The Education Systems in Cambodia and Thailand: A Comparative Perspective

Phanna Kov
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Education is widely recognized for its significant roles in economic and social development; therefore, many countries have tried to improve their educational systems. Cambodia and Thailand are no exception, yet the strategic educational plans and policies implemented to improve the educational systems in these two countries differ. This chapter compares the Cambodian and Thai education systems to promote a deeper understanding of the educational systems in both countries by focusing on educational provision, financing, enrollment rates, decentralization, and higher education recognition.

Keywords: Cambodian education system; Thai education system; comparative perspective; Cambodia; Thailand


Cambodia experienced three decades of civil war during the darkest period of its modern history. Under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), Cambodia experienced massive destruction to its education system and the intelligentsia, with intellectuals and educated people, including teachers, professors, government workers, and people speaking foreign languages or wearing glasses being targeted for execution (Kiernan, 2002). Over the past two decades, a peaceful and stable Cambodia has seen economic growth, social development, educational reconstruction, and poverty reduction. Cambodia was one of the fast-growing economies, with an average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of 7% per annum between 1999 and 2018, leading to a substantial decline in the poverty rate from 47.8% in 2007 to 13.5% in 2014 (ADB, 2019; Sam, 2020). The GDP per capita in Cambodia has increased from USD 295.90 in 1999 to USD 1,643.12 in 2019 (World Bank, 2020).

For Thailand, despite its repeated military coup d’états, its GDP per capita has increased from about USD 2,000 in 1999 to approximately USD 7,800 in 2019 (Statista, 2021). Over the past three decades, Thailand has substantially reduced poverty from over 65% in 1965 to under 10% in 2018 (World Bank, 2020). Thailand’s economic growth experienced fluctuation between 1999 and 2018, with 7.5% being the highest GDP growth in 2010 (World Bank, 2020).

Cambodia and Thailand are placing a great emphasis on their educational systems by continuously increasing national budget allocations for the education sector considered a key driver of social and economic development. Despite having the same goal of improving their respective education systems, education in both countries have significant differences.

This chapter aims to provide a brief introduction to Cambodia’s and Thailand’s education systems and discuss various education-related issues, including educational provision, public financing, enrollment rates, education decentralization, and the recognition of the education systems of both countries. The chapter concludes with some recommendations to enhance the education system in Cambodia.

Brief Introduction to Cambodia’s and Thailand’s Education Systems

Cambodian Education System

In Cambodia, the education sector is mainly under the administration and management of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The Cambodian Constitution adopted in 1993 mandates free primary and secondary education in state-run schools. In 2007, the government passed the Cambodian Education Law, requiring the state to provide nine years of compulsory basic education (Millar, 2018). Formal education in Cambodia consists of general and higher education. The general education is structured as 6+3+3, consisting of six years in primary school, three years in lower secondary school, and three years in upper secondary school. Although Cambodia provides free education from grade 1 to grade 12, many parents with sufficient financial resources prefer to send their children to private schools. However, students from both state-run and private schools need to take the same grade 9 and grade 12 national examinations.

According to MoEYS (2021), in the academic year 2020-2021, there were 114,170 education staff, of which 93,956 were teachers, and 3,223,475 students enrolled in 13,597 public schools across the country. There were also 14,152 teachers and 219,818 students enrolled in 1,307 private schools in Cambodia (MoEYS, 2021). Over the last few decades, Cambodia has experienced a rapid increase in the number of higher education institutions (HEIs), increasing from 8 in 1997 to 128 in 2021 (Sok & Bunry, 2021). Among the 128 HEIs, 80 are private HEIs (MoEYS, 2021). Cambodian HEIs are mostly concentrated in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, and they are under the supervision of 16 different ministries and institutions. MoEYS oversees 80 HEIs with 16,676 teaching staff and 201,900 students enrolled in 76 private and 13 public HEIs in the academic year 2020-2021 (MoEYS, 2021). Many public universities often provide degree programs from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees, while large private universities offer all degrees ranging from associate’s to doctoral degrees. Some private and small HEIs provide only associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Thai Education System

In Thailand, formal education consists of general and higher or tertiary education. Under Thailand’s 1997 Constitution, the state provides all Thai citizens with at least 12 years of free basic education, including pre-primary, primary, and secondary education (ASEAN Secretariat, 2013). Thailand has nine years of compulsory education for all children starting at the age of six. Basic education in the Thai educational system is formulated as 6+3+3, with six years in primary school, three years in lower secondary school, and three years in upper secondary school. Basic and higher education are provided, promoted, and overseen by the Ministry of Education (MOE). However, in May 2019, a significant change occurred with the establishment of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (MHESI) to oversee higher education, promote research and innovation, and strengthen science and technology in Thailand. Currently, public and private HEIs are no longer under the administration and supervision of MOE’s Higher Education Commission and Private Education Commission. Instead, following the establishment of MHESI, these two offices have been merged under the MHESI operation.

According to the National Statistical Office of Thailand (n.d.), there were 756,573 teachers and 8,266,269 students enrolled in public schools and 2,371,660 students in private schools in 2019. Since its first university was established in 1917, Thailand saw a substantial increase in the number of HEIs, particularly over the past five decades. As of 2021, Thailand has 156 HEIs, and the current HEIs landscape is divided into three categories: autonomous, public, and private (MHESI, 2021). Among the 156 HEIs, there are 27 autonomous universities and 57 public HEIs, consisting of nine Rajamangala universities of technology, 10 public universities, and 38 Rajabhat universities. There are also a total of 72 private universities. Of the public universities in Thailand, there are two open universities, namely Ramkhamhaeng University and Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, established in 1971 and 1978, respectively. An open university refers to a university that usually accepts students without formal academic qualifications, employing distance learning technologies and allowing students to study from home. Around 30% of HEIs are concentrated in Bangkok, and public HEIs account for approximately 86% of all student enrollment (The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2019). Many HEIs, both public and private, provide all levels of programs ranging from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees.

Cambodia’s and Thailand’s Education Systems: A Comparative Perspective


Cambodia and Thailand have the same educational system formulation of 6+3+3, with 12 years of free basic education and nine years of compulsory education. Education in both countries is classified into three systems: formal, non-formal, and informal (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization, 2017). Such education systems are believed to provide students with an understanding of basic life skills and the culture and society in which they live. They can also develop the human resources needed to meet the demands of the labor market and to compete in the regional and global arena.

Both countries have a mixed involvement of the public and private sector in providing education. Even though the majority of the students in both countries receive their basic education from state-run schools, a small but increasing percentage of students are enrolled in private schools. However, in recent years, Cambodia and Thailand have been promoting private schools to varying degrees, demonstrating recognition of the growing importance of private and state-run schools in contributing to the education systems. Appropriate public and private sector involvement in educational provision can be recognized as a key component to ensuring equity, effectiveness, and efficiency of educational system management (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2014). The existence of private schools simultaneously promotes diversity and innovation as well as inequality, as many private schools are located in urban areas.


Cambodia’s and Thailand’s increasing allocation of finance and resources to the educational sector indicates their dedication to education. Significant investment of public spending in education by the two governments ensures the self-sufficiency of all citizens through social and economic skill development while eradicating poverty and sustaining economic growth and social benefits through human capital development. Thailand spends more in terms of the percentage of GDP on its education sector than Cambodia does. Thailand’s public spending on education was 5% of its GDP of USD 506.2 billion in 2018 (National Economic and Social Development Board, 2018), a more significant investment in the educational sector than many other countries over the past decade (The Bangkok Post, 2020). By contrast, Cambodian public expenditure on education was 2.16% of its USD 24.57 billion GDP in 2018 (World Bank, 2020). In Thailand, public spending on the educational sector has been around 20% of the total government expenditure since 1999 (The Bangkok Post, 2020). Compared to Thailand, Cambodia spent approximately 2.16% of its public expenditure on education in 2018, although the Cambodian government planned to commit around 20% of the national budget to the education sector (International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, 2020).

Enrollment Rates

The education systems in Cambodia and Thailand have seen a continual increase in student enrollment in primary education, with both countries achieving over 90% of net enrollment over the past several years (ASEAN Secretariat, 2020). However, some students leave school before completing their basic education. Table 3.1 shows that Cambodia experienced a high dropout rate in the transition from primary to secondary education, suggesting that Cambodia still lags behind Thailand despite its nine-year compulsory education provision. According to Vann (2014), the significant dropout rate was due to school shortages for remote communities, household poverty, domestic work, and wage employment. Although Thailand also faced the problem of school dropouts, its dropout rate was lower than that of Cambodia when students transitioned from primary to secondary education. Moreover, Thailand was still confronted by the critical challenges of having many out-of-school children. These children were school-age children who were not enrolled in any formal education or those who had previously been enrolled but dropped out. They were mostly children of low-income families, rural-urban migration workers, foreign-born workers, remote community dwellers, and exploited laborers (Vann, 2014).

Table 3.1

Net Enrollment Rate (%) by Education Level in 2018

CountryPrimary educationSecondary education
 Source: ASEAN Secretariat (2020)

In terms of enrollment by gender, female students have a slightly higher enrollment rate than male students in primary and secondary education in Cambodia, with a significant dropout rate during the transition (see Table 3.2). For Thailand, it does not experience a significant transitional dropout rate, and the percentage of student enrollment by gender is similar.

