Professor Ian Findlay, President & Vice-Chancellor, University of Puthisastra, Cambodia

Professor Ian Findlay was appointed President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Puthisastra (UP), Cambodia in August 2018. Ian has had a very successful career in health education, research, learning and teaching and maximizing opportunities in business, research, vocational education and higher education. In health education, he has been Executive Dean, Health for a number of major education providers. In research, he has obtained prestigious ARC, NHMRC and MRC grants, and has more than 50 publications in prestigious journals such as Nature, MJA, BMJ, Clinical Genetics etc.

In addition, Ian is a principal inventor on 11 patents primarily in the fields of forensics, molecular diagnostics and RFID. In learning and teaching, previously he was Pro-Vice Chancellor, Learning and Teaching leading L&T across 24 campuses and 40,000 students. He successfully introduced many key innovations, including flipped learning, to maximise learning and student employment outcomes.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Higher Education Digest, Professor Findlay shared his insights on the changes that have taken place in the higher education sector & Cambodian education system over the years, the major strengths of University of Puthisastra, Cambodia, key suggestions on how to integrate quality and excellence at all levels of education, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

You have so many years of experience in the field of education and academics. How do you see the changes which have taken place in the higher education sector & Cambodian education system over the years?

Unfortunately, across the world higher education has generally not kept pace with the very rapid changes in technology, Digital 4.0, the rapidly changing employment landscape and student expectations, career requirements.  Fortunately, the covid pandemic has rapidly accelerated change and many universities are now facing rapid reevaluation of their very purpose, relevance and future. Those universities that do not evolve will no longer be relevant and die.

Cambodia is no different – many lecturers do not even have the basics of technology. Cambodia also has a mix of public and private universities producing generally cheap but poor-quality degree programs, with 80-90% students studying social sciences such as business, marketing etc with only 5-10% STEM. This results in a substantial shortage of STEM graduates despite 85% of high-demand jobs are in STEM, and a massive over-supply of business graduates.

Fortunately, Cambodia, and its enlightened Education Minister, Dr. HANG Chuon Naron are now addressing these problems by:

  • Introducing Quality Assurance via ACC (Accreditation Committee of Cambodia) requiring all HEI to have a minimum standard.
  • Introducing guidelines for academic teaching and promotions. Currently only 8% of university lecturers have a doctorate degree, have no or minimal research experience but are still referred as Professors.
  • Introducing small research grants to encourage academics to become research active.
  • Actively pursuing a STEM agenda, encouraging schools and school children to focus on STEM.
  • Actively pursuing the introduction of technology (Wi-Fi, internet) into schools, especially via NGS (New Generation Schools)

Tell us about the University of Puthisastra. What are the major strengths of the University?

We have a number of key strengths:

  • The university of Puthisastra (UP) has over 203 MOUs with domestic and international organizations and universities. We actively promote international exchanges and aim for 100% of our students to have an international experience during their time at UP, we also strongly promote on-the-job education and training with almost all of our students’ doing internships in hospitals, industry etc. This helps to ensure that both their hard skills and soft skills are relevant to industry needs.
  • We recognize that English is the language of international success. UP is the only university to offer 4 years of intensive English tuition free of charge to students. English is so important because it is the international language of success in health, technology, business, finance, science, diplomacy in fact in so many fields. English is also the international language of the entire world – opening up so many international opportunities. Without good English students have a very limited career. So good English skills are a must. UP teaches 4 years of English to students – free of charge.
  • UP embeds 1. Research skills, 2. Critical thinking/soft skills, 3. IT skills and 4. English skills into 100% of its courses to ensure that UP graduates have the skills to be fully prepared to be the leaders of tomorrow.
  • We have health programs such as medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing and midwifery – creating young skilled professionals to be the health Leaders of tomorrow.
  • Science and research we have programs such as lab technology and Bachelor of Science research degree. These allow local Cambodian young people to learn the broad principles of research and equip them to be the science and technology leaders of tomorrow. UP is the only Cambodian university to have a research degree – guaranteeing good jobs in this exciting frontier.
  • We have technology programs (such as our bachelors and Masters of IT). Our IT programs focus on the big technology issues of today – data science, big data and cybersecurity.
  • UPOP – our custom-built leading learning and teaching systems – not just Zoom or Skype or Facebook – has been recognized as one of the very best on Cambodia.
  • our modern curricula based on international best practice, delivered by international experts.
  • our leading research – with over 200 papers from UP in 2022 – the highest number of research papers in Cambodia. UP also has 6 or the top 20 researchers in Cambodia – more than all the other universities put together.
  • By delivering more than 75,000 hours of quality online teaching – using technology to make sure UP students and graduates continue to succeed no matter where they are
  • We also have our very own UP Health centre. The largest pharmacy in Cambodia, the largest teaching dental hospital in Cambodia and a wide-ranging medical centre for our students to see and experience real-life patients with real life problems.
  • Additionally, UP became the first and only Cambodian university ranked in over 1400 of the World’s Top Universities in very prestigious Times Higher Education Rankings; and we celebrate this here today. UP also became a Top 500 university for the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
  • UP is also the only university which has a dedicated research degree; our Bachelor of Science (Research) to strengthen Cambodia’s increasingly important research and economic future as repeatedly outlined by the Cambodian Government. Its not a coincidence that the strongest nations have the highest investment in education, health and innovation. And that’s what UP does.
  • UP has also recently been recognized at the top 28th private university in ASEAN by AlliedHE.
  • Our students are already seeing the success of the UP approach. In 2022 UP students achieved 100% success in the national Exit exams. 100% pass in Medicine, 100% pass in Dentistry, 100% pass in Pharmacy, 100% pass in Nursing, 100% pass in Midwifery. These are the very best results in Cambodia.

