The education system in Cambodia today is in need of major reform. Some of the challenges are well known. Students can purchase diplomas without the hard work that comes with learning. Teachers barely survive on a meager salary of $100-$150 a month (on average) and as a result are often forced to find other jobs to survive. Cheating during exams is common and widespread among students. Teachers are not adequately trained to educate students with skills that will help them compete in today’s global economy. As a consequence there is little trust and little hope in the education system today and very little respect for the profession of teaching.
What was once a noble profession has turned into a business where teachers sell school materials to students or take bribes to supplement their low income. However it was not always like this. There was once a time when being a teacher in Cambodia was one of the most respected professions in society.
Past (Flashback): Life of a Teacher in 1960s
My father came from a poor village in Takeo province and was the only member in his family to receive any formal education. Early on he understood the value of education and the vital role teachers played in society. He strived and studied hard to become a teacher.
In 1958 he became a teacher at Lycee Sophumorah in Chambaugh, a private school in Takeo Province, where he met my mother, who was his student in secondary school. He was 22 at the time and she was 18. He fell in love with her and asked her parents for her hand in marriage. At that time he made a low hourly wage and had not received his teaching certificate from the government. Her parents would only let him marry her on the condition that he obtained his teaching certificate and secured a job as teacher for the government.
In those days, parents wanted their daughters to marry teachers because it was a “noble” profession and one teacher’s salary could support at least three families. For the love of learning and for the love of my mother, my father pursued his teaching certificate. He received a certificate to become an instructor (teacher) in 1961 at Solah Karo Kosal (teacher training academy) in Phnom Penh.
After obtaining his certificate, his first teaching job was at Assyakeo school (primary/elementary). He would teach there for six years while also studying to become a professor. When he finally passed his exam to become a professor, his next job was at Lycee Preah Kao Din also known as Lycee Ang Prey.
My father was a teacher during Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum era (1953-1970), when Cambodia was going through a period of cultural and educational awakening after years of French colonialism. Having freshly obtained independence from the French, Sihanouk’s government invested a sizable percentage of the annual national budget (20%) to expanding access to education throughout the country, particularly to teach the youth about Khmer culture, history, arts, etc. (Ayres, 2000, p. 449).
To attract high quality teachers, the government gave stipends to students who qualified to study teaching. My father received 1,500 riel per month to study or the equivalent of $60.00USD a month in today’s currency. When he received his License & Master’s Degree in Cambodian and French literature, his salary as a professor was 7,500 riels (equivalent of $300USD per month). A significant amount considering that a bowl of noodles at that time was 5 riels.
In 1970 Lon Nol staged a coup to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk and many schools across the country were closed out of fear of political instability. As such, he stopped teaching in Takeo and went to teach at Lycee Kbal Tnal in Phnom Penh. His last job in education in Cambodia was at Lycee Toul Tom Poong where he served as the Vice Principle from 1973-1975 before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
In my father’s generation, teaching was a highly respected profession due in part to the high salary teachers received, one of the highest paid professions in those days. The government invested in teachers by providing them high quality training, scholarships and paying for living expenses for those studying to become a teacher. Teachers were given more autonomy and authority in disciplining students and students feared and respected teachers as they would their own parents. In addition, teachers at that time had high accreditation and had to pass rigorous exams.
While some cheating occurred, it was not as pervasive as it is today and the buying of diplomas was almost unheard of. Because of the high salary they earned, teachers didn’t need to supplement their income with part time jobs, sell school supplies to students or take bribes. Back then there was great pride in the profession.
Present: Life of a Teacher in Cambodia Today
Fast forward 40 years later and the life of a teacher has dramatically changed from once being at the top economic totem pole, to being at the bottom. Once the breadwinner of the family, and able to support three families with one income, a teacher now can barely support themselves, let alone one family.
To understand Cambodia’s education problems today, we must understand how the Khmer Rouge decimated this part of society. To give you an idea of the destruction, an estimated 75 percent of higher education lecturers and 96 percent of university students were lost in genocide (Pit, 2004). The educational elite of Cambodia were systematically targeted and destroyed. Formal education did not exist under the Khmer Rouge except under the pretense of “re-education” of Khmer Rouge doctrine taught by uneducated peasants who were the “purest” and truest of Khmer people because their minds had not been tainted by western influence.
I spoke to Mr. Rithy Chea a 56 year old teacher in Kandal Province. Before the Khmer Rouge Mr. Chea was studying to become a teacher. Then the Khmer Rouge came and his dreams were shattered. Like many Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge he was forced to leave his home in Kandal Province to Pursat where he toiled the land and struggled to survive.
When the regime fell, the survivors that remained returned back to nothing. Mr. Chea returned back to his home in Kandal Province and for two years became a farmer. In 1981 Cambodia was starting to rebuild the education system that had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. The intellectual elite of the country had either fled before the Khmer Rouge came in, were executed during their reign, or left Cambodia as refugees for other countries around the world. The intellectual capital needed to rebuild the education system was left with a vast empty void.
