Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has unilaterally excused students from having to sit final exams. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

Presumably ignoring the suggestions made by his Education Ministry, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen used a lengthy speech on Tuesday to announce that all Grade 12 students will automatically pass their final high-school exams this year, a decision wrapped up as a populist, heartfelt gesture amid a crisis, yet revealing of problems of how government decisions are made. 

Cambodia’s schools have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, most having to close between March and September, forcing the exams to be delayed. Granted, Hun Sen noted that he would be criticized for this latest move, though he argued, “We do not have any better choice than this.”

Not quite true. For sure, it’s better than failing all students or allowing the virus to spread as a community-transmission outbreak that began in mid-November isn’t yet definitely over, though it’s difficult to see how this is any more fair than using students’ previous semester’s work to decide their final mark (which Hun Sen expressly said was worse than his solution).

But one could also have devised some other alternatives, such as establishing a final mark from continual assessment or changing the way the final exams are sat.

(When France canceled the baccalauréat this year for the first time in history since it began in 1808 under Napoleon Bonaparte, it resolved the situation through calculating previous marks and teacher assessments – not a fair resolution but one that didn’t disrupt the entire education system for a year.) 

Hun Sen could also have at least consulted with the Education Ministry before making this decision, to lessen the burden on its civil servants, who are now reeling to respond.

Reports suggest that the ministry did provide him with several alternative options, including delaying the exams further than their new January 11 deadline, using high schools and not examination centers to host the exams so as to limit the potential spread of the virus, or using the students’ previous marks. However, none of these was heeded and it is thought that the prime minister made the decision this week without informing the ministry of it beforehand. 

A ministerial spokesman was forced to comment later the same day, “The ministry respects and accepts the recommendation by [Hun Sen] for internal discussion and then will inform this case soon.” Interestingly enough, a “recommendation” wasn’t what Hun Sen appeared to be making.

Another newspaper quoted the Education Ministry spokesman as saying, “The ministry is holding a meeting to discuss the matter. We will announce this to the public soon.” Is this a sign of pushback from the ministry? Or it simply scrambling to respond to a decision it wasn’t informed about and, one might assume, doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in?  

Neither did Hun Sen communicate his decision beforehand to the universities, which I hear are now panicking trying to figure out how they’ll adapt their admissions policies for next year, now that 121,108 students can apply for university places without any indicator of whether they are qualified to study or how they rank against one another.

This is an even bigger problem for the poorer students dependent on scholarships, and especially for those applying to foreign universities. The Education Ministry is presumably now working on a way of communicating this to the international scholarship programs that allow Cambodian students to study abroad.

Hun Sen observed that this was a difficult decision. For sure, but he picked the easiest (and most self-serving) solution that simply places the burden on the universities, which now have in essence been handed responsibility by the state to determine the future of more than 100,000 young people who all presumably have the opportunity to apply for higher-education places.

And he did it in a way that not only took the decision away from the Education Ministry, but also made himself appear the sole person the students should thank for not having to sit their exams this year. Not wanting to make himself unpopular with youth (tomorrow’s voters, after all), this was not so much a decision as passing the buck. The PM instructs, and the ministries and the universities have to react.  

“Allowing all Grade 12 students to pass will make them happy and not panicked,” Hun Sen commented, defending his decision and employing his usual infantalist language. (He seems to believe that the average Cambodian is in a permanent state of nervous agitation.)  Then, of course, he had to follow this up with: “This is better than the time of the Pol Pot regime when there was no studying.”

Seldom does a day go by when the PM or one of his acolytes doesn’t remind the Cambodian people that things are better today than 40 years ago, when the country was living under one of the world’s most barbaric genocidal (and autocidal) regimes.

But using the Khmer Rouge as a baseline is increasingly sounding hollow, given that the majority of the population was born after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, and the students Hun Sen was addressing were born in the early 2000s. Surely the objective is for conditions to be better today compared with 2010, not only compared with 1979.

There were also the things that Hun Sen didn’t say. For instance, he could have announced that because of the massive disruptions to the education system this year, he would increase the Education Ministry’s budget for 2021, which in October was set at US$859 million. That’s a sizable chunk compared with previous years, granted, but he could have announced that savings could be made from the defense budget (at least $641 million) and transferred to the education sector.

Cost-cutting in other areas might have also freed up some money to pay for wage increases next year for teachers, who earn a relative pittance. In fact, in October, Hun Sen went above the head of his Finance Minister Aun Pornmoniroth (who we are now led to believe may be his replacement at some point) who wanted to raise civil servants’ salaries in 2021, a decision rejected by the PM. 

According to UN Development Program data, state spending on education as a percentage of GDP was around 2.2% between 2013 and 2018 in Cambodia, compared with 4.1% in Thailand, 4.2% in Vietnam and even 2.9% in poorer Laos. Meanwhile, the average teacher-to-pupil ratio in primary education was 1:42 over the past decade in Cambodia, compared with 1:20 in Vietnam, 1:17 in Thailand, 1:22 in Laos and 1:24 in Myanmar.

Whichever metric you use, Cambodia’s education system is usually the worst of any of the mainland Southeast Asian states. In fact, the pace of progress slowed more in Cambodia during the 2010s compared with the 2000s, most likely because of underinvestment, than in its neighbors. 

It’s also possible that Hun Sen announced this decision, and not the Education Ministry, to dispel criticism. Indeed, because the prime minister made it, it required obsequious commentary.

From the Federation of Education Services president, Pech Bolen, for instance, we heard: “The high-school examination doesn’t determine knowledge, studies and work of students. So allowing students to pass the examination enables them to continue studies at university levels or technical and professional training.”

By this logic, shouldn’t one then do away with high-school final exams permanently (not just in a pandemic year), and either change the system completely or allow the Education Ministry to absolve its responsibility for calculating students’ competency? 

End-of-year examinations probably aren’t the best way to determine a student’s education or competency, although they are the simplest. Continual assessment is fairer, if done properly, as are application interviews and enrollment exams from the universities.

But at some point there does have to be something that determines a hierarchical order; who fails and who passes; who are more qualified than others. Hun Sen has simply lumped this responsibility on to others this year. 

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno.