Last Saturday I was asked to speak at the signing ceremony of the Magnus 7 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This is an alliance of 7 major public universities in Cambodia on Social Responsibility.
I was apparently the only foreigner in attendance, in an audience of many rectors and senior managers of universities. I was asked to talk about why the universities in Hong Kong, specifically Hong Kong Polytechnic University, take social responsibility so seriously, and what we have actually done. I, naturally, focus on service-learning and what we have done in Cambodia. I stressed that a university educates students to become citizens, responsible citizens, and service-learning is one of the best methods to achieve that. It is a matter of concern for all students, and all disciplines should be able to contribute. Hence we require all our students to take service-learning, and all departments are encouraged to offer service-learning. It seems well-received. Or perhaps they are just being polite. ButI the fact that I am the only foreigner invited here means something, I hope.
We are been working with some of the staff and students from Royal University of Phnom Penh for 2 years now and the experience has been encouraging. There is a group, perhaps small, of academic staff who are very keen on reforming the education programs, and some seem to have bought into the vision of service-learning. The students are smart and enthusiastic. So there is certainly hope. After the signing ceremony, we went to a cafe run by the students for lunch. It was built out of two used cargo containers. The same type that we have been turning into community learning centres in the past 3 years. So we are curious and excited. It also testifies to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the students.
Education in Cambodia face tremendous challenges. They are severely underfunded at all levels, from primary to secondary to tertiary. I heard even the “public” universities receive only a fraction of their funds from the government. Hence they have to offer numerous self-financed programs to bring in more income in order to operate. Professors are paid very little, hence they have to teach additional courses to make a decent living. Over the years we have worked with many primary schools and NGO that work with children. Primary education is officially free. But schools are so underfunded and teachers re so underpaid that many additional fees are charged. Many kids, such as this little street vendor, do not attend school.
My friends in education in Cambodia are facing very big challenges. Yet they are persevering. We are very glad to be able to work with them, and playing a small role in something much bigger than ourselves. My good friend L said to me: “we have seen many foreigners come to Cambodia professing to care about Cambodia; yet they come and go without leaving a trace. Some of you stay and we can tell which are those who really care.” We are honoured to be counted as true friends