A cup of coffee worth millions

March 04, 2004, vol. 29, no. 5
By Susan Jamieson-McLarnon

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A $3-million Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funded project to help the national universities of Cambodia and Laos got its start over a cup of coffee in a Bangkok sidewalk café.

Simon Fraser University's dean of continuing studies, Colin Yerbury recalls the meeting with the local CIDA officer, Nipa Banerjee: “SFU had explored opportunities in South East Asia for over a year and the genesis of this project was a challenge from Nipa Banerjee. She asked me why SFU wasn't a pioneer in the Indo-China countries with a project that would enhance the instructional capacity of the National University of Laos and the Royal University of Phnom Penh.”

Simon Fraser has the expertise but, says Yerbury, the key to the project is partnerships. “CIDA looks for partnerships when it allocates funds. Building partnerships really is the essence of continuing studies. Our strength is the ability to build relationships within the university context and at large. The university's mandate is not just to look locally, but look internationally. “

The university already had connections to Thailand's premier university, Chulalongkorn and has been able to build on the relationship, bringing Chulalongkorn into full partnership with the National and Royal universities.

Both Cambodia and Laos are in the midst of education reform. Cambodia, in particular, faces the legacy of the Pol Pot era when 80 per cent of the faculty and 60 per cent of the university students were killed. Today, at the universities in Laos and Cambodia, only a small percentage of faculty members have an advanced degree and wages are just enough for a very modest standard of living. To supplement their incomes they teach in private institutions.

Working together, the project partners developed a five-year plan. “Our mission is to build the capacity of the public universities,” says Yerbury. As a first step 36 faculty members from Thailand, Laos and Cambodia will have the chance to earn SFU graduate degrees.

The next step is to build revenue-generating continuing education centres with two goals: to offer continuing education opportunities to the community and to offer faculty members an opportunity to earn extra income within the university system.

“We don't want to loose the faculty to the private system and we can see a demand from the growing middle class for language programs, entrepreneurship and community economic development courses, as well as cultural and eco-tourism, small enterprise, and other areas where Chulalongkorn has the experience.”

But he emphasizes it's a shared learning experience. “We bring the skills to help establish programs with locally developed content that is culturally sensitive. We never try to impose our content or methodology on partners.”

While the cohort group may visit Burnaby for a summer program, it is Chulalongkorn that is the key, as many of the courses will be given on its campus. The graduate program will also have a presence in Laos and Cambodia.

When the project is complete, SFU will have a permanent presence in the academic life of Laos and Cambodia in the form of an alumni cohort.

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