Vitu Vann is the Director of admissions and administration at Idea Source School. Vitu spent four and half years in Malaysia studying finance, before working in admissions for a Malay-based institution. He returned to Cambodia in 2010 to help plan and develop with his father what was to become Idea Source School.
Can we open with a statement regarding your general position regarding education?
One of the latest buzzes among entrepreneurs all over the world is social entrepreneurship. I got really interested in this while studying at university, and then there were other ideas like co-ops and peer-to-peer lending, such as Prosper, Lending Club, and Funding Circle. An obvious place for such activity is Cambodia, which has been pretty much aid dependent ever since Independence 60 years ago, and more recently the site of micro finance institutions.. This is a country which still boasts a profusion of subsistence farmers who grow, hunt or find what they eat, build their own houses, and live without regularly making purchases in the marketplace.
It seems ironic that self- sufficiency, the use of bartering systems, the introduction of alternative currency and ‘getting off the grid’ is lauded in the developed countries as the way of the future, whereas here in Cambodia and in other developing nation it is slightly shunned by urban dwellers as a mark of the past, the reality being that it has always been the way in which things have been done in the countryside. As you go deeper into the countryside here you will notice that the little shop shacks sell more and more organic produce and less and less finished manufactured goods. Often a meal is sourced, cooked and eaten in close proximity to each other. Herbs and roots picked from the forest, coconut milk from the tree in the garden and chicken or snails plucked from those wandering free.
Small and medium sized businesses in England are starting to band together and work on exchange without the use of money. They are looking for ways in which to improve the quality of life in their communities opposed to creating the means by which some people become wealthy at the expense of others.
While this may sound like socialism, it is actually more like the traditional Cambodian way of life especially with respect to education. Male children were sent to the local temple for education, and often were not only taught to read and write but often schooled in skills relevant for the local environment such as suiting the working of local resources. They were taught to question and reason, not just to accept what they were taught.
This education was financed, not by foreign religious donations or charity, not by centralised government, but by the local community, the ultimate beneficiary of the education. Still today, if a farmer makes a surplus it has also been the tradition to use any money send a son or daughter to school, even to Phnom Pehn. But how can they judge the quality of the school and educational outcomes?
More recently foreign investment in manufacturing has appeared in Cambodia, the country serving as a source of low-skilled, low-paid workers drawn to the towns and cities from the countryside. Property speculation has sprung a new urban elite in Phnom Pehn, the city looking ever more modernised like Bangkok or Kuala Lumphur. I began to understand, that as a race, humans in certain regions of the world have brought about abundant advances in technology and business, but often they have done so while ignoring how we impediment the social development of others during economic growth. An often cited impediment to growth is often a lack of education. There has been a kind of myopia which often means people lower down the food chain suffer. The same is true for local small businesses and traders who become targets for larger capital coming in from elsewhere or even other countries, the example being a large international supermarket chain coming in offering subsidised prices that local business just can’t compete with. They then raise costs when the competition is eliminated; the locals find themselves out of business.
In recent times, some of the more morally-advanced individuals of our species have realised this is a great shortcoming and have put forward the field of social entrepreneurship. Ultimately this is a way to give back to the community that supports them and to which they are merely a part. In Australia there are schools and kindergartens which are owned and even run by parents and neighbourhood collectives. Our school is not-for-profit, all fees are ploughed back into the school to pay for better facilities, software licences for the latest online educational resources, the best teachers recruited from abroad. We’ve embarked on a policy of complete transparency and honesty with staff, students, student parents and government alike, but we are shouldering all the financial risks alone. Our aim is to persuade the local community that participating in building a high-quality school is 100% in our collective interest. It must be viewed as a community investment, a community resource opposed to a hard-nosed for profit business venture.
Quality education has to be viewed more than a business or a public good; it should be viewed as a right. I would like to see access to quality education for all in Cambodia. But who will pay for it? It seems at times here we are in an environment where people have the perception that education must be cheap or free, taught in classrooms with photocopied books, and even if it is a set of institutions which fail miserably to build real and appropriate skill. It will fail to build the human capital or knowledge needed to move Cambodia forward to the international stage.
We are the country which boasts one of the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) rankings not just in ASEAN but in in the entire world The HDI is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare.
The integration of Cambodia within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2015 will herald a new age in Cambodia where all will come under the scrutiny of larger forces. ASEAN was established in 1967 by the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore as a way to encourage cooperation in the region on matters of economics, security, and development. ASEAN has since grown to include 10 more countries, of which Cambodia is the newest member. Cambodia was the ASEAN leader in 2002 and 2012, and this only served to highlight that there is much to do in the field of social entrepreneurship.
Of the ASEAN members it is little surprise that Singapore comes out on top in the HDI index (tied with Austria at 18th of 186 countries in the world) and Cambodia and Laos (tied at 138th in the world), Cambodia and Laos only narrowly improve upon Myanmar (lowest in ASEAN at 149th).
