Education in Cambodia was traditionally offered by the wats (Buddhist temples), thus providing education exclusively for the male population.
The 1917 Law on Education passed by the French colonial government introduced a basic primary and secondary education system modelled loosely on that of France. However, that new system was fundamentally elitist, reaching only a very small per cent of the indigenous population and functioning mainly as a means of training civil servants for colonial service throughout French Indochina.
After independence a universal education system was established, complemented by the development of a network of vocational colleges such as the School of Health (1953), the Royal School of Administration (1956), the College of Education (1959), the National School of Commerce (1958) and the National Institute of Judicial, Political and Economic Studies (1961). However, apart from a Buddhist University established in 1954 to provide education for monks, Cambodia had no public institution of higher education until 1960s when the Khmer Royal University was founded. In 1965 this institution became the Royal University and in the same year six more tertiary training institutions were created – the Royal Technical University, the Royal University of Fine Arts, the Royal University of Kompong Cham, the Royal University of Takeo, the Royal University of Agronomic Sciences and the Popular University. These were followed in 1968 by the Royal University of Battambang.
As soon as they had come to power in 1975 the Khmer Rouge abolished education, systematically destroying teaching materials, textbooks and publishing houses. Schools and universities were closed and their buildings put to other uses. During this period large numbers of qualified teachers, researchers and technicians either fled the country or died.
When the new Cambodian government came to power in 1979 it had to completely reconstruct the entire education system. Pre-school, primary and secondary schools were first to reappear, followed by non-formal education for adults and a network of colleges and universities.
The constitution of Cambodia now promulgates free compulsory education for nine years, guaranteeing the universal right to basic quality education. The Cambodian education system is heavily decentralised, with three levels of government – central, provincial and district – responsible for its management. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports is responsible for establishing national policies and guidelines.
The education system in Cambodia continues to be beset by many difficulties, including an acute shortage of qualified teaching staff, poor morale due to low salary levels and lack of suitable teaching materials. Attendance at school remains limited in rural areas since children are often expected to stay at home and help their families in the fields. In the 1998 Census adult literacy rates were estimated at 76.25 per cent for men and 45.98 per cent for women.
Cambodia’s higher education institutions currently include the Royal University of Fine Arts (reopened 1980), the Institute of Technology of Cambodia (1981, formerly the Higher Technical Institute of Khmer-Soviet Friendship), the Royal University of Agriculture (1984, formerly the Institute of Agricultural Engineering), the Royal University of Phnom Penh (1988-1996, now incorporating Faculties of Pedagogy, Law and Economic Sciences, Medicine, Pharmacy and Dentistry and Business) and the Vedic Maharashi Royal University in Prey Veng Province (1993). In 1995 the Royal School of Administration was re-established under the control of the Council of Ministers.
Cambodia still has a low participation rate in higher education, with just 1.2 per cent of the population enrolled, compared with an average of 20.7 per cent in all the ASEAN countries.