What was Cambodian higher education like during the Khmer Rouge regime?

The Khmer Rouge overthrew Lon Nol’s government in 1975 and controlled Cambodia with devastating consequences until January 7, 1979. From the start of their rule, the Khmer Rouge began to destroy the social, political, economic, and cultural infrastructure of the Cambodian society. They established a socialist state that relied totally on agriculture. In less than four years, the Khmer Rouge regime transformed Cambodia into a “killing field” in which almost two million citizens died from exhaustion, disease, hunger, overwork, or execution.


The entire higher education system, which had already suffered the consequences of human and material destruction during Lon Nol’s government, was , as it turned out, left in ruins. Scholars who have studied Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge described its system as at a “virtually standstill” (Vickery, 1984), “abolished” (Ayres, 2000; Pit & Ford, 2004), “completely destroyed” (Can, 1991), and “completely devastated” (Fergusson & Masson, 1997). Fergusson and Masson (1997) succinctly added, “twenty years of higher education and teacher education development effectively came to an abrupt end with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia” (p. 112).

All types of higher education institutions that had been founded by the Sihanouk government were destroyed, abandoned, and/or transformed into prisons, stables, re-education camps, granaries, slaughterhouses, and factories for manufacturing grenades, shells, and other weapons (Kiernan, 1985; Pit & Ford, 2004; Ayres, 2000). For example, Cambodia’s first university, the University of Phnom Penh, was converted into a farm (Clayton, 1998). Equipment, laboratories, libraries, facilities, and learning and teaching materials were abandoned or destroyed.

For the Khmer Rouge, the education system left by the previous regimes was associated with “imperialism” (Pit & Ford, 2004). According to Vickery (1984), most local cadres considered higher education as “useless and people who had obtained it less reliable than the uneducated” (p. 173). The primary targets of the Khmer Rouge’s vengeance, according to scholars such as Collins (2009), Kiernan (1985), and Fergusson and Masson (1997) as well as local survivors, were Cambodia’s “intellectuals.” These individuals could speak a foreign language, wore glasses, had received higher education, or had been Buddhist monks. Since these individuals were the products of feudal-capitalist institutions, they were treated as class enemies and seen as barriers to progress in the new society (Clayton, 1998). Thus, they were specifically targeted for elimination (Vickery, 1984).

Under such circumstances, thousands of intellectuals, professors, students, researchers, and educated professionals were arrested, interrogated, tortured, executed, and/or forced to overwork in the rice fields. The Ministry of Education (1984) estimated that 75% of tertiary qualified teachers, lecturers, and instructors and 96% of university students either were killed by the Khmer Rouge or fled the country to nations such as France and Thailand.

To create a new social order based on an agrarian, communal society, the Khmer Rouge proposed an alternative educational system. They offered basic education services in factories and cooperatives where students could study 2-3 hours a day and gain experience at manual work at the same time (Clayton, 2005; Vickery, 1985). Clayton, however, acknowledged that attendance at these classes varied widely around the country and probably did not exist at all for many individuals because they were grossly overworked.

In a few words, Cambodia’s higher education system during the Khmer Rogue from 1975-1979 was nothing more than dramatic destruction, turmoil, and trauma. The task of re-establishing the national higher education system would be overwhelming for the country’s new government.



Ayres, D. (2000). Anatomy of a crisis: Education, development, and the state in Cambodia, 1953-1998. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Can, L. T. (1991). Higher education reform in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Comparative Education Review, 35(1), 170-176.

Clayton, T. (1998). Building the new Cambodia: Educational destruction and construction under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979. History of Education Quarterly, 38(1), 1-16.

Collins, J. M. (2009). Reconstructing access in the Cambodian education system. In D. B. Holsinger & W. J. Jacob (Eds.), Inequality in education: Comparative and international perspectives (pp. 190-214). The Hague, Netherlands: Springer.

Fergusson, L. C., & Masson, G. L. (1997). A culture under siege: Postcolonial higher education and teacher education in Cambodia from 1953 to 1979. History of Education, 26(1), 91- 112.

Kiernan, B. (1985). Review essay: Shawcross, declining Cambodia. Bulletin of Concerned Asian scholars, 17, 56-63.

Ministry of Education. (1984). Education in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Author.

Pit, C., & Ford, D. (2004). Cambodian higher education: Mixed visions. In P. G. Altbach & T.Umakoshi (Eds.), Asian universities: Historical perspectives and contemporar challenges (pp. 333-366). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Vickery, M. (1984). Cambodia: 1975-1982. Boston, Mass: South End Press.





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