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Official Country Name: Kingdom of Cambodia
Region: Southeast Asia
Population: 12,212,306
Language(s): Khmer, French, English
Literacy Rate: 35%
Number of Primary Schools: 5,026
Compulsory Schooling: 6 years
Public Expenditure on Education: 2.9%
Educational Enrollment: Primary: 2,011,772
  Secondary: 312,934
  Higher: 8,901
Educational Enrollment Rate: Primary: 110%
  Secondary: 24%
  Higher: 1%
Teachers: Primary: 43,282
  Secondary: 19,135
  Higher: 1,001
Student-Teacher Ratio: Primary: 46:1
  Secondary: 18:1
Female Enrollment Rate: Primary: 100%
  Secondary: 17%
  Higher: 0.5%

Formal education in Cambodia was first provided solely to young boys by Buddhist monks, known as bonzes. During the second half of the nineteenth century, French leaders implemented a system based on their own model, with primary, secondary, and higher levels all overseen by the Ministry of Education. Although Cambodia maintained this system for several decades, it was not until the southeast Asian nation achieved independence from France in 1953 that educational efforts there became widespread.

Public and private schools in Cambodia offered six years of primary education, separated into two segments, each of which required successful completion of a national examination. Subjects included history, ethics, civics, mathematics, drafting, geography, language, science, and hygiene. Although Khmer was the language of instruction during the first three years of schooling, students were taught French, which became the language of instruction in the second three-year cycle of primary instruction. Secondary education consisted of four years at a college (lower secondary school) and an additional three years at a lycée (higher secondary school). Students who completed the first four-year cycle and passed a national examination received a secondary degree. Those who completed two years of the additional three-year cycle were required to pass a national examination to receive their first baccalaureate, and another examination after their final year, to receive their second baccalaureate.

Secondary education became increasingly focused on technology during the late 1960s and early 1970s; during this period, higher education institutions in Cambodia began to expand. Enrollment at the University of Phnom Penh grew to more than 4,500 men and 730 women. Three provincial universities opened in Batdambang, Kampong Cham, and Takev. However, the communist takeover of Cambodia in 1975 dealt the educational system there a nearly fatal blow. Schools were systematically closed, and of the 20,000 teachers living in Cambodia in the early 1970s, only 5,000 remained when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime and established the People's Republic of Kampuchea in 1979. Some teachers had fled, others died of malnutrition or illness, and others had been murdered. What education remained focused on Khmer doctrine.

In the early 1980s, Cambodia slowly began rebuilding its educational system under Vietnamese rule. The Ministry of Education, which later became known as the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MEYS), shortened the prior 13-year French-based program to 10 years. Primary and secondary education programs more closely resembled Vietnamese models, and students—limited to those who could afford tuition fees—were required to study the Vietnamese language. By 1986, several institutions of higher education had been founded or reopened, including the University of Fine Arts, the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, the Chamkar Daung Agriculture Institute, the Kampuchea-USSR Friendship Technical Institute (now known as the Institute of Technology), the Institute of Commerce (now known as the Faculty of Business), the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences, and the Center for Pedagogical Education. The Institute of Languages and the Normal Advanced School merged into the University of Phnom Penh in 1988.

The State of Cambodia (SOC) gained control of the country in 1989, followed by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992. Public education was again made free to all residents, and the coalition governments in power since 1993 have, in general, supported efforts by the MEYS to bolster literacy rates—81.8 percent for males and 58.1 percent for females in 1998—and improve access to education, particularly in rural communities.

In 1998, more than 5,000 primary schools were in operation; enrollment was roughly 78.3 percent of children aged 6 to 11. However, nearly 50 percent of all primary schools, mainly ones in rural areas, were unable to offer a full range of grades one through six. Lower secondary schools in operation totaled 350, while upper secondary schools numbered 125. The mid-1990s launch of a new 12-year education system, which included six years of primary education and two three-year cycles of secondary education, increased the school year to 38 weeks. As prescribed by the new curriculum, each five-day week consists of six periods lasting 45 minutes each. To help fund the expanded educational system, the government increased the 8.1 percent of the national budget spent on education in 1997 to 10.3 percent in 1998.

Credentials for primary and lower secondary school teachers have also been upgraded. Once simply required to complete lower secondary school and then a two- or three-year teacher training program, primary and lower secondary teachers must now graduate from both lower and upper secondary school prior to completion of a two-year teacher training program. Upper secondary school teachers must complete five years of study at the University of Phnom Penh.


Ayres, David M. Anatomy of a Crisis: Education, Development, and the State in Cambodia 1953-1998. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Kingdom of Cambodia Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport. Country Education Profile. Phnom Penh, December 1999. Available from http://www.moeys.gov.kh.

U.S. Library of Congress. Federal Research Division. Cambodia—A Country Study. Washington, DC: August 1994. Available from http://rs6.loc.gov.

World Higher Education Database 2000. Cambodia—Education System. Paris: International Association of Universities/UNESCO International Centre on Higher Education, 1998-1999. Available from http://www.usc.edu.

—AnnaMarie L. Sheldon

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