Cambodian teacher talking to students in a classroom of primary school in Kampong Chhnang province

This photo taken on June 27, 2018 shows a Cambodian teacher talking to students in a classroom of primary school in Kampong Chhnang province. (Photo: TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

Cambodia’s Education System: Looking Back to Move Forward

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Cambodia has set ambitious goals to become an upper middle income country by 2030. To achieve this, it needs to rethink its education system to upgrade the skills of its workforce so the country can become a knowledge-intensive society.

Four decades after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia has made significant progress in many areas. In order to take the leap into the company of upper-middle-income countries by 2030, however, the kingdom will need to enhance its relevance and become a knowledge-based economy.

Across all indicators, Cambodia has done well. Its poverty rate has fallen from 53.2 per cent in the early 1990s to 13.5 per cent in the early 2010s. GDP per capita has jumped from US$268 in 1998 to US$1,543 in 2020. But the kingdom has grand plans. In 2018, it released Phase 4 of its Rectangle Strategy for Growth, Employment, Equity and Efficiency. The vision is to transform the country into an upper-middle-income country by 2030, and into a high-income country by 2050.

This is a tall order. To become an upper-middle-income country, Cambodia needs to have at least a GDP per capita of US$4,046 — a near-threefold increase within eight years. The Covid-19 pandemic has also derailed its plans. For the first time since 1994, GDP contracted by 3.1 per cent in 2020 and is estimated to have grown around 3 per cent in 2021 — lower than the average economic growth of around 7 per cent in the past two decades before the pandemic.

To sustain economic growth and sustainable development, Cambodia needs to invest in upgrading the skills of its workforce. It must increase its investment in education, research and development, and knowledge-based society.

On the educational rankings, however, Cambodia is not scoring well. Prior to 2021, no Cambodian universities were ranked in the Times Higher Education or QS World University Rankings. In addition, Cambodia’s research performance is relatively weak compared to its ASEAN counterparts. Research has shown that Cambodia’s research output was low, making it one of the least performing countries in the region in terms of research productivity. A recent analysis showed that Cambodia published only about 3,500 documents that were indexed in the Scopus database between 2010 and 2019. This placed Cambodia 8th among the 10 ASEAN countries, outperforming only Myanmar (3,039 documents) and Laos (2,364). 

Cambodia is not doing well in terms of competitiveness, either. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2019, Cambodia’s overall competitiveness was ranked 106 out of 141 countries, placing it among the least competitive countries in Southeast Asia and the world.

If Cambodia is to achieve its ambitious goals to become a knowledge-based society and an upper-middle-income country by the next decade, it needs to pay utmost attention to its education system and strengthen its research performance. This means aggressively investing in education and introducing major reforms to the education sector, especially higher education.

(Cambodia) should look beyond its recent past and the destruction wrought by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s to examine the thinking, ideology and leadership that enabled it to achieve its greatness during the peak of the Khmer Empire from the 11th to 13th centuries. How did education play a role in bringing development and glory to the ancient Khmer? What was the role of education in the construction of Angkor Wat? These questions deserve discussion and further investigation.

In recent years, the Cambodian government has introduced initiatives and reforms to improve the quality of teaching and learning in both general and higher education. In particular, a number of projects, such as the Secondary Education Improvement Project and the Higher Education Improvement Project, have been introduced to improve the education quality in Cambodia. These projects deserve commendation; however, a lot more needs to be done, particularly in terms of skills and capacity building, infrastructure development, and policy implementation and evaluation.

A knowledge-based society is ‘a society which emphasizes the importance of knowledge, education and innovation to drive social and economic growth and development.’ The ability to generate, use and disseminate knowledge is essential for a country to remain relevant and competitive in the global knowledge economy. With its higher education and training performance ranked 124th out of 138 countries in 2017, Cambodia will find it hard to achieve its goal to become a knowledge society.

Cambodia needs to take a hard look at its position on the regional and international stage when it comes to education quality, and research and innovation capacity. The country needs to develop a realistic plan on how to transform itself into an education hub in similar ways to how other ASEAN countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have done.

In the next few decades, what will the Cambodian education system be like? Can Cambodia become an education hub? After all, the country is rich in natural resources and social and cultural heritage that can be strategically employed to enhance its economic and educational capital. This in turn will support its development goals.

Cambodia was a great nation that built one of the world’s largest and most magnificent religious temples: Angkor Wat. It can better capitalise on the Angkor Wat temple and the surrounding complexes to attract more tourists. But it can go further: it should look beyond its recent past and the destruction wrought by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s to examine the thinking, ideology and leadership that enabled it to achieve its greatness during the peak of the Khmer Empire from the 11th to 13th centuries. How did education play a role in bringing development and glory to the ancient Khmer? What was the role of education in the construction of Angkor Wat? These questions deserve discussion and further investigation.  

The approach of looking backwards to move forwards is crucial. It may provide a vision, philosophical direction and hope for a prosperous, desirable and sustainable future for the Cambodian people.

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