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By Dr. July Ledgerwood

Modern education progressed very slowly in Cambodia. The French colonial rulers did not pay attention to educating Khmer. It was not until the late 1930s that the first high school opened. However, after gaining independence from France, the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk made substantial progress in the field of education in the 1950s and 1960s. Elementary and secondary education was expanded to various parts of the country, while higher learning institutions such as vocational institutions, teacher-training centers and universities were established. Unfortunately, the progress of these decades was obstructed by the civil war following the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk in the 1970 and then destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

In an attempt to rebuild a new Cambodia with new revolutionary men and women, the Khmer Rouge set out to eradicate the old elements of Cambodia’s society, including the old education system. Like their Maoist counterparts in China, the Khmer Rouge leaders emphasized manual labor and political correctness over knowledge. They claimed “rice fields were books, and hoes were pencils.” As such, Cambodia did not need an educational system. The Khmer Rouge leaders deliberately destroyed the foundations of a modern education. People with higher education such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, and former college students were killed or forced to work in labor camps. The Khmer Rouge also engaged in the physical destruction of institutional infrastructure for higher education such as books, buildings, and other educational resources. It is estimated that by the end of the Khmer Rouge time, between 75 and 80 percent of Cambodian educators either were killed, died of overwork, or left the country. At least half of the written material available in the Khmer language was destroyed.

After coming to power with Vietnamese help in 1979, the government of the PRK attempted to redevelop the education system. Although significant progress was made, the process of educational redevelopment was hampered by war and lack of resources, human as well as material. The PRK government undertook a massive rehabilitation program aimed at enrolling as many students as possible. The slogan of the time was “those who know more teach those who know less.” Those with almost any level of education were encouraged to work as teachers, and efforts were made to identify and encourage formers teachers, professors, and bureaucrats in the field of education to participate in this difficult endeavor. Potential teachers were given short-term training for one month, three weeks or even two weeks and then assigned teaching jobs. With many buildings destroyed, classes were taught in shacks made of leaves with dirt floors or in some places instruction was given outside under the trees.

Given the enormity of destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge regime, one could see significant progress in the field of education during 1980s. From an empty handed position, the PRK government was able to reestablish a semblance of an educational system from pre-school to university. A number of students were offered scholarships by host countries in the former Soviet block to pursue higher education.

Because the PRK government was engaged in fighting a civil war with the Khmer Rouge and other two non-communist resistant movements the field of education was not given much priority. With budgetary constraints, the need for manpower to serve in the army, and a centrally planned economy, the PRK government set limits on the number of students who could entered into upper secondary school, and universities. Such restrictions generated widespread corruption, favoritism, and nepotism within the educational system as wealthy and influential parents either paid bribes or used their political power to secure seats for their children in these institutions. Such practices, compounded by low skill level of educators, significantly slowed the development of the educational system.

Under this system that emphasized quantity over quality, and given the destruction of the DK regime, it is easy to understand why literacy rates for Cambodia are quite low. New research conducted in 2000, which actually administered writing exercises rather than allowing self-identification as readers, found that literacy levels for the country were lower than previously estimated. The report divided the respondents into three groups: the complete illiterate (36.3 %), the semi-literate (26.6 %) and the literate (37.1 %). The latter were further divided into those with a basic level of literacy (11.3 %), with a medium level (64 %) and a self-learning level (those who read all kinds of materials in search of new knowledge) (24.7 %). In all of these categories the rates were much lower for women with some 45.1 percent of women reported as completely illiterate and only 20 percent of the literate women fell into the self-learning category. Combining the first two categories of illiterate and semi-literate, this means that 62.9 percent of the adult population of Cambodia, or 6.5 million people, are basically illiterate (MEYS 2000).

In the 1990s, after the Paris Agreements and the UN sponsored elections, there were significant changes in the educational system. As part of the country’s new election campaigning, many new school buildings were constructed. The percentage of the national budget for education has increased, reaching 7.7 percent in 2000 and 15.67 percent in 2001 (GAD/C 2002). More materials became available through donor funding. For example, in 1993-94 the expenditures on books were about 50 riels (about .02 US) per pupil or the equivalent of supplying one book per student every 20 years. Seven or eight students were sharing one book (UNESCO 1998). Since then new curricula, teachers’ manuals and student textbooks have been developed for grades 1-9. These new books have been printed in sufficient numbers for one book for every child in every subject. A 1998 UNESCO report notes that for many children this is the first book they will ever own (1998:19).

Teachers are being given additional training, but the educational level of teachers remains rather low over all. Six percent of Cambodia’s teachers have a primary education, 77 percent have attended lower secondary school, 14 percent upper secondary school and only 3 percent have a tertiary education (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport 1998).

The new curricula move away from the traditional route methods of learning common across Southeast Asia to more active learning models. While this shift has strong support among donors, there is reportedly resistance to such changes among education administrators who prefer traditional methods (see UNESCO 2000).

