FEATURE: Corruption in Cambodia's education system sparks concern.
After decades of civil strife and the mass killing of educated people and intellectuals by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia is now trying to restore its educational system.
But endemic corruption is being seen by many as a growing barrier to human resource development in the country.
Parents and others share their complaints over the customs that have been practiced for years in this country -- corruption that leads to poor delivery of real education.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association, has blasted the government over poor management and open corruption in education.
Backing up his criticism, Rong Chhun said one of the outstanding examples of corruption is that teachers often demand $20 to $30 each semester from any student who wants to get good grades.
Other practices include selling of exam questions to students and the selling of fake certificates of accomplishment.
Um Hoeung, director of the Municipal Educational Department, told Kyodo News he realizes, and admits, some irregular acts are being committed by teachers and schoolmasters.
But he claimed that such small amounts of money should not be considered corruption.
''I do not agree to term it corruption when amounts of $5 to $20 are involved,'' he said.
But he admitted, ''After the end of the recent semester, we found several irregular cases in several schools in Phnom Penh in which teachers had offered higher scores to students in exchange for 'small money.'''
The teachers and principals have, however, been warned to stop the practice or face punishment.
Teachers' association chief Rong Chhun said the trading of scores for cash has gone on openly since 2001, when a new educational system was introduced under which student scores from two semesters are added into their final examinations in the ninth and 12th grades.
Those who have good scores in both semesters are now almost assured to pass the exams and can then automatically go to college, or even select the best colleges if their scores are excellent in the 12th grade, he added.
Rong Chhun said poor salaries of most teachers -- salaries average just $30 a month -- is the main cause of the corruption and he has urged the government to raise it to $100.
Bribery during national examinations is also rampant, students say.
''Over the exams that I took at the end of Grade 9, I paid 2,000 riels (about $0.5) per subject, then was able to freely open answer papers or textbooks while taking the exam,'' said 17-year-old Chea Mom.
She claimed that all 25 students who took exams with her two years ago in Tuol Tumpong, a prestigious high school in Phnom Penh, paid 1,000 riels to 5,000 riels per exam session so they could use their texts during the sessions.
The money was given to the exam monitors and the amounts varied according to the family situations of each student, she said.
Chea Mom shelled out 10,000 riels for five exam sessions.
Flat-out use of cheat-sheets tossed into the exam rooms by parents, relatives or other students is also so common that during each national exam for entering high schools or colleges, city or military police have to be dispatched to patrol school grounds to prevent people from throwing answer sheets to the exam-takers.
There are also reports of teachers demanding elementary school students buy candies from them in class, pay them for extra classes and simply pay them every day for regular lessons.
Sok Polin, a 12-year-old pupil at Tuol Svay Prey School said he was never given an A, even though he did a great job, until he paid ''under the table money.''
Now, he says, he gets great marks every term.
At the post-secondary level, fake certificates, diplomas and degrees can often simply be bought for anywhere from $100 to $3,000.
Sen. Khieu San, who spent years studying in the United States, has expressed great concerns over the huge quantity, but little quality, in Cambodian education.
With easily received degrees -- some students pay other students to do the work on their behalf and the payers still get degrees, while others simply register their names each academic year, irregularly attend classes, do no assignments and still are graduated -- the value of degrees is continually being undercut, the critics say.
The government is trying to improve.
Kao Kim Hourn, president of the University of Cambodia, said the Education Ministry has recently required his university and others to require 52 credits for a master's degree even though a master's can be obtained for fewer credits in many other countries.
But the problem still remains that the degree cannot mean much if a candidate does not have to personally do the work.
Adding to the debate on the side of those who suggest many degrees are essentially worthless is the everyday political reality in Cambodia that Prime Minister Hun Sen, a high-school dropout, is known as the ''strongman of Cambodia'' while his rival, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who has a doctorate in law from France, has never been able to defeat the dropout at the polls.
Certainly, academic achievement is rarely a requirement for political achievement, but until Cambodia can clean up its educational system academic achievement may not be indicative of an aptitude for much of anything.