As the VC of University of Puthisastra, what are the challenges do you face and how do you overcome them?

Cambodia is still a developing country and faces several main challenges:

  1. Skilled Human resources. The Khmer Rouge genocide just 40 years ago slaughtered ¼ of the population especially the educated. This has resulted in a huge shortage of educated/trained professionals aged >50 – traditionally those who would train, teach and mentor the younger generations.
  2. Cambodian education is also poor. Resulting in poorly educated/skilled teachers providing low quality teaching to students – often rote learning.
  3. Financial challenges – the average salary is ~$250 per month so education is not a high priority for parents who need their children to earn money rather than get an education.
  4. Institutional inertia – culturally people are trained to comply and not rock the boat. Making the innovation required for success is difficult to progress.

Cambodia has other challenges.

  • Poor quality higher education –
  • Only 10% students go to higher ed (40% developed countries), only 1% into health. 80-90% of students do Business/social science – often very cheap and poor quality.
  • Only 8% of university lecturers have doctorate degrees – >95% in developed countries. UP has 65% with doctorate and 91% with master’s or above.
  • Only 6.5% (9/138) Cambodian HEI have minimum standards (ACC) accredited by Cambodian Government
  • Inadequate skills in current work force. Both current skills and future skills. Almost non-existent professional development/training. Cambodia has enormous Human Resource problem – very difficult to recruit skilled, trained staff.
  • Almost no development of soft skills/critical thinking.

How does your university approach diversity, equity, and inclusion, both within the student body and among faculty and staff?

DEI is not a major issue; some would argue that this is a luxury when many Cambodians are struggling to survive. However UP has strong DEI policies, 51% of our students, 47% of our staff and 38% of our Leadership group are female.

Cambodia is a very tolerant and inclusive country and DEI is not a high priority.

What are your views on leadership? How should university vice-chancellors and administrators ensure that their faculty members and students transform into world-class leaders?

In my view university vice-chancellors have several key roles:

  1. Provide inspirational and aspirational leadership by providing a strong vision for all staff to believe in. A family environment that encourages personal belonging and ownership which in turn promotes strong values and work ethic.
  2. Allow a safe space for mistakes. Have a risk management, rather than risk averse, culture for mistakes. Without mistakes there is no progress. I’d rather people do 8 things well and make 2 mistakes than do nothing well.
  3. Provide personal mentorship to junior leaders. To be a “father” figure to encourage them, allows them to grow and become the success they deserve, yet make sure that they remain aligned to the greater vision.
  4. Provide broad direction but allow staff to do their jobs. They know their jobs better than the VC does.
  5. Provide strong values including recognizing both good and bad performance – and addressing it.
  6. Juggle the competing demands of a university seemingly effortlessly promoting confidence in ability, leadership and direction of the university. People want to belong to success.

As a seasoned academician and administrator, what are your suggestions, to integrate quality and excellence at all levels of education?

  1. Strongly promote these values throughout the organization
  2. Ensure that all staff live and breathe these values – not just pay lip service – by demonstrating how these values can lead to success.
  3. Staff training so that all staff not only know expectations but also know how to achieve these expectations. UP offers 74 training courses at all levels to reinforce values.

Mental health is a key concern for many students. What steps are you taking to support students’ mental health and well-being?

Cambodia has major mental health concerns including intergenerational trauma from genocide as well as the modern pressures that students face. UP has a comprehensive Student Welfare service with dedicated staff – probably the only university in Cambodia to do so.  We provide a PASS (Peer Assisted Student Support) where senior students mentor & support junior students. We also have an active referral system referring at risk students to trained professionals/counsellors.

