, & Awadh).

The public and private institutions of higher learning were considered the important players in the social and economic development of the country. However, the shift in the education sector also faced some challenges. With this shift, there came a decline in the quality of education. It was because the government tried to fill in the identified gap without developing an effective policy framework. Therefore, it was hard to ensure that the quality of education offered by the higher education institutions. Consequently, some learning institutions took advantage of this issue (Guri-Rosenblit, Sebkova, & Teichler). As the country decided to join the international community and regional blocks, the critics started reporting about the poor quality workers from Cambodia. It was very predictable since they were unable to compete effectively in the international market.

The higher education in Cambodia became synonymous with the formal education in colleges and universities, and the post-secondary training activities required a student to earn a degree after a certain period of time (Meas & Chantha). The Cambodia Education Law of 2007 envisaged a higher education that could promote technical, scientific, social, and cultural research for the students. Its aim was to enhance morality, initiative, skills, and knowledge required for the development. To this end, the two types of institutions were developed in order to carry on the education task even though they had existed under different laws previously. These institutes and universities offered the technical and academic education (Kongkea, 2010). The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports control the academic education in the universities and institutes. On the other hand, the Ministry of Labor and Technical and Vocation Training supervises and manages the technical and vocational education (Koh Santepheap Daily). This arrangement meant that different quality assurance systems were established for managing and controlling the quality of education in the country. This situation caused some differences in the way the quality was emphasized in these institutions of higher learning.

2.3 Institutions of the Higher Learning Planning

The education sector in Cambodia is currently occupied by 32 public institutions of higher learning, which perform different roles (Pov). The academy institutions are given the mandate to carry out research and development and provide the knowledge output for the nation. There are13 public universities, with 8 of them being under the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports. The Ministry tasks them with providing the higher education ranging from the diplomas to doctoral degrees. Most areas of concentration for the public universities are in exact sciences, social sciences, and humanities are mandatory for the accreditation process by the Accrediting Committee of Cambodia (Sakada, 2011). However, the enforcement of this requirement is still not fully applied to all the graduates and only focuses the foundational years of study. Moreover, 19 government-sponsored institutions are operating in the country; they offer training in the specialized professional courses such as agriculture, education, medicine, and engineering. The institutes in the country are controlled by different ministries, even though, the Ministry of Labor and Technical and Vocational Training occupy a biggest share (Chamnan & Ford). Because of this arrangement in categorizing the institutions of higher learning, there are different standards in the quality assurance enforced by the relevant regulatory bodies.

The higher education in Cambodia is governed by several education laws and different national agencies. These bodies are charged with the responsibility of setting the national standard for the degrees awarded by all the institutions in various fields. They also establish the criteria for the comprehensive provision of the uniform education system by all institutions, as well as ensure that the principle of freedom of studies, as stipulated in the country’s constitution, is observed (Council for Development of Cambodia, 2012). The National Supreme Council of Education is the agency that comes up with the suggestions for the strategic long-term development in the education. It also develops the tasks for the education sector as anticipated by the government of Cambodia. Lastly, the Council is mandated to help in identifying the resources required by the institutions of higher education to perform their responsibilities.

2.4 Laws and Policies to Govern the Education Sector

On the other hand, the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia oversees the physical facilities of institutions of higher learning, as well as the governance systems and academic standards of such institutions, and gives a report to the Council of Ministers (Bennell & Pearce). All institutions of higher learning operating in the Council are subject to the accreditation by the ACC as a requirement for them to grant the degrees to students. Even though, the existing laws provided the ACC with the power to accredit the quality standards for all the higher learning process; currently, it only focuses on the foundational years (Chealy). This issue has become a source of substandard degrees since they are granted after the mandatory period of four or five years. As a result, many institutions of higher learning only observe the required standards and quality education at the foundational years and revert to the mediocre processes at the final years.

