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No good grades? No problem

Students sit at tables in front of an enrolment office at a university in Phnom Penh
Students sit at tables in front of an enrolment office at a university in Phnom Penh yesterday. Some universities are looking to new strategies to enrol failing students in classes to bolster numbers. Eli Meixler

No good grades? No problem

In the wake of abysmally low test results for high school seniors, some private universities are attempting to ensure at least some of the vast majority of students who didn’t pass still enrol, while others are offering associate degrees to bypass the national examination system altogether.

A crackdown on rampant cheating during the final-year exams lowered the pass rate for the nationwide examinations from 87 per cent in 2013 to only 25.7 per cent this year.

“We knew the number [of students who passed] was going to be low, but not that low,” said Chris Campbell, admissions director at the American University of Phnom Penh (AUPP). “What we were seeing when we saw the results was that there were some really good candidates who didn’t pass the exam, so we didn’t want them to miss out.”

This prompted the university to offer those who failed the first round of examinations a chance to get in – and pay tuition – by attending AUPP’s English preparatory program.

Those who do so will be considered AUPP students but can only be “formally admitted” to AUPP if they pass retests in October, read an announcement.

AUPP has also responded to the low test results by expanding a scholarship scheme for A students to those who received Bs as well, since only 11 students nationwide received a top mark this year.

“We thought there are still exceptional students who got Bs,” said Campbell.

Other private universities are apparently not concerned about the exam results at all, saying they will simply shift to having more students enrol in two-year associate-degree programs, which do not require a high school diploma.

In Vireakchey, a lecturer at Build Bright University, said the institution wasn’t worried about enrolment.

“We welcome all students, whether they passed or failed, to study in our university,” Vireakchey said.

“We are not concerned about the incoming numbers of bachelor’s degree students, because those who failed will come to study in greater numbers for an associate’s degree. So this is not a big problem.”

But there are concerns that enrolling such students may dilute student quality.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association, said allowing such students to obtain university degrees would render the purpose of the examination reforms “useless”.

“As I see it, most [private] universities are more interested in doing business than focusing on the quality of their education offered.”

Students who receive an associate degree can transfer into a bachelor’s program by taking supplementary courses, with no pesky national examination required.

Still, some private universities, such as CamEd Business School, which does not offer associate’s degrees, said they would not be tweaking admissions policies.

“I’m very happy about the reforms, which will improve studying skills”, said CamEd’s rector, Casey Barnett, adding that admitting those without a high school diploma to any level of higher education “seems to kind of defeat the whole purpose, doesn’t it?”

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