Cambodian academics’ conceptions of research and the research-teaching nexus: A qualitative analysis

Kimkong Heng
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Abstract

This short article provides research highlights of a recently published article, entitled “Academics’ conceptions of research and the research-teaching nexus: Insights from Cambodia.” The article was co-authored by Kimkong Heng, M. Obaidul Hamid, and Asaduzzaman Khan and was published in the International Journal of Educational Development in February 2022.

Keywords: Conceptions of research; research-teaching nexus; Cambodian academics; research engagement; Cambodia

Introduction and literature review

Academics’ conceptions of research and the research-teaching nexus have been the subject of research for many years; however, little is known about how academics in the Global South context perceive research and the relationship between research and teaching. To contribute to the literature on academics’ conceptions of research and respond to calls for further investigation into how Cambodian academics perceive research, Heng et al. (2022) conducted a study to examine how research and the research-teaching nexus are perceived by Cambodian academics.

In the study, Heng et al. (2022) provided a fairly comprehensive review of the literature, focusing on four themes: (1) academics’ conceptions of research, (2) academics’ conceptions of the research-teaching nexus, (3) challenges facing higher education research in Cambodia, and (4) research on Cambodian academics and their conceptions of research. The question that was addressed in the study was: “How do Cambodian university academics perceive research and the research-teaching nexus?” (p. 4).

Methodology

The study was part of a larger research project and was designed as a qualitative study. It was based on qualitative data gathered through in-depth semi-structured interviews with 30 Cambodian academics. These academics were selected from two Cambodian universities (1 public and 1 private) located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. The two universities were purposefully selected from a total of 80 higher education institutions under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of Cambodia due to their standing as major public and private universities.

The selection of the participants for the study was guided by a purposive sampling strategy, taking into account various factors such as “gender, academic ranks, education backgrounds, disciplines, teaching and research experiences, research output, and their interest and availability in participating in the study” (Heng et al., 2022, p. 4). Among the 30 participants, 18 (60%) were from the public university, seven (23%) were female academics, and 10 (33%) were academics with PhD degrees. The participants had between two to 25 years of work experience and were aged between 25 and 60 years, with seven of them holding managerial positions such as faculty deans or department heads.

The data were collected in 2019 and the interviews lasted from 20 to approximately 70 minutes. The audio-recorded interviews were transcribed and translated from Khmer to English and were then coded using both deductive and inductive coding. The coding and analysis were supported by the qualitative data analysis software NVivo 12, and the authors followed the coding procedure suggested by Creswell (2012). It is interesting to note that the authors endeavored to ensure the credibility of their research by employing a few strategies to enhance research rigor such as member checking, prolonged engagement in the field, and reflexivity, as suggested by Houghton et al. (2013).

Findings

In the findings section, Heng et al. (2022) reported three major themes, including “(1) mixed conceptions of academic research; (2) academics’ lip service to research; and (3) the complementarity between research and teaching” (p. 4). In the first theme, the authors showed that Cambodian academics’ conceptions of research could be categorized into five groups as follows:

  1. Research as a knowledge-broadening activity
  2. Research as an activity or process of discovery
  3. Research as the application of old concepts or theories in new contexts
  4. Research as a problem-solving activity
  5. Research as teaching preparation activities

Heng et al. (2022) argued that some Cambodian academics “uncritically assume that reading something on the internet or reading books and other materials to prepare for their classes was research” (p. 5). As they noted,

… it seems that some Cambodian academics have a vague conception of research… The possibility of undertaking academic research to produce new knowledge, contribute to the field, and participate in discussions with the academic community seems distant if not irrelevant to them. In other words, the relevance of academic research and scholarship to their day-to-day work is seemingly absent. (p. 5)

In the second theme, Heng et al. (2022) reported that the majority of the Cambodian academics participating in their study “paid ‘lip service’ to research” (p. 5). This finding revealed a disconnection between research conceptions and research practices. That is, while all of the participants “thought highly of research” and claimed to “value research highly” (p. 5), only 40% of them (12 participants) were engaged in research. It was also found that 40% of the academics who participated in the study “had never published any papers in their academic career that spanned from two to 25 years, although they said they highly valued research” (p. 5).

Heng et al. (2022) explained the phenomenon of “paying lip service to research” by providing significant empirical data through quotes from the interview transcripts concerning the challenges and hardships facing Cambodian academics and the realities in which they operated as academics. For example, the following quote highlighted how one participant was overloaded with work and family commitments that prevented him from engaging in research:

I still keep doing research, but I just do it enough to prepare for my teaching and the available time I have. I do not have time to write for publication. All of my time is for my family, my government work and my teaching. There’s no more available time. So how can I do research? (P23, senior lecturer, male, political science). (p. 5)

Based on this finding, the authors emphasized a connection between a lack of prioritization of research among Cambodian academics and the challenging realities facing them. They wrote:

Despite their appreciation of the importance of research, the main priority for many academics was to earn extra income to support themselves and their families. To put it another way, research was important, but its significance paled in comparison with academics’ pressing needs to survive considering their low academic salaries and teaching wages. (p. 6)