2.4 Reforms in the Education Sector

As the country was in high demand for the skilled human resources, the regulatory bodies were slow in enforcing the laws related to the quality of education. At some point, there was neither unformed nor nationalized education system in the higher education (Ngoy). At this time, the academic programs, routine planning, class attendance, and academic credentials were ad hoc because there were no quality assurance standards observed by the time. The reforms in higher education led by the World Bank, AusAID, and Asian Development Bank helped introduce the quality assurance standards aimed to improve the quality of graduates of the country’s institutions (The Cambodia Herald, 2012).
During this time, the education sector underwent several reforms including the introduction of quality assurance systems and national policy on the education with the aim of streamlining the activities of the colleges and universities in the country. While such reforms were well received by the stakeholders in the education sector, the quality of education did not improve to the levels that were anticipated by the reformers. Consequently, the continued churning out of the substandard degrees has continued. The critics observe that this fact has negatively impacted the social and economic development agendas of the country (Becket & Brooks). The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport has enacted the further measures in order to curb the problem of degree mills in the country by introducing more measures to signing the degrees.

2.6 Summary of the Literature Review

From the above literature review, it is evident that the problem of the degree mills in Cambodia causes drastic changes in the education sector. Some laws were passed in order to empower different agencies to regulate and monitor the quality of education in the higher education institutions. The reforms were also spearheaded by the international agencies, which tried to introduce the quality assurance standards in the education as the means of achieving improvement. However, the degree mill colleges and universities have not been completely eradicated in the country. To date, the impacts that they have had on the education sector can be seen in the national laws and policies, control measures, and quality assurance systems put in place for controlling and managing the education sector.

3.1 Methods of Research

This section of the study outlines the research methodology used by the researcher. The study was done through a qualitative analysis of the published documents on the degree mills in Cambodia, as well as interviewing the selected key players in the education sector.

3.2 Type of Analysis

The social researchers have tools that they use for collecting and analyzing the data with the purpose of making inferences and recommendations according to the findings. The tools used are important because they allow the researcher to understand a phenomenon as applied to the topic of the research. In this case, there is a need to consider the degree mills as a phenomenon that impacts the education sector in Cambodia. With the help of the qualitative approach, the researcher can make inferences from the opinions of others in order to answer the questions of the study. As noted by Check and Schutt (2011), “Qualitative researchers study things in their natural setting, attempting to make sense of, or to interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them”( p. 9). This definition formed the basis, on which the data were collected in this study.

3.3 Type and Source of Data

The data were collected from the sources published by the government ministries and education- sponsoring agencies including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and AusAID. The questions that guided the research focused on the degree mills in the public colleges and universities and their impact on the education sector, in general. The participants were selected based on their interaction with the public colleges and universities and their role in the education sector. The participants included the heads of the three public universities, three public colleges, and Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, as well as the Ministry of Labor and Technical and Vocation Training.

3.4 Sample/Universe Size

The participants were selected based on the criteria set by the researcher. As the study focused on the degree mills in the country, the participants were expected to be the key stakeholders in the education sector and be willing to respond to the questions with honesty and truth. The degree mills are a sensitive issue in the national education because they violate the law; hence, not everyone could be willing to respond to the questions freely (Denzin & Licoln). The participants were asked whether they were willing to divulge any information about the degree mills without feeling threatened. Therefore, those who were not willing were excluded from the sample. Their identities were, however, not revealed in order to protect them from any accusations.

3.5 Sampling/Census Method

Because of the sensitivity of the research subject, the sampling method was done carefully in order to ensure that only informed people participated in the study. The restriction included the time they had spent in the education sector and their current role in regulating the education sector and enforcing the quality standards in the sector. Therefore, the selected sample comprised those who were directly or indirectly involved in enforcing the law through the quality assurance or national policies on the education.

3.6 Data Gathering Procedure

The social researchers have special tools for gathering the data. For this study, the researcher used the interviews and surveys handed to the respondents. The interviews were done with the heads of colleges and universities. There were only six of them; therefore, an interview provided a better avenue for gathering the data. The mode was also preferred because the researcher could get the opportunity to ask some questions and make inferences from the non-verbal communications used by the interviewees. The researcher also needed certain clarifications on the deliberate answers to the open-ended question concerning the degree mills.

As stated by Denzin and Licoln, the essence of developing a specific process of gathering data is to allow the researcher to address the questions and objectives of the research. It allows the researcher create an environment that can facilitate the whole process while empowering the respondents to divulge the information being sought. The online survey was used for the heads of two ministries because of the tight schedule and for the convenience of the process.

The respondents at the ministries were also requested to respond to the questions through email; hence, the appropriate model was used. The researcher did not receive the permission from the Ministry to visit the premises in order to have an interview with the respondents. They argued that this event would interfere with the normal functions of the Ministry. The confidentiality was important, and the researcher made every effort to assure the Ministry of the confidentiality of all the respondents.

3.7 Coverage of the Study

This study covered six institutions of higher learning and two ministries. The six institutions were accredited to grant the degrees while the ministries were obligated by the law to control and manage the quality of education in the academic and technical colleges and universities. The respondents had worked in these institutions in the quality assurance departments and had been involved in the education quality control for over five years.

3.8 Procedure of Analyzing the Data

The triangulation method was used for analyzing the collected data. The responses were categorized into the factors causing the emergence of the degree mills, their impact on the education sector, and the measures that have been taken in order to control the substandard education quality. The responses were compared with the information collected from the secondary sources, which were published by the education-sponsoring agencies, and conclusion made based on the analysis (Minichiello, Aroni & Hays, 1995).
There were little disparities in the responses as a small sample of respondents was used. However, it contradicted the analysis of the published documents. Since the respondents were informed about the study in advance, they could prepare for giving the responses that would reflect what they wanted to say. However, the researcher ensured that only those, who were willing to give the information, participated in the study.

3.9 Summary

This chapter presented the research methodology, which was employed in collecting and analyzing the data. The chapter evaluates the qualitative research and the principles used in selecting the sample, sampling techniques, and procedures for analyzing the data. It also highlights the limits that each method could have in the context of the study.
Chapter 4: Data Analysis

4.1 Factors Causing the Emergence of the Degree Mills

The purpose of the current chapter is to introduce a discussion on the findings of the interviews and online survey. It presents the views of the respondents about the proliferation of the degree mills and the factors that may have contributed to this phenomenon. Furthermore, it presents the impacts that the degree mills have had on the education sector in Cambodia and the measures undertaken in order to curb the situation. There is also a section on the interpretation of the data, as well as their application to the education sector.

While all the respondents agreed that the degree mills were an endemic in the education sector, 80% of respondents from institutions of higher learning and 75% from the ministries indicated that a large percentage could be attributed to the perceptions of stakeholders. It was their response to the question, “Do you believe that the education system in the country is rife with substandard education as evidenced in the degree mills around the country?” The respondents also argued that sufficient measures were taken in order to control the quality of education as provided in the national education policies and quality assurance standards. When asked whether the high number of learning institutions was overwhelming to the industry regulators and heads of institutions, the respondents from the institutions of higher learning said that the institutions were not enough to cater for the education needs of the whole country. “Some classes are too crowded it makes it difficult for teachers to monitor each student. This was evident in the large number of students who were going out of the country for higher education because they cannot get the opportunity in our colleges,” – said one of the respondent from the higher education institution.

4.2 Regulations and National Policies in the Education Sector

The interviews also revealed that the degree mills thrived on the fact that there were too many regulations and policies governing the education sector. The respondents from the ministries asserted that many agencies were given the power to regulate the same processes in education causing some confusion and apathy concerning the part of the regulators. The respondents in the higher institutions of learning noted that many quality assurance requirements coupled with too many accrediting bodies was a source of substandard quality of education in Cambodia. During the interview, one respondent argued, “It is difficult to pinpoint what standards are applicable; where and who enforces what. Everything is left to everyone to do and enforce.”
Another element that came out as causing the emergence of the degree mills was the lack of a unified approach to the input process and output approach to the education in the country. While there were some laws and policies that governed the cooperation of the higher institutions of learning in the country, most institutions had own internal systems to teaching and grading the students. Partly, the reason for this phenomenon was that the experience and qualification of teachers for teaching in the higher education institutions was not regulated by any agency.
The institutions were left to vet and select the instructors using own criterions. The different criterions meant that the teaching approaches and quality of education offered would also vary. Moreover, the commercialization of education, in which even public institutions were out to make the profits from teaching the students, was causing the proliferation of the degree mills. Coupled with the high demand in the market, some instructors, students, and regulators were bound to violate the policies on the standards of education in order to grant the substandard degrees to students who have not been well-trained.

