Graduate Programs Begin Transformation

The graduate programs at The University of Cambodia are steadily growing and with new Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Chheang Vannarith taking charge, the programs are expected to really take shape. 

Eyes Abroad

While graduate students partake in all majors offered at UC, interest has peaked in the area of International Relations, with nearly 50 percent of UC’s 39 graduate-level students enrolled in that particular area of study.

“International studies are attractive in a Cambodian context,” said Vannarith. “Students want to study about the outside world to open their minds to what is going on around the region and the world.”

The interest in international issues, he said, stems from the students’ tendencies toward gaining what he calls “global citizenship” as well as broadening job opportunities. Keying into the global context makes them more attractive to private companies and NGOs throughout the country.

Sim Vireak, an International Relations instructor at UC agreed. He said unlike specializations like marketing or business administration, International Relations offers general knowledge that can be applied to a myriad of fields.

"Now, it's becoming impossible for students to graduate from university not knowing about international politics," Vireak said.

The mode of thought that regulates students being fluent in international issues has been adopted by students trying to make ends meet in the rapidly globalizing world, but it also lines up with the ideals that university President Dr. Kao Kim Hourn has for his institution of higher learning.

In a 2004 case study published in UC’s Journal of Cambodian Studies, Dr. Kao detailed the role that institutions of higher education must play in helping the quickly developing Cambodian society connect to the world at large. An issue gaining consideration by today's Cambodian universities in order raise the standard of  the academic role, he said, is the push for their students to participate beyond their local communities.

“How we go about bringing the two together, ‘the global’ and ‘the local,’ in a meaningful and fruitful way is a focus of much debate in the East as much as it is in the West, in rich nations and in poor nations,” he wrote.

Focusing on Research

According to Vannarith, the graduate program currently operates in a top-down method of instruction with lecturers passing on information to students and holding class discussions. While the graduate students eagerly seek out knowledge from their instructors, he said the problem lies in the students’ experience gap.

“Some students are knowledgeable on international issues and are mature for their age,” he said. “Others lack the experience and reading, which makes it difficult for them to catch up.”

In the coming months and years, he hopes to evolve the graduate program into a more bottom-up approach by implementing research-based instruction, which falls in line with the university mandates.

To encourage an environment toward research, Vannarith has compiled a 30- to 40-book collection for the graduate reading corner in his office. This is only the beginning of what is to come for the program. He also hopes to increase student publications in the Journal of Cambodian Studies, especially among those performing PhD research, and invite lecturers to talk to students regarding current issues in research methodology.

"I want to get students excited [about publishing their research],” Vannarith said. “Especially, for those who wish to do their PhD elsewhere, publication is important.”

Some lecturers, like Vireak, have already begun to adopt this instruction method. In his classes, he tends to take the first three to four weeks to lecture, and then he turns the tables and has the students to do the research and teach one another while he acts as the class facilitator. Each student, he said, usually presents once or twice a term.

"Graduate students must have better English skills, presentation skills, writing skills and critical thinking ability. They cannot afford to take it easy as if studying for a Bachelor's degree," he said. "I push the impossible. After the work is done, you can see that you can do better than you thought."

Setting the Standards

As the flourishing University of Cambodia continues to evolve, along with it will come its graduate studies program. While UC’s diverse and interdisciplinary curriculum sets it apart from universities around the nation, the young program will also mature to accommodate the needs of the students seeking further education.

While many new ideas still rest at the discussion stages of development, Vannarith wants to incorporate programs and courses to meet the demands of the job market. One such idea is an “executive program,” which he said would promote communication skills and leadership in the classroom.

“We should redesign the program so that it could help students to practice leadership in the workplace,” he said. 

He also said that developing the curriculum to promote creative thinking and critical approaches to current situations would also be beneficial to students in helping them to apply theories to today’s societal context.