Development of Higher Education in Cambodia

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For Cambodia, a vision of a more socially progressive and economically sustainable liberated from foreign assistance, has been its goal since its emancipation from colonial occupation. Cambodia, distinct from its neighbors, did not experience an increase in quality or quantity of its higher education sector after decolonization. It would not be for forty years after emancipation from France in 1953 that Cambodia would be known at it is now. Between the years of 1953-1993, Cambodia shifted from French colonial rule [1863-1953], constitutional monarchy under Norodom Sihanouk during the Sangkum [1953-1970], afterwards the coup of 1970 established the Khmer Republic under the military leader Lon Nol [1970-1975]. After the ousting of Lon Nol in 1975, there would be a totalitarian communist state known as Democratic Kampuchea led by Pol Pot which lasted from 1975-1979. The Democratic of Kampuchea would eventually be removed by Vietnam People's Army and subsequently established the People's Republic of Kampuchea that would last from 1979-1993 (Chandler, 2000). In forty years, Cambodia underwent the establishment and disestablishment of four political administrations. This instability of the political climate greatly affected and led towards the detriment of the education sector of Cambodia.

The education system of Cambodia essentially underwent a series of stages of development throughout the different political administrations. Firstly, under the French colonial rule, the education system was highly influenced by the French education system. During the Sang Kum Reas Niyum with Sihanouk, more developments in higher education occurred beginning with the establishment of the first institution, the National Institute of Legal, Political, and Economic Studies which trained civil servants and had just about 250 students (Ayres, 2000). The first university would be followed by eight other institutions of higher education. This period of development though would be delayed with the multitude of violent political uprising in the 1970s. During the Khmer Rouge regime, the country met with severe setbacks in all sectors and the achievements made in education post independence were essentially nullified. Schools at all levels were closed and people were to be reeducated. Educated people or social elites were subjected to mistrust, persecution, or execution. The country's situation became even more unfavorable under the establishment of the Pol Pot regime in 1975. Earlier to this era of social, cultural, and human genocide, there were more than 20,0000 teachers who lived in Cambodia. Of that number, only 5,000 teachers were documented to have survived the from under the Khmer Rouge (Ayres, 2000). In addition, 50 out of 725 university instructors survived, 207 out of 2,300 secondary school teachers survived, and just 2,717 out of 21,311 primary school teachers survived. The succeeding generation of young Cambodians who were children during the Khmer Rouge regime and after era was not formally educated and thus illiterate (Ayres, 2000).

The fall of the People's Republic of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge ushered in a new era of educational development from 1979 to 1993. The Cambodia educational system was reinstated and educational institutions at all levels were reopened to serve the nation (Ayres, 2000). Afterwards, with support from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia and the newly elected government, transformative changes were made that would contribute towards the country's political and economic situation. In the late 1990s, there would be an emergence of private universities alongside newly remodeled public institutions. Before the emergence of private universities, only public universities existed in Cambodia to meet the needs of the public. Acceptance rates were very low because of a combination of financial constraints and lack of qualified educators. Lastly, the Paris Agreement of 1993 would create and usher in a newer freer market and more financial wealth to the nation that would lead to an increase in foreign interest and investment (Chamnan and Ford, 2004). However, with the additional number of foreign investments and economic reforms, that resulted in the necessity of having a greater number of resources to accommodate this new influx of investments. With more wealth, economic reforms, and educational sector needs, foreign and domestic investors started heavily engaging themselves in the education sector.

In 1993, at the International Committee of Reconstruction of Cambodia in Tokyo, the "importance of education as a basic to sustainable economic growth and broader nation building" was acknowledged (Chamnan and Ford, 2004). However, the path towards improving higher education has been fraught with difficulties. While Cambodian education has made some gains from foreign assistance, much of those investments were made in the primary education sector leaving the higher education sector neglected. (Chet, 2006). [cite ] Although efforts have been made by the government to redevelop the higher education system, but a lack of human and financial resources has compounded the already difficult journey towards higher education reform. Since Cambodia's transition into a free market economy in the 1990's, higher education and the development of greater human resource capital have been regarded as the path towards which greater social progressiveness and economic power could be achieved. This paper seeks to explore how the emergence and development of higher private education sector in Cambodia has led to social and economic development of the country.