In the final theme, Heng et al. (2022) showed that there was “a general consensus among the participants that research and teaching were complementary” (p. 6). That is, the Cambodian academics reported in this study tended to believe that research and teaching were “closely connected” (p. 6) and that research enhanced, informed, facilitated, or improved teaching. One of the quotes presented to highlight this theme could effectively encapsulate the complementary between research and teaching as perceived by the Cambodian academics:

Exactly, research complements teaching, helping to improve the quality of teaching, making teaching more effective and efficient, and teaching is a platform for researchers to showcase and share their research findings. (P4, lecturer, male, social science). (p. 6)

The authors also emphasized the perceived connection between research and teaching by highlighting some keywords that the participants used in their interviews. Some of the keywords were “applicable,” “really connected,” “complementary,” and “positive link” (p. 7).

Discussion

In discussing and evaluating the findings, Heng et al. (2022) focused on three main points, including (1) lack of meaningful connections with academic research, (2) disconnection between teaching and research, and (3) understanding the challenges facing Cambodian academics. In the first discussion point, they highlighted that many Cambodian academics did not “associate research with publications, academic satisfaction, pursuit of curiosity, and attainment of personal research goals and global recognition” (p. 7), which reflected their limited research engagement and productivity.

Regarding the second discussion point, the authors argued that while the Cambodian academics believed in the complementarity between research and teaching, their limited research engagement suggested a disconnection between research and teaching in their professional practice. This means that “many Cambodian lecturers conducted their teaching based on their learning and teaching experience, not research” (p. 7). It is worth noting that the phenomenon of the research-teaching disconnection is common among academics in the Global South due to the overwhelming “challenges and barriers, especially structural barriers, preventing them from actively engaging in research” (pp. 7-8).

In the final part of the discussion section, Heng et al. (2022) further highlighted the challenging realities in which Cambodian academics operated. They emphasized major challenges to research, such as low academic salaries, lack of research-based academic promotion systems, lack of institutional support or incentives for research, limited access to academic databases, insufficient research facilities, and limited research knowledge and skills, among other issues.

Conclusion and implications

In the conclusion section, Heng et al. (2022) highlighted the major findings of the study that included Cambodian academics’ mixed conceptions of research, their lip service to research, and the fact that their teaching was generally not informed by research. The authors also emphasized the research environment in Cambodia that was “far from well-defined and operational” (p. 8), thereby preventing Cambodian academics from engaging in research and publication meaningfully. They also underlined “the global inequalities in knowledge production” (p. 8) that are exacerbated by the problems confronting Global South academics and researchers. In particular, they pointed out the “discursive and nondiscursive challenges” (p. 8) that influence how academics in the Global South perceive and experience research.

Heng et al. (2022) also offered some suggestions to promote research in Cambodia. The first suggestion called for more attention to the various factors that exert influence on “academics’ lives as well as their motivation, interest, and beliefs about research” (p. 8). The next suggestion demanded “the introduction, provision and/or implementation of clear, research-focused national and institutional policies; research incentives and funds; research-based promotion mechanisms; research requirements; and research support” (p. 8). The authors also stressed the need to address other issues including “poor salaries, heavy teaching loads, limited academic freedom, and the absence of a research-based reward and promotion system” (p. 8) to create a conducive environment for Global South academics to engage in research.

Finally, Heng et al. (2022) made suggestions for future research into this area “to provide more insights into how academics in developing societies understand and engage in research” (p. 8). Further studies of significance would be those that (1) “examine enabling conditions that allow some periphery academics to exercise their agency and overcome their structural constraints to actively engage in research and publication,” (2) consider the locations and orientations of the institutions in which academics are based, and (3) “explore local and international initiatives or solutions that can bridge the North-South knowledge divide and address the challenges and inequalities that confront researchers in the Global South to participate in academic discussions beyond the peripheral context” (p. 9).

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Mr. Koemhong Sol, co-editor-in-chief of the Cambodian Education Forum, for his helpful comments and editorial support.

The author

Kimkong Heng is an Australia Awards scholar pursuing a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Cambodian Education Forum and the Cambodian Journal of Educational Research. He is also a visiting senior research fellow at the Cambodia Development Center. He has published extensively on social, political, and educational issues in Cambodia. His research interests include TESOL, research engagement, and academic publishing.

Email: kimkongheng@gmail.com

References

Creswell, J. W. (2012). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (4th ed.). Pearson. https://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/product/Creswell-Educational-Research-Planning-Conducting-and-Evaluating-Quantitative-and-Qualitative-Research-4th-Edition/9780131367395.html

Heng, K., Hamid, M. O., & Khan, A. (2022). Academics’ conceptions of research and the research-teaching nexus: Insights from Cambodia. International Journal of Educational Development90, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2022.102569

Houghton, C., Casey, D., Shaw, D., & Murphy, K. (2013). Rigour in qualitative case-study research. Nurse Researcher, 20(4), 12-17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23520707/

Note. The full paper can be found HERE.

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