4.3 Why Degree Mills Are Prevalent in Cambodia

The two reasons, which were argued by the respondents from the higher education institutions, supported the assertion that the degree mills were negatively impacting the education sector in the country. First, the perception that the degree mills led to the employment contributed to the malpractices in the teaching process and the process of enforcing the quality standards. They indicated that this perception was misleading because the degrees were not the only requirement for the social and economic success of many Cambodians.
The second reason was that the perception of the degree mills was hinged on the misconceptions about the quality of education in the country. The respondents argued that, as compared to other Asian countries, the Cambodian education system ranked high in terms of the education quality. This observation was supported by the respondents from the ministries who argued that the degree mill was a phenomenon, which emerged in the country following the introduction of the international standards, according to which the higher education was viewed. They held that Cambodia just revived from a long period of the civil war. Therefore, the quality of education was going to be somewhat low as compared to other countries that have enjoyed the long political stability.

4.4 Effects of Globalization on the Cambodian Education

The development of the higher education at the global level also meant that Cambodia, as a member of the international community, needed to introduce the quality assurance systems and policies in order to control its education system. The introduction of the regulatory agencies and national laws enactment was based on the best practice in the education sector around the world. The many transitions that the country’s education sector has undergone since 1991 were indicative of the need to streamline the education sector to meeting the needs of the country. The education sector was just a driver towards the achievement of sustainable development. The changes and transitions have not been a result of the perceived low quality standards of education but rather a response to the national need.

4.5 Chapter Summary

This chapter presented the analysis of the views of the respondents in the interviews concerning the degree mills and quality of education, as well as their impact on the education sector. It highlighted the factors, which were identified by the respondents as causing the emergence of the degree mills phenomenon in the country and the ideas of how it affected the education input, process, and output. It also discussed responses in terms of the impact of quality assurance systems and national policies on the education sector. The analysis, thus, identified a number of factors present in the practice of the institutions of higher learning and how they contributed to the emergence of the degree mills. For instance, a high demand for the higher education made it difficult for teachers to have one-on-one teaching, in-house system of appointing instructors in higher institutions of learning, and the general perception of the stakeholders concerning the quality of education in the country.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The purpose of the current chapter is to give a summary of the data analysis and provide recommendations on how to address the phenomenon of the degree mills in education. The recommendations are based on the findings of the study as argued by the respondents. These recommendations will assist the policy makers, as well as other stakeholders in the education sector, in addressing the issue of the degree mills and ensure high quality standard in the education, especially in the public institutions of higher learning.

The Royal Government of Cambodia needs to re-evaluate the regulatory framework in the national education in order to ensure a centralized approach to providing the quality assurance and policies on education. Currently, the system is disjointed to the extent that there is a lot of confusion about what should be done for improving the quality of education and eradicating the degree mills from the education sector. In addition, it is recommended that the Accrediting Committee of Cambodia should receive the extended powers in accrediting the universities and colleges up to the final year of learning as opposed to the present practice, according to which accreditation is only done at the foundational years.

It is also recommended that the selection of instructors to teach in the higher education institutions should be regulated by a single standard. The current practice only leaves the institutions with the freedom to choose which method they want to use in selecting their instructors. It is an ineffective way of doing things because there is no adherence to the standards required for teaching. It is also recommended that the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports and Ministry of Labor Technical and Vocational Training work with the stakeholders in the industry in order to sensitize them about the quality assurance and the policies governing the granting of degrees to the students in higher education. This strategy will help not only eliminate the perceived low quality but also support the competitiveness and creativity in teaching and learning.

The study has established the factors that contribute to the increase in the number of the degree mills in Cambodia and the effects that this issue has on the education sector. It is, thus, the responsibility of the stakeholders to look into this problem and establish the ways of improving the quality of education by preventing the degree mills from operating in the national education sector. It can be achieved, for example, through close collaboration between the institutions and regulators aimed at improving the education in the country.

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