In an attempt to rebuild the education system from scratch, the government issued a call for teachers for the survivors that remained. Yet the challenges were great since there were relatively few people who were qualified to teach. According to Hun Sen, the government implemented its policy of “people with low education teach the ones with no education”, “people with high education teach the ones with low education” (Sen, 2011). The quality and standards for teaching fell because the government was desperate to rebuild the country.
Mr. Chea answered that call. He took a teaching exam issued by the government in which he said was easy. He started teaching at a primary school in Kandal Province in 1981. When he started teaching there were no resources. “We had nothing, no books, no school supplies, no food”, Mr. Chea said. Instead of being paid in money, he was paid 16 kilos of rice a month. He later became a math teacher as the country progressed. After 31 years in teaching, his current salary is $150.00 a month.
He says his life as a teacher is difficult. Teachers on average teach 18 hours per week, roughly 3 ½ hours a day and with an average salary of $150 a month, this is not including the administrative time for preparing lesson plans, etc. Teachers often find other part time work to supplement their income and sometimes bribe the principles to teach less hours so that they can find other work. There is a phenomenon called ‘ghost teachers’ in which teachers will not show up for work, because they are busy working at another job. Classrooms are then filled with students without a teacher. This happens more often in the rural areas as there is less accountability to check on these schools.
Mr. Chea thinks the biggest challenge in the education system today is cheating. Since many students come from families who are in a better economic situation than the teachers, bribing teachers has become a major problem. This is particularly true for students from the urban areas, such as Phnom Penh, as opposed to rural areas.
“Teachers are now businesspeople not teachers anymore”, he says. Many students will bribe teachers to not go to school and not tell their parents. Students will also bribe teachers to look the other way so that when exams are administered they can cheat.
The respect for the profession of teaching has eroded and the pride teachers once had is nearly gone. While at one point students feared teachers and held them in the utmost respect, today it is the teacher who sometimes fears the students, who are often richer and more powerful than they are. The rich and powerful can sometimes buy diplomas without the hard work that comes with acquiring knowledge.
The life of a teacher now is a dark contrast to the life of a teacher during my father’s time. Mr. Chea believes that even if the government were to raise the salary of teachers now, there will still be widespread bribery and cheating because it is too deeply embedded in the profession.
Future: What Next?
The education system in Cambodia today is broken and it is partly due to teachers struggling to survive on a meager income who are often forced to find other work and other sources of income to survive. This leaves classrooms that stand empty waiting for teachers who don’t show up. Widespread cheating by students who can easily bribe a teacher to “look the other way” also taints the profession. This is only one facet of the problems with the education system today but it is a key pillar. There are many impressive intelligent young people in Cambodia who have studied hard and earned their degree with rightful merit. But those who cheated their way through the system, or purchased their degrees not only diminish the reputation of the country, but also steal from those who earned it honestly.
While Cambodia’s economy is growing an impressive rate, forecasted to be at 7% next year, that growth is driven by the labor force in manufacturing (the garment industry), agricultural production, tourism and construction. The strength of this economic growth is driven by a very youthful population, which is estimated to be around 70 percent who are under the age of 35.
This youth demographic has the power to transform Cambodia’s economy if given the proper resources and education. The country cannot excel with manual labor alone, but needs to harness the intellectual energy of the next generation of innovators and professionals. To do that Cambodia needs qualified teachers, who are highly trained and fairly compensated to enable them to make a decent living rather than distracted with distorted incentives that encourage teachers to be in the business of “making money”.
If the status quo is allowed to continue further, Cambodia is building a house of cards of undereducated and uneducated youth with little knowledge, mismatched skills, and little hope to adequately compete in this modernized world that is more demanding and challenging than ever. Raising the teacher’s salary may not be the solution to fixing the problems with Cambodia’s education system, but it is a start to rebuilding the profession back into a noble one, and hopefully this will have a positive impact on the rest of society and for the future of Cambodia.
 From the late 1950s up until before the war the exchange rate varied from 20-30 riels=$1USD. In 1966 the average exchange rate was 25 riels=$1USD
 Name has been changed to protect his identity
Ayres, D. (2000) (as cited in Rany). Tradition, Modernity, and the Development of Education in Cambodia. Comparative Education Review, 4(4).
Pit, C., & Ford, D. (2004) (as cited in Rany). Cambodian Higher Education: Mixed Visions In P. G. A. & T. Umakoshi (Ed.), Asian Universities: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Challenges (pp. 333-362). Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rany, S., Ahmad N. Zain and Hazri Jamil (2012). “Cambodia’s Higher Education Development in Historical Perspectives (1863-2012).” Macrothink Institute International Journal of Learning & Development. Vol. 2, No. 2. (Online).
Sen, H. (2011) (as cited in Rany). Keynote Address at the Conferment of Certificate and Degree to Graduates of the University of Human Resources in August 11, 2011, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.