The structure and operation of public and private institutions in Cambodia are alike in many ways. Public institutions have been granted partial autonomy in institutional curriculum, employing faculty and teaching staff, and charging tuition fees from students. Institutions that are private generally have greater autonomy, especially in staff recruitment and financial management. Both types of institutions indirectly operate under the Department of Higher Education within the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (Chet, 2006). Cambodia's tertiary education system comprises of traditional universities, institutes and vocational schools. These establishments offer associate degrees, bachelor degrees, master degrees and doctors of philosophy degrees. Interestingly, nine other government ministries and agencies, under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS), are supplying their own higher education services in Cambodia. For example, the Ministry of Health has its own public university, while the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishery has three. While it may seem reasonable that each ministry should be able to oversee the maturity of its human resources, this development has only served to exacerbate coordination among government agencies with regards to work, administration overlap and information sharing.

Despite a poor public sector and the transitional nature of the country into a constitutional monarchy and representative democracy in 1993, the demand for higher education began growing. Additionally, although higher education was regarded as a key component towards human resource development globally and domestically in Cambodia, foreign aid was often not allocated to the higher education sector in favor of the primary education level (Chet, 2006). The state of the country's higher education sector post conflict in the mid 1990s understandably could not meet the needs of the population. The education system previously in place was highly influenced by the French colonization period and was considered to exclusionary to the masses at the tertiary level (Chet, 2006). The new people of modern Cambodia, whom survived the genocidal regime and political purges, were largely of middle class or formerly agricultural backgrounds since the Khmer Rouge largely targeted the educated elite class (Ayres, 2000). This newly formed demographic of citizens were historically excluded from the higher education level. However, this new population of citizens found themselves included in and the beneficiaries of new economic reforms of the nation. In addition, the past legacies of the Khmer Rouge alongside the nation's aims towards reconstruction brought forth a new era where social hierarchies were more flexible and a social reconstruction of identity.

According to Chamnan and Ford (2004), the government introduced a new reform that would allow for the participation of private investors into the higher education sector. Essentially, the government chose to implement a course towards administrative decentralization in order to reorganize the originally highly centralized system that was previously in place. Essentially, the government created for itself a paradigm shift from a formerly highly centralized system to a more policy driven sector wide system of management. The new direction that was touted by the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports (MoEYS) was towards increasing the private sector participation in order to reserve educational expenditure for basic education. These changes occurred in the mid 1990s. In addition, higher education and improved access was a key component in the governement's Rectangular Strategy plan that was implemented between 2004 and 2008. Within the strategy, four key elements were identified in its initiative to diversify Cambodia's economy. They were [1] Enhancement of the agricultural sector, [2] Further rehabilitation and construction of physical infrastructure [3] Private sector development and employment generation, and [4] Capacity building and human resource development. Elements [3] and [4] are both of prominent relavance to Cambodia's labor market and higher education system.

Since the inauguration of the first private university in 1997, the private sector has grown substantially. Chet (2006) stated that during the years of 2002 to 2003, a total of 16 private higher institutions emerged. The figures for 2008 have increased since then and are shown in Chart 1 below. Please note that the figures below account for only the institutions that serve the population of the city of Phnom Penh. Several elements have been noted as contributing towards the growth of the private education sector in such a short period of time. Some factors include low salaries in the public sector that force faculty and teaching staff into the private sector, incompatible ideologies between young and old Cambodian scholars [where the young Cambodian scholars are then driven towards a more liberal private sector], and finally the increasing important role of private universities as producers of human capital alongside the demands of the rising population of tertiary age students (Chet 2006). With the conception of a new government policy towards encouragement of private participation in economic development, the number of private higher education institutions dramatically increase to be the major suppliers of higher education in Cambodia.

Chart 1: Number of Higher Education Insitutions in Cambodia

Source: D'Amico, "Higher Education and Skills for the Labor Market in Cambodia, originally derived from Ministry of Youth, Education, and Sports - Department of Higher Education, 2008.

