Research highlighted in e-magazine

My collaborative research project on historical memory in the Mekong, which is funded by a Kakenhi grant, was recently highlighted in the online e-magazine Modern Diplomacy. The author, Rattana Lao, wrote:

Is it possible that a common understanding can be reached and harmony can be fostered through a new kind of text book, new knowledge and new understanding to promote something as elusive as a regional identity?

Dr. Brehm is a little sceptical: “So long as education is organized by nation-states, history and historical memory will always promote nationalism and national identity. Everything else will be secondary or retro-fitted for the main purpose.”

New article on methodology (with focus on Cambodia)

My latest piece was published today in Southeast Asian Studies, the area-studies journal out of Kyoto University. In the piece, which is entitled “The Is and the Ought of Knowing: Ontological Observations on Shadow Education Research in Cambodia,” I trace the evolution of English language terms used to describe private tutoring in Cambodia.  I then detail the Khmer language terms used to describe the phenomenon. I argue that while the English language terms have stayed relatively constant over 20-years and generally describe the same practice, the Khmer language uses a range of terms, which have evolved over time, to describe a multitude of practices. This finding prompted me to critique English-language researchers (myself included!) who have limited reality to their prior understandings of it (i.e., the terms employed in the “literature”). This is a methodological critique writ large. The article is free to download, so please check it out.  Enjoy!

New article on educational privatization in Cambodia

My new article on educational privatization in Cambodia is out. You can download the article here. The piece is a portrait of a director of a non-formal school. What propelled him to start this enterprise? How does he see his school’s value and purpose? By exploring the life and history of one person, I argue that educational is not only a process of policy creation but also a social practice. Cambodia is an excellent location to explore the social practice of privatization since the country has, since the 1990s, enacted policies to strengthen public education. Case in point: I learned yesterday that next year the country will spend 3.5 percent of GDP on education. That’s huge. So why does privatization continue? My article tries to answer that.

My piece is also aimed at showing the value of what Pasi Sahlberg calls “small data“. Through an in-depth study of one individual, we can learn as much as any big data research study. In this way, my piece is a call for more ethnographic, small data educational research.

New article on Cambodian educational governance

My new co-written article is out! The paper examines the Civil Society Education Fund’s (CSEF) impact on the non-governmental organisation education partnership (NEP) in Cambodia. With financial backing from the World Bank and the Fast Track Initiative, the CSEF is an initiative that is managed internationally by the Global Campaign for Education. Its goal is to help national networks of non-governmental organizations participate in education decision-making and to serve as a watchdog for progress related to internationally agreed upon goals. Through the CSEF, the deployment of various strategies, and other external factors, the NEP was able to able to achieve recognition, legitimacy and in uence at the national level. However, the NEP has had to balance working with the state and working for the state. This case study highlights strategies used by civil society actors to engage state actors, the e cacy of international support, and the con icts inherent in both.

Full citation:

Edwards, D.B. Jr., Brehm, W.C. and Storen, I. (2017). Global governance and the politics of education in Cambodia: A case study of the Civil Society Education Fund. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. (pdf)

New op-ed: Cambodia’s social media warnings for Trump’s America

President-elect Donald Trump is not the only politician who wields power through social media. Whereas the President-elect favours early morning Twitter posts to castigate opponents, institutions and ideas with which he disagrees, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-standing prime minister, uses Facebook as a tool to legislate policy, propagandise his party and imprison opposition parliamentarians. Cambodia and the United States may be wholly different countries, but a look at Hun Sen’s Facebook page, the power it exerts over government and recent ‘fake news’ scandals in Cambodia offer valuable lessons for the American public as it prepares for the nation’s first Twitterer-in-Chief. (Read more)

FreshEd’s new website

I’m excited to announce that FreshEd, the weekly podcast I host, has a new website. You can check it out here:

The site will archive all of the podcasts as well as provide exclusive content related to each show. In the latest episode, I speak with Raewyn Connell. On the website, I post a follow-up question I asked Raewyn over email. I asked her for advice for a young scholar like me. You can read her response here.

If you are interested in joining the show as a guest or contributor, please contact me here.


New round of ASEAN talks, little hope of South China Sea consensus

With Laos acting as chair and Cambodia as recent recipient of China’s largess ($600 million given on July 15, 2016), Asean is paralyzed from issuing a joint statement in reaction to the ruling by the International Tribunal at the Hegue that stated there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the South China sea.