Table 3.2

Net Enrollment Rate (%) by Gender in 2018

CountryPrimary educationSecondary education
Source: ASEAN Secretariat (2020)


The education systems in both countries underwent decentralization reforms in functions and responsibilities for lower levels of administration to improve relevance, effectiveness, and efficiency (UNESCO, 2014). Since the mid-1990s, Cambodia has implemented decentralization reforms in various sectors, including education. The benefits of the decentralized educational system and the inflexibility of the centralized education system have been discussed since the early 1990s (Pellini & Bredenberg, 2015). The decentralization of Cambodia’s education system aims to provide equitable access to education, increase educational quality and efficiency, and promote institutional development and capacity building for local administrative levels. Similarly, Thailand’s National Education Act, B.E. 2542 (i.e., 1999) introduced educational reforms, significantly changing the organizational structure and promoting decentralized administration and management at local levels by consolidating educational planning at the central level to ensure universal basic education and opportunities for lifelong learning (MOE, 2008). Thus, Cambodia and Thailand have pursued different decentralization reforms to build and strengthen the lower administrative level capacity to improve planning, management, implementation, monitoring, and decision-making of educational policies across different levels.

Higher Education Recognition

Financial resources allocation, decentralization, education reforms, and the implementation of the Education Strategic Plans by Cambodia and Thailand demonstrate the dedication of both governments to improve educational quality and efficiency and make their respective education systems nationally and internationally recognized. In 2020, Thailand had 16 universities listed in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, making it a leading country in Southeast Asia to have the highest number of universities listed in the THE World University Rankings 2020 (Heng, 2020). In 2021, there were 23 Thai universities listed in the THE World University Rankings 2021 (THE, n.d.). For Cambodia, it was one of the only three ASEAN member states, including Laos and Myanmar, whose universities were not on the list of the THE World University Rankings 2020 (Heng, 2020). However, in 2021, one of Cambodia’s private universities, the University of Puthisastra, was listed in the THE Global Impact Rankings (Khmer Times, 2021).

Another factor that could indicate higher education recognition and internationalization in both countries is the number of inbound international students. Over the period of five years, the number of international students in Thai universities increased from 16,000 in 2008 to 18,814 in 2013, with students coming from 139 countries (Snodin, 2019). The number of international students in Cambodian universities was only around 150 in 2016 (Dash, 2016), indicating Cambodia’s limited internationalization of higher education. Another essential factor that needs to be considered when comparing Cambodia and Thailand’s higher education is research output and performance. Cambodia’s performance in research and development was ranked 121st, while Thailand’s performance was 56th out of 141 countries, showing that Cambodia considerably lags behind Thailand (Heng, 2021b). Heng (2021b) also found that the total number of Scopus-indexed publications emanating from Thailand over the last decade (2010-2019) was 143,507, while Cambodia had only 3,521 publications over the same period. This difference is not surprising because the research capacity of Cambodian universities and academics is limited (see Heng & Sol, 2021; Kwok et al., 2010).

Citing previous studies, Heng (2021b) noted that research in Cambodia was underdeveloped and underfunded, resulting in low research engagement and output of Cambodian universities and academics. Compared with Cambodia, Thailand has constantly provided financial support to drive university research activities and develop national research infrastructure and capacity. This has enhanced Thailand’s research output and competitiveness, enabling it to serve as a regional hub for education, research, and development (The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2019).

Conclusion and Recommendations

In conclusion, Cambodia and Thailand have placed great emphasis on providing free basic education with nine years of compulsory education for all students. Although both countries have experienced significant increases in primary school enrollment, Cambodia still struggles with high dropout rates during the transition from primary to secondary education. Both countries have pursued decentralization reforms in their educational systems to improve educational quality and efficiency and promote capacity building among staff in lower administrative levels. The public financing for the education sector in both countries demonstrates their recognition of the importance of education in contributing to nation-building and developing intellectuals and the moral fiber of society for future generations. The educational systems in both countries are different due largely to the different stages of their economic development.

Considering the differences between the education systems in Cambodia and Thailand, significant efforts are needed to improve Cambodia’s education system, regardless of positive development in recent decades (see Heng, 2021a; Heng & Sol, 2021). It is crucial for the Cambodian government to expand its educational provision, improve educational infrastructure, and ensure that young people, especially female students, are in schools. The education reform within the context of teacher quality, decentralization, deconcentration, and budget management is essential to improve Cambodia’s educational quality and efficiency. Underfunded and underdeveloped research infrastructure and low research engagement of academics need to be addressed to foster a research culture in Cambodia and internationalize its higher education. The Cambodian government needs to consider its current national budget and resources allocation for the education sector because limited funds and budgets have posed significant challenges to the education system. It is also worth noting that efforts by the government or MoEYS alone are not sufficient to improve Cambodia’s education system. Active participation and collaboration from all stakeholders play an integral part in developing the Cambodian education system and promoting a research culture in Cambodia.


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