In Chart 1 above, the number of higher education systems can be observed to have grown rapidly in a very short period of time, especially there is a dramtic increase in the number of private insitutions. The number of private univerisites increased from 2 to 46 between 2001 and 2008. This expansion can also be seen in publc insitutions of higher education where in that same time period the number of public univerisites went from 13 to 26. This quantitative increase in expanion of higher education insitutions was a result of the policy of public and private partnership for higher education encouraged by the governement alongside the demand for higher education as a result of higher numbers of student completing high school.

Perhaps another reason for the rapid increase of private institutions is the shift from viewing higher as a public service to a private good. According to Chamnan and Ford (2004) this shift greatly affected the funding of higher education and resulted in a decline of allocation of funding. As a result of shift also, many institutions of higher education were expected to "self fund" through charging user fees and providing courses in response to the market needs of "consumers." To say that goverment funding for public higher education is not quite completely accurate. Rather, the original allocation of funds that would benefit the tertiary was so low, that increased funding did not serve to improve the situation much. Much of the educational expenditure budget that was allocated to higher education paid teacher's salaries [quite low still] and completely neglected infrastructure maintenance and learning resources. Many qualified senior educatiors chose to move from the public sector into the private sector as a result as mentioned earlier in the paper.

Though Cambodia has made impressive acheivements towards its aim of expanding access of education at the tertiary level, the rapid growth deserves a pause for consideration. That is, the need for rapid growth to be founded alongside the country's ability to accomodate the number of university graduates and at the same time improve the quality of education. This a major concern and deserves great consideration on part of all the major players of the sector: the government, suppliers and investor of higher education, and the students who are consumers and primary benficiaries and future agents of economic development.


The estimated total enrolment numbers in both public and private insitutions has grown from just a bit over 10,000 in 1992 to 137,253 in 2009 with approximately 59% of those enrolments in private institutions (D'Amico, 2010). A purpose of expansion is to seek to increase access to tertiary level education for groups of students that have been historically marginalized, for example the precense of female students in higher education is especially important towards cultivating the highest number of capable human resource capital in the country. Essentially, has the expansionary policies of the governement coupled with the rise of private univiersities managed to actually increase access to female students? Below in Chart 2, is the 2009 data retrieved from D'amico (2010) originally found on UNESCO's Institute for Statistics site that compares the gross enrolment ratio of Cambodia at the tertiary level with it's neighboring countries.

Chart 2: Selected GERs in Tertiary Education by Sex

The GER of Cambodia at the tertiary level in the above chart indicates that only 5% of the tertiary age population in Cambodia is actually enrolled in any higher education institutions. In addition, the breakdown within gender shows that 7% of males of tertiary age are enrolled while just 5% females of tertiary age are enrolled at the tertiary level. The GER levels are significantly lower in comparison with neighboring countries. In both the private and public education sector, tuition fees and living expenses are often too high for many students to afford on their own. Moreover, most of the newly emerging intuitions are located in the capital city of Phnom Penh. This greatly limits the participation of rural students, especially young women. Rural young men, of the poor but talented ilk, are offered free accommodation from the provinces in Phnom Penh pagodas. These young men are labeled as "pagoda boys" who live in the many pagodas in the capital city during all four years of their university education (Titthara, 2008). Such an opportunity is not available for poor but talented young women however. Pagodas (or temples) are not open to female residence. In addition to cultural and economic factors, many families are not inclined to send their daughters to school so far away from home. In addition, females are still largely responsible for the bulk of domestic chores that often hinder their school performance or completion. To be allowed to qualify for entrance into an instituion for higher education in Cambodia, a student must pass grade 12. However, the completion rates of girls are much lower in primary and secondary education and many do not ever reach grade 12. According to a UN report, "Situational Analysis of Cambodia," (Chet, 2006) the enrolment of girls in primary school is higher than boys, 50.4% girls compared with 46.8% boys. However, nearly 40% of girls do not progress to secondary school or tertiary level. In contrast, 41.8% of boys will attend secondary or post secondary schools. Also, just 31% of girls make it past 6th grade, leaving most of Cambodia's 15-24 year old females as domestic workers or employed in low wage sectors, essentially sustaining their socioeconomic status and more inclined to repeat intergenerational poverty (Meyn and Syyna, 2009).