A diplomate was quoted as saying: “It’s very grave. Cambodia just opposes almost everything, even reference to respect for legal and diplomatic processes which already had been said in previous statements,”

The crazy connection between Turkey, the USA, and Cambodia

I was amazed by the recent coup attempt in Turkey. Although it was poorly planned and implemented, it will likely have lasting consequences, especially for US-Turkey relations. The main issue is Fethullah Gulen, the former Imam who is in self-exile in Pennsylvania, USA. The President of Turkey,  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, blames Gulen for the coup and wants him extradited to Turkey. The USA isn’t expected to oblige, thus straining already difficult relations. (Relations have been difficult because the Syrian Kurds, who are the strongest and US-favored ground opponents of ISIS, are anathema to Turkey because of possible irredentist connections with Turkish Kurds.)  Of course, it is unlikely Gulen was behind the failed coup; nevertheless, Erdoğan is capitalizing on the coup attempt by making it an excuse to consolidate power, particularly taking aim at Gulen and his followers.

And there are many followers of Gulen. One issue about Gulen that hasn’t made much news of late is his massive network of US charter schools.  Seriously. The movement associated with Gulen operates the second largest network of charter schools in the USA, only behind KIPP. The Gulen Movement, as it is know, runs charter schools around the country that receive US-tax payer money to operate. As charter schools go they have private boards and are not required to disclose financial or management reports. Taxpayers don’t know where their money goes or what decisions are being made inside Gulen charter schools. There are all sort of issues that arise from Gulen’s charter schools, but let’s push those aside for a moment.

The story gets a bit weirder and crosses additional borders. Today I read an article about Zaman International Schools in Cambodia. I’ve heard of the schools many times as some of the best in the country. Many government officials whom I know personally send their children to Zaman. In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Erdoğan’s reach knows no limits. The Turkish Ambassador to Cambodia would now “like to see this Zaman group in Cambodia end all its activities in the near future” because of its ties to Gulen. Some backstory sheds light on the connection: Zaman International School was founded by Atilla Yusuf Guleker, a former journalist of the Turkish daily Zaman. Zaman was openly critical of Erdoğan and, in March of this year, taken over by military officials loyal to the President.

  1. The failed coup in Turkey has shed light on the educational politics of Gulen both in the USA and in Cambodia. What other countries operate schools associated with the Gulen movement? Although these schools appear to teach national curricula, what are the underlying motives behind operating schools — ideological advancement? building sympathetic relationships? financial support of other Gulen movement activities?

China’s soft power in Cambodia

From the Phnom Penh Post:

Cambodia and China have signed an agreement to establish exchange programs for students and professors between the under-construction University of Kratie and Guangxi University.

This is on top of the $10 million the Chinese government provided the University of Kratie for construction.

Blowing (more) air into the education bubble?

There’s word coming out of Cambodia’s ministry of education that a state-run loan program is set to launch to help poor students afford university. Most universities in Cambodia are private, for-profit (but, oddly enough, tax-exempt) companies (67 out of 110 institutions of higher education are private) that charge student fees, and most of the students who attend the 43 public universities pay fees as well. Only a small — and declining—percentage of students receive scholarships to attend university from the government. With limited government support to higher education, most universities require as many fee-paying students as possible simply to stay solvent. Since most families can’t afford education costs, however, access to loans becomes the only way to keep the higher education industry afloat.

But why would a family take out a loan to afford (higher) education? For staters, loans already occur either through private banks or through the black market in order for many families to afford the various costs to education at all levels. Second, there is a belief that obtaining a degree from a university will guarantee a job in the future. The child in the Phnom Penh Post article that reported this loan program stated, for instance, “I hope I can benefit from this program. I want to study at university to get a job afterwards.” This is a common refrain: Education equals employment.

But scratch the surface just slightly, and the belief that a degree will automatically turn into a job turns out to be a charade. Most jobs in the Cambodian economy do not need a university degree. What I fear will happen, therefore, is that this new loan program will create more private debt for poor households, perpetuate low-quality higher education (because the business model of the system will be propped up by a national loan program), and expand the false pretense that human capital theory is “best” way to understand the value of education.

When details of this program are announced by the ministry, I’m interested in learning how the loans will be structured and administered. Are these government-backed loans? Meaning, will the public be on the hook for the loans when students default? Because students will default — just look at America’s experience with for-profit colleges.

More broadly, I wonder if we are seeing the expansion of an education bubble in Cambodia through the transfer of payment for education from international donors and organizations to Cambodian families. There’s only one way this ends: the bubble bursts.