Where are you seeing students engaging the most and the least?

Cambodia is quite different to Western education. Students (and especially parents) are very focused on job outcomes, so students only do courses that have very clear, very defined careers rather than doing courses that just interest them. This means that students are rather conservative and reluctant to try new courses or something new. However, with a young energetic population (65% of Cambodia are under 30) who demand more, the rapidly (37% per year) increasing middle class and Cambodia’s fastest growing economy in ASEAN there is growing understanding of the benefits and need for high quality education – especially international education. However, this is still tempered with substantial financial constraints.

Traditionally >90% students undertake business related courses at ~120 of the 138 Cambodian Higher Education institutions. These courses are usually cheap and low quality. Only 5% of graduates are STEM graduates despite 85% of the highest demand jobs being in STEM. Overproduction of business graduates and insufficient STEM creates a huge imbalance.

However, the Cambodian Govt has recognized this and is actively promoting STEM, higher quality education and higher quality standards which will all combine to force the poorer quality business providers out and rebalance graduate attributes to fit Cambodia’s needs.

Vocational Education/TVET training is almost non-existent in Cambodia.

With an ever-changing higher education landscape, what do Vice-Chancellors and their senior teams need to be mindful of in the coming year?

Covid has accelerated change and continues to be a powerful disrupter of the education system but is also a promoter of innovative teaching and learning processes. What brings chaos brings opportunity. In a very short period of time, covid has triggered a forced digital transformation of educational delivery. Only enlightened, visionary and successful leadership will be able to shepherd this revolutionary approach – challenged by decades of university complacency, inertia and procrastination. Universities with conservative figureheads and those driven by profit more than academic excellence will disappear. Only those that are student focussed and evolve quickly to the sweeping changes required of higher education will survive.

Although change has been obvious for decades, Covid has accelerated change in many areas:

  1. Increased use of technology – hugely increased online learning which brings its own opportunities and challenges.
  2. Increased expectations of students – education has become much more expensive so students are increasing demanding higher value for money, they will no longer tolerate 2nd rate lecturers, content, facilities and poorer student outcomes. Only the strongest, and/or most prestigious and/or most innovative universities will survive.
  3. Rapid changes in international education. Foreign students are no longer queuing up for a Western degree and the often barely mentioned but inevitable carrot of PR. Compounding this decline have been short-term actions such as Governments reducing visa availability, sending students home during covid, and greedy universities with very high international fees = $25-30k USD per year. all contributing to killing the golden goose. International education also faces challenges from the other direction – the rapid rise of universities, particularly Asian, in university rankings such as THE and QS with the subsequent fall of Western universities – thus eroding a major selling point of TOS. Why should Chinese students spend $40-50k/yr (or $150k for 3 yr degree) to come to Australia where they have a local university with higher ranking on their doorstep? Additionally, some countries such as China, traditionally a very lucrative source of IE students, are actively encouraging students to stay at home.  We must look to alternative models such as Enabler or Partnerships models if the richness of IE is to continue to prosper. We are just waking up to post-covid bounce, the inevitable rise of Asean universities in World rankings and the complacency of much of the Western sector will slowly reach tipping point then it will come tumbling down. I predict that in 10 years traditional onshore enrolments will decline by 70% – primarily affecting universities outside the global top 100. Huge implications for Australian (and other) universities that are overly dependent on IE and only just breaking even now with high levels of IE. What happens when the $37 Billion (Australia) and $43 Billion (UK) IE market dries up? Australia currently has ~170 HEI – many focused only on the IE market. I predict <100 will survive the next 10 years.
  4. Value and relevance of higher education qualifications – many organizations no longer require degrees. High profile figures like Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, and Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, have questioned the need for degrees, and In 2021 IBM announcedit had removed bachelor’s degree requirements for more than half of its US openings. Google’s job postings requiring a bachelor’s degree fell from 93% to 77% between 2017-2021. More and more companies and young people are realizing degree requirements put them at a “competitive disadvantage“. Many companies (particularly in finance, business management, engineering, and health care occupations) have scrapped degree requirements altogether to widen their net and diversify their workforce. Young people are increasingly questioning the need to get a >$100,000 education debt as well as foregoing 3-4 years of earning potential ($200-400k) – $500,000 behind in total just to get a degree that has limited value.

The challenges, including financial, are combining to substantially challenge the very being and purpose of many universities – which are further disadvantaged by their often complacent, risk averse workforce. Only those that evolve will survive.

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