Retrieved from Ahrens, L. "Higher Education Development," Cambodian Development Review 2002.

Table 1 above offers a look of female enrolment at the tertiary education level between 2001 and 2002. It is a snapshot of the little and few number of females students enrolled in higher education at the beginning of the 21st century in Cambodia and the percentage of scholarships given to females in comparison to males. In the table, in no public or private institution does female enrolment even reach that of males. Additionally, scholarships were awarded less often to female students than their male counterparts. The factors mentioned in this section are all especially important impediments to access and hinder the enrolment for disadvantaged, female, and rural students. To answer the question posed above towards the private sector's success at integrating female students into the tertiary level of education is perhaps premature with respect to the date obtained for this paper. However, should the government wish to introduce a more socially progressive society with the highest number of human resources available, then it needs to aim towards increasing female participation in the educational sector. It seems also that just the quantitative expansion of private institutions without government intervention is inadequate towards addressing gender disparity in higher education and thus does fully tap into its fullest potential to increasing access towards all potential "consumers."


Though the largest rise in private institutions occurred during 2001-2003, a regulating committee was not implemented until late 2003, the Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC). The ACC was established to evaluate institutions of higher education according to strict requirements for capital, enrollment, facilities and equipment, curriculum and qualifications of faculty and administration. In spite of the existence of the ACC, there are still many institutions that operate without the quality assurance of the ACC including some invested in or supported by political leaders (Kay, 2008). The most stringent qualification that is accessed by the ACC is requirement for capital which is not always difficult to meet with the high number of eager investors. Ford (2006) especially expresses concern over the unregulated growth of the private sector at the expense of quality and the inability or unwillingness of the ACC itself to uphold quality assurance in higher education. Upon the original establishment of the ACC, committee members were supposed to be nominated and largely independent of the MoEYS. However, it is now staffed by civil servants recruited through the Council of Ministers. Members of the ACC were appointed by the government without the original transparency nomination procedure outlined in its conception (Ford, 2006). Essentially, the committee that was supposed to ensure higher quality of education free from internal influence and external market forces found itself utilized as a tool to support efforts towards greater privatization. Perhaps this is the government's initiative to regain efforts towards central control despite its stated policy direction towards decentralization. This realization points towards the necessity of future research on public policies in higher education.

What parameters define an institution to be of high quality? The World Declaration on Higher Education (1998) declared that "quality in higher education is a multi dimensional concept, which should encompass all its' functions, and activities: curriculum, teaching faculty's qualifications, government, facilities, student characteristics, management and administration, and interactive network." It is beyond the scope of this paper to comment critically on the key elements of quality as mentioned above in the declaration. However, this author suggests three key elements that are integral and fundamental to every higher educational institution that is inclusive of the World Declaration on Higher Education's definitions in general. That is, three key fundamental elements are research capability, experienced, knowledgably and highly qualified educators, and the presence of a competitive curriculum that prepares students both in theoretical and applied realities. Ideally, whether an institution categorizes itself as public or private, these three key elements should be monitored carefully to assure a quality education, if not high quality in the developing nation. The ability to conduct profound and innovative research in the country could benefit all sectors in the market economy, varying levels of society and contribute towards a more socially progressive nation. Education quality is generally correlative to teacher performance. Essentially, the presence of a highly qualified teaching staff with effective teaching methodologies has greater potential to contribute towards a higher quality education. Teacher morale and teacher's expectation personal performance and student performance is an intangible characteristic that greatly affects the learning environment (Coleman, 1968). Lastly, there should be a competitive and coherent academic curriculum which challenges student's theoretical knowledge and prepares students for job market. Do the newly established private institutions of higher education meet these guidelines? This question will be explored through the course of the paper alongside the higher education sectors aims towards social and economic development.