The school system today has pre-school for children aged three to five (but only in some areas), Primary education in grades one to six, and Lower Secondary education from grades six to nine. After grade nine is an exam to pass to enter Upper Secondary school (grades ten to twelve). After grade twelve is an exam to graduate with a diploma (called bac dup). Previously there was then a separate entrance exam for the university level, but now the exams already sat are studied for highest scores in certain topical areas to decide which students will be allowed to continue to university. The existing universities include: The University of Health Sciences, the Royal University of Fine Arts, the Institute of Technology, the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences, the Royal University of Agriculture, the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the National Institute of Management, the Maharishi Vedic University and the Faculty of Pedagogy. There is also a non-formal education system that includes literacy classes for adults.

Just in the last two years (2000 – 2002) there has been an explosion of private schools, especially at the secondary and higher education levels. The government has not yet decided on accreditation standards for universities and it is difficult to determine the quality of all these new “universities” that have sprung up throughout Phnom Penh.

While the funding for education has improved, and dramatic changes are underway, a litany of problems remain. The overwhelming problems are still financial and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MEYS) admits that there is little likelihood of providing the opportunity for every child to have nine years of education in the very near future. There are still enormous problems with education service delivery, including a large gap in education quality between urban and rural or remote schools (MEYS 1999). Teachers are paid as little as ten dollars per month. Since they cannot live on such wages, they must supplement their income with other jobs, which often cuts into class times. In addition, the teachers must also charge students fees to attend their classes, or offer additional for-fee classes outside the regular class times. This means that the poorest students are often locked out of classes where the real teaching occurs.

A study by Mark Bray (1998) documented the high costs of education placed on Cambodian parents. This survey of 77 schools in 11 provinces and Phnom Penh found that families and communities pay 74.8 percent of the costs of primary education, with the government paying only 12.9 percent. This is one of the lowest government contributions to primary education in the world (cited in UNESCO 2000:23). For many rural families who live by subsistence agriculture, education costs are the highest expense they face annually. Often they cannot afford to educate all of their children and will have to choose certain children to attend.

This is one reason why many more boys than girls attend school. Parents would like to educate both, but if forced to choose, they choose to educate boys. The percentage of female students is nearly half (46.2 %) in primary school, but drops to 37 percent in lower secondary school, and 31.8 percent in upper secondary school (MEYS 2001). Other reasons for the sexual disparity include the fact that girls are more likely to be kept at home to help with household work and to care for younger siblings (MEYS 1998). For reasons on personal security, girls are also not allowed to travel long distances and live away from family to attend upper secondary schools in provincial towns. But a 1998 report on women and education points out that the rural/urban divide is even more potent than the gender factor. Rural boys have lower educational attainment than urban girls (MEYS 1998:20).

Nationwide the net enrollment was 83.8 percent for the 2000-01 academic year, up from 77.8 percent in 1997-98. But this still means that 16 percent of children aged 6-11 remain outside the school system entirely. Since this varies regionally, in some remote provinces this figure reaches 50 percent (MEYS 1999). For those children within the system the repetition rate is extremely high, for grade one the rate is about 40 percent (MEYS 1999:19). This means that many of the students in the lowest grades of primary school are older and are taking the class for the second or third time. Drop out rates for grades one, two and three were 10.6 percent, 10.8 percent and 11.1 percent respectively in 2000-01 (MEYS 2001). Class sizes are also large, with an average of 50 students at the primary level (only 33.4 to 1 in urban areas) (1998:20).

The daily realities for both teachers and students in the Cambodian education system are thus very challenging. Teachers face inadequate salaries and the need to charge students fees for services. Students face inadequate facilities, large classroom size, sometimes travel times to nearby villages or towns, and high costs for their families. At the upper levels these problems are compounded by the need to pay bribes to pass the upper secondary level exams and to secure admission to universities. This is one factor that has contributed to the growth in private sector education.

But while the situation still appears grim, I would re-emphasize that dramatic improvements have been made in the last ten years. These improvements can continue if the government continues to increase the percentage of the total government funding that goes to education, and if funding reaches front-line teachers rather than being consumed by administrative costs. Dramatic change could occur if the government could pay teachers a living wage and shift the burden of paying for education from poor families to the government.


Gender and Development in Cambodia (GAD/C)

Gender Scorecard. Phnom Penh: GAD/C.

Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports

Education Indicators 2000-01. Phnom Penh: MEYS.

Report on the Assessment of the Functional Literacy Levels of the Adult Population of Cambodia. Phnom Penh: MEYS.

Education in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: MEYS.

Survey on Girls’ Education in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: MEYS.


“Towards the 21st Century”: National Strategy for Education for All. Phnom Penh: UN Working Group on Poverty and Education, UNESCO. June, 1998.