Why is Education the Key to Cambodia’s Future?

Photo: AFP
  • Rim Sokvy
  • April 11, 2021 10:05 AM

Cambodia came across the darkest period in its modern history during the Khmer Rouge regime (19751979). The period was known as “Year Zero” because Cambodia’s civilization, socioeconomic development, and thriving culture were eliminated to pave the way for a new revolution aiming to turn the country into an agrarian utopia.

Since the Khmer Rouge took control of the capital city in 1975, the country’s education system suffered a fatal blow in terms of both hard and soft educational infrastructure (BBC News, 2018).

 Most educational infrastructure, such as school buildings, was destroyed, and some schools were converted into prisons and killing fields where many innocent people were tortured and prosecuted to death. The country’s human capital, including professors, intellectuals, teachers, and educated Cambodians, was virtually eliminated. Those who were thought to be intellectual or knowledgeable were treated as criminals and subjected to execution. Wearing glasses, speaking foreign languages, working as teachers, or holding high-ranking positions in the previous government were regarded as a crime (BBC News, 2018). Even though the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was gone for over forty years, it still has a lasting negative impact on contemporary Cambodian society. To escape from the past’s shadow and to improve socio-economic development as well as to further alleviate poverty, greater attention should be paid to education that is the only way for Cambodia to move forward.

Education and Economic Development

In a developing country like Cambodia, education plays a critical role in advancing the economy. Currently, the Cambodian government has been working hard to attract foreign investment by making business environment more conducive to investors. For example, the government has maintained political stability, improved logistics and infrastructure, and introduced reforms that facilitate investment. However, Cambodia still faces a shortage of skilled labor. To address this and boost economic development, the government needs to prioritize education.

According to Lucas (1988, cited in Otieno, 2016), economic growth has a strong correlation with education; it helps expand trained human capital that is needed for diverse job markets. Solow (1956, cited in Millick et al., 2016) argued that education is an ingredient of development along with labor, capital, and technology. The growth of the Human Development Index (HDI) would help to increase the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For instance, from 1990 to 2017, Cambodia had a speedy growth of HDI which was ranked 8th globally and 2nd in the Asia Pacific (The Phnom Penh Post, 2018). This speedy growth of human resources has helped Cambodia to increase its Gross National Income per capita by 265.8 percent, which improved the lives of many Cambodians. The human resource accumulation made Cambodia the third-fastest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2020 and as predicted by the International Monetary Fund, Cambodia will be one of the fastest economies in ASEAN by 2025. This good performance of economic growth is, to a large extent, attributed to the increase of human capital (Sorn, 2019).

Education is, no doubt, the key to Cambodia’s future as it facilitates poverty reduction, social stability, and economic growth. The Rectangular Strategy Phase III demonstrates the effort of the Royal Government of Cambodia to improve the educational system, which is parallel to the Cambodia Industrial Development Policy 20152025. The Industrial Development Policy was adopted in 2015 to promote industrial development that will help to maintain sustainable and inclusive high economic growth in the country. Consequently, it could provide more job opportunities to Cambodian people and increase exports (Council for the Development of Cambodia, 2015). However, the lack of skilled human resources has been the major obstacle for Cambodia to improve the industrial sector (Kotoski, 2017). In this sense, more efforts and resources should be allocated to developing the educational sector in areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). At present, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has paid greater attention to STEM education; however, involvement from all stakeholders and greater investment are needed. With quality education and sustained economic growth, Cambodia will be able to materialize its vision to become an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050 (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2018).

Education will help to sustain economic development in Cambodia. Currently, many infrastructure and development projects within the country are perceived as unsustainable and environment-unfriendly. For instance, the construction of the Lower Sesan II (LS2) dam in Stung Treng province is expected to supply 400,000 kilowatts of electricity which is equal to 20 percent of Cambodia’s overall capacity generation (Horn, 2020). However, the environmental impact is undeniable and cannot be underestimated. A study conducted by Ziv et al. (2012) showed that the LS2 dam would lower the fish stocks in the Lower Mekong Basin by 9.3 percent and could make over 50 percent of marine species in the Mekong river become extinct. Experts alarmed that the LS2 could change the water pattern that flows between the Tonle Sab Lake and the Mekong River, leading to ecological changes that negatively impact the agricultural sector in Cambodia (Earthrights International, n.d.). Therefore, it is imperative to have more skilled human resources that can help the government to find alternative options that are more sustainable and environment-friendly. As Newman et al. (2020) note, there is a strong correlation between quality education and the development of innovation and creativity. Thus, quality education is needed to strengthen innovative research that will, in turn, enable the government to evaluate the cost and effect of each development project effectively.

Educational Reforms

Education is a catalyst for Cambodia to escape the poverty trap and realize its dream of becoming an industrial country. Currently, more efforts are being made by the government to enhance the education quality. For example, teachers’ salaries have been increased from between 500,0001,200,000 riels (about $120$300) in 2015 to between 1,200,0002,100,000 riels (about $300$525) in 2020 (The Phnom Penh Post, 2020). Moreover, a series of educational reforms have been introduced. Notably, the Teacher Policy Action Plan has been implemented to improve the efficiency and quality of teachers.  There are also reforms to the development of textbooks and curricula to equip students with knowledge and skills essential for the future market. Reforms to the Grade 12 national examination were introduced in 2014, which has provided hope for improving the quality of general education across the country. Recently, more funds have been invested in upgrading the quality of teaching and research in STEM fields as they form an integral part of industrial development that the government has aimed for (The Phnom Penh Post, 2020).

The educational reforms will help enhance the quality of education in Cambodia in the long run; however, a lot needs to be done. In 2018, 2.2 percent of Cambodia’s GDP were allocated to the education sector, which is relatively low compared to neighboring countries such as Thailand, and Vietnam which spent around 4 percent of GDP annually (Knoema, n.d.Statista, 2019). The limited funds and budgets for education have affected the quality provided by educational institutions as some teachers would find ways to earn extra income through private tutoring and other part-time jobs. Other talented people would look for opportunities in other areas that can provide them with more income to support their families. However, an increase in the national budget for education is expected as Prime Minister Hun Sen made an impression in late 2020 that the revenue generated from oil extraction will be allocated to education and health care (Sao, 2020).


In conclusion, education is the most important sector that can ensure other sectors such as industrial development and economic growth go smoothly. Despite educational reforms, several educational issues continue to pose challenges for Cambodia to move forward. Thus, it is crucial to address key challenges such as poor educational infrastructure in rural areas, lack of qualified teachers, low teaching salaries, limited research activities among academic staff, and other issues. In order to move forward and realize its vision of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050, Cambodia has to put more resources and efforts into education so that it can produce a skilled labor force that can help the country increase its GDP and ensure inclusive and sustainable development.

Rim Sokvy is an intern at Cambodian Education Forum (CEF). He is a fresh graduate in International Relations from the Department of International Studies, Royal University of Phnom Penh.

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