Higher education providers in Cambodia suffer from a lack of physical infrastructure with most of the new private institutions being simply a singular building to accommodate the student population (Ford, 2006). This severely hinders the ability to deliver high quality teaching or accommodate a seasonal influx of students. While decent progress has been made in the last few years towards constructing more buildings to meet the demand rising student enrolments, laboratories and technical equipments are still neglected in both the public and private sector (Chen, Sok, and Sok, 2007).

Ongoing long term research by Cambodian higher education institutions are very limited and that is perhaps because the government budget allocated towards research is very little or completely neglected (Chen, Sok, and Sok, 2007). In the public and private sectors, research ability and capacity is in infancy stage where there has been no instances where applied research by Cambodia's higher education institutions has produced research of high quality that has translated into new advancements for the country. (Chet, 2009) It is interesting to note that Chamnan and Ford (2004) offer a cultural tradition rooted in oral transference and hierarchies that perhaps explain the inadequate response to research facilitation. Traditionally in Cambodia, children are taught by a rote memorization method and not to question parents, teachers, or any other authority figures. Because it is not considered "polite" to question others, thus research is not polite because it is fundamentally the question of already established literature!


Teachers play a central role in encouraging and cultivating learning in the classroom. An effective teaching methodology used by an educator influences that ability of students to learn and retain knowledge. Chealy (2009) found that Cambodian teachers, whether in the public or private sector, usually adopt a teacher centered approach or a lecture style approach where teachers do most of the talking and students just listen. This teacher centered approach is generally not as effective in the tertiary level of education where students are starting to build their own academic or vocational identities and should play a more active role in their learning process. An outdated methodology is not the only shortcoming in the classroom. Though accurate figures are hard to come by, there is an estimated 8,000 total faculty staff that is teaching bachelor degrees at public and private higher education institutions in Cambodia. Of that total, roughly 7% hold a PhD degree; roughly 53% hold a master degree; and the remaining 40% are holders of a bachelor degree only (Chen, Sok, Sok, 2007). These figures imply that only a very small number of students at an institution of higher education have an opportunity to study with an educator who has obtained a PhD degree. This furthermore suggests that access to qualified educators with field experience and education level is a great obstacle for both public and private universities. Many institutions that have smaller budgets or charge lower tuition fees, for example the majority of public universities, are unable to offer competitive remuneration to recruit and retain experienced and highly qualified educators. In addition, the often insufficient salaries do not allow for teaching staff to devote all of their available resources towards teaching alone.

A majority of civil servants in the public education sector have a side job to supplement their low monthly income. Such low salaries for teachers in the public sector are more prevalent than in the private sector. This wields consequences for the quality of education in Cambodia. Some issues of that affect teachers' ability to teach and educational quality include teachers neglecting their duties to school and students in favor of side job and charging informal user fees from students (Bray, 1996). In the latter situation, some teachers offer to provide supplementary aid/courses outside of the regular classroom in exchange for a fee. Often, they do this by withholding knowledge that should have been taught to all students and teach towards the promotion exams during after hour sessions. This creates greater disparity between the children in the classroom between those students who can afford outside tutoring and get more opportunities relative to their poorer classmates.

In the private education sector, other problems arise for teachers in this sector. Many students who can afford to attend private universities come from upper middle class families. Because of corruption at the high school level, many students who graduated without qualifications enter the private sector universities which have more relaxed entrance qualifications. Their attitude does not change however. According to Saw (2009), many students do not have any incentive to do well in their courses because of the administration's reluctance to fail students. Essentially, the private universities enable students to underperform for many of the students are aware that they will be receiving a diploma anyway.