Several other indicators highlight the failings of the public and private education provision enabling Cambodians to compete and participate. Abilities are based not only on language, but also problem-solving knowledge of Maths and Science, which are given scant attention in Cambodian English schools.
Most people in Cambodia only equate education with ‘learning English’ or ‘business and finance’ or ‘accountancy’. Alternatively it’s a vision of charities educating the poor in the hope that they will find some sort of low-wage job servicing tourists in the future. In other cases, the school or university is seen as nothing more than a kind of social club where youth congregate and tease each other. Language alone doesn’t give us the skills necessary to compete – or even properly participate, just as a ‘university’ should have science labs and engineering workshops as well as merely bare classroom spaces. All this is very flawed and those who have visited neighbouring countries will understand how ill-prepared Cambodia is for the 21st century. The future generation is not being well equipped with the type of knowledge and skills that will enable them to do well in the future in which many key aspects of life will require a more demanding level of literacy.
In the increasingly information-intensive future, ordinary individuals will need an ever higher capacity to process more complex information, analytical ability, effective communication, and problem solving skills. The scores tell us that there is very little prospect that Thailand’s future generation will be among the leaders and innovators in the coming decades.
This contrasts with some ASEAN partners – global tests conducted by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has consistently shown Singapore rated number 2 of the 74 participating nations for Maths. They are at number 4 for Science, and number 6 for reading.
The only other ASEAN nations that feature are Thailand (52, 51, 53) respectively in maths, science and reading), Malaysia (57, 53, 55) and Indonesia (68, 62, 67).
This means among 15-year-old Thai students, just over 4 in 10 read below the international average level, just over 1 in 3 read at the international average level, and 1 in 5 read at the slightly above average level, and almost none can read at the highest level.
Cambodia and the others do not feature simply because they can’t. This is a country where 50 per cent of the workforce has not finished primary school at all and yet feature as a growing demographic. ASEAN integration will be a challenge for Cambodia and Cambodians. This only underscores the need for our school and the others which are trying to raise the bar. Similarly if one looks at global university league tables there are only two ASEAN universities which feature and both are in Singapore. All others, including those in Singapore itself do not feature.
All these reports indicate implications for our future. Education is never free, it requires more than donations or daily bible lessons, and often such education is aimless, it requires a focus on education and international standards. Learning should not take second place to the fund-raising which wants to know how many souls were saved this week, or how many poor children placed backsides on seats. All too often they return to the street whence they came from.
They become statistics for those who broker donor money, those who cost-effectively outsource the teaching to volunteers or to the ineffective, cheap, schools which abound in our cities and towns, where little to no learning is taking place.
What is your thoughts regarding the future?
The morality of Cambodians must change and will change as we internationalise we will have no choice but to become more global, regional and outward looking. We should model ourselves upon Singapore – the country bagging the 1st position in the world for lack of corruption. The 2011 Corruption Perception Index, which measures the perceived levels of public-sector corruption in 183 countries, ranks Cambodia as 164th in the order of increasing levels of corruption.
What is alarming is that education, in particular, is seen as one of the more highly corrupt public services. Another recent survey found that 33% of Cambodian households regarded public schools as a public service in which they would need to pay bribes to get what they wanted. But corruption is rife in the private sector as well. Many of those taking bachelors and even master’s degrees in Cambodia would not pass in secondary qualifications such as the IGCSE, SAT and IB. We need at least one school which can act as a pathway to international universities through offering proper intentional level primary and secondary education.
This is obviously bad in that it must kills motivation in those who wish to work hard to achieve, often seeing themselves achieving only the same grades as those who did not perform, but merely paid.
What does this entail for the job of teaching?
This appalling educational record will stunt development in the longer term and constitute the main problem of our membership of ASEAN, when we have to compete with other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, and even Singapore. The root of the problem lies solely in the realm of education. The more successful ASEAN members will only facilitate work permits and relax foreign worker quotas in certain skilled sectors: architecture, engineering, accounting, surveying, medicine and tourism. Which schools and universities preparing youth for this in Sihanoukville? This will mean a Cambodia that is little more than a labour reserve of young low-wage factory, unskilled and semi-skilled workers working in factories owned and operated by foreign investors, and in small businesses vulnerable to big capital and seasonal change.
So why are you involved in a school?
I aim to make the day-to-day running as smooth as possible in the school, and support the learning so that we can create the intentional standard people need.
If you were to ask one question what would it be?
My question is: Can our students compete with others in ASEAN – described in the recent World Economic forum – as the most exciting investment, and potentially the largest, market region in the world – can our students take their proper place alongside Singaporeans or are we to be the source of low-wage service labour? Can we really develop the leaders that Cambodia needs tomorrow?