Chet's (2006) analysis for UNESCO argued that because of the private sector's focus upon short term needs and largely market driven accommodations, the quality of the institutions and education that student's receive suffers as a result. Because of the nature of a for profit institution, more often than not, the schools that emerge or courses that are offered will only be ones with a high demand. The quality of many courses is inadequate towards instilling the appropriate philosophical and theoretical foundation for many Cambodian students. The shortcomings of provided courses occurs alongside inadequate infrastructure and teaching resources, large numbers of students in a single classroom, old fashioned teaching methodologies, overall low standards, and short term contracts resulting in teachers taking on too many teaching hours to supplement their income. Furthermore, Chamnan and Ford (2004) stated that the majority of private higher education institutions are commercially operated with courses which "require only little capital investment at the expense of fields that are vital for expansion and economic growth (e.g. science, technology, and in particular postgraduate research)". According to the Ministry of Youth, Education, and Sports (2009), from 2006 to 2007, over 40% of bachelor degree level students majored in business programs within the private universities. However, the few amount of foreign investment that exists in Cambodia cannot generate enough jobs to accommodate so many professionals in the administration, management, and information technology sector (Chamnan and Ford, 2004). David Ford's article entitled, "Cambodian Higher Education- Growing Pains," (2006) he notes that a major foreseeable consequence of rapid expansion in conjunction with high commercialization of unevenly distributed higher education graduates is high unemployment rate among university graduates from the private sector. While accurate figures are hard to document and obtain, it is estimated that unemployment rates among graduates from public universities is about 30% and for graduates of the private sector that figure is as high as 90%. Many university graduates who managed to obtain employment found themselves in fields unrelated to their degrees. Herein depicts a mismatch of personal higher education supply, private higher education supply, and actual labor force needs in the country. Table 2 below shows total enrolments by discipline.

The expectations of the students versus the real needs of the labor force continue to be mismatched with one another. For example, Cambodia in the early 21st century began to limit the amount of civil servants in the country per request of international donors. This stemmed from the hope that more students would steered from civil servant occupations into other sectors that were in need of human resources to economically develop the nation such as agriculture. Unfortunately, many students still wanted to become civil servants despite limited employment opportunities and high competition (Chet, 2006). In Table 2 below, an average of 46% of students between 2007 and 2009 were enrolled in business related disciplines. Business related disciplines are generally accepted to the most popular fields among students in both the public and private sector.

Table 2: Total Enrolments by Study Discipline in Public and Private Institutions

Source: D'Amico, "Higher Education and Skills for the Labor Market in Cambodia, originally derived from Ministry of Youth, Education, and Sports - Department of Higher Education, 2008.

Perhaps because this is a shift towards a new reinvisioning of what it means to be successful in Cambodia? A developing country like Cambodia would greatly benefit from more engineers, agriculturalists, health professionals, and scientists yet these are the fields least attractive to Cambodian students. The majority of higher education providers responded to the needs of the student driven demand and focused on offering predominantly business related courses. Because of the poorly regulated expansion of the private sector, many institutions will continue to offer courses that are student preferred or market driven. Many parents, who are influential forces in the lives of students, are not well informed enough about educational quality standards and assume that a high price tag means a high quality education. If this trend continues to expand, perhaps that will result in an oversupply of unemployed graduates. Chrann and Brady (2008) found that just ten percent of students were able to enter the job market immediately upon graduation. Many students upon graduation found themselves with too few marketable skills or poor credentials despite paying relatively high tuition for their education. In addition to suffering from a mismatch between their higher educational background and labor force needs, few Cambodian students had realistic expectations for obtaining employment or were aware of how to market themselves to potential employers. Students were ignorant of important stepping stones to high end jobs and expected to become managers straight out of school.

Ideally, the aim of quality higher education institutions is to produce students of high intelligence and ability who are informed and active participants in their nation's political processes and are financially independent. Perhaps that is a bit far reaching in the case of Cambodia for the nation's original investment in higher education was to produce a greater pool of capable human resources only. That is, students who graduate from higher education institutions, especially after investment in private education, should be able to secure a lucrative employment after graduation. In addition to quality, the author asks if the new private universities actually increasing access, making gains towards gender parity, adequately preparing students for the job market. That is, are the newly emerging private sectors helping to improve Cambodia's social and economic conditions? The primary aim of the Cambodian government's move towards privatization was to build a highly qualified pool of human resources with marketable skills that were in high demand in the labor market; basically, a higher education system that matched and could be accommodate by the supply and demand of forces of the labor market. However, with the data gathered in this paper, it seems that the governments was not so successful in cultivating the nation's human resources or did not accurate estimate the labor markets needs.