Chinese investment in Cambodia creating demand for trilingual schools

Driven by the sheer scale of Chinese investment in Cambodia – including a university partly funded by the Chinese government that launched in 2018 and the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone – local parents see learning both Chinese and English as a way to improve their children’s livelihoods in a country that is South East Asia’s second poorest in terms of GDP per capita.

The report also noted, “schools in Phnom Penh are beginning to receive enquiries from Chinese families, although this has not yet materialised into enrolled students”. While most Chinese expatriates working in Cambodia are men there alone, some are beginning to bring their families with them.

“Schools in Phnom Penh are beginning to receive enquiries from Chinese families”

The international school market in Cambodia represents around 7.2% of the South East Asian total, with 147 English-medium schools that cater to around 40,000 students, down from 155 last year following several shutdowns and a merger.

Compared to its wealthier neighbours, Cambodia is not a huge market for international schools but discontent with state schools has resulted in a “steady” market that expects to see six new schools or campuses open over the next few years.

However, with only around 79,000 registered expatriates in the country, schools need to target local students.

Cambodia has a population of 16 million but attracting local students has so far proved to be a challenge due to a lack of local awareness of international schools along with a lack of resources to cater for students with low English proficiency.

Schools told ISC there is “increasing demand for bilingual programs that appeal to the local markets”. However, “most Cambodian parents enrol their children into state primary schools which results in limited proficiency of the English language”.

“This precludes these students from entering international schools at secondary level as many have limited language support programs,” the report continued.

While general education in the country has shown some improvement, drop out rates remain high and there are shortages of teachers, both in the public and private sector. Additionally, recruiting and retaining international and domestic staff can be difficult.

“We need at least 300 teachers considering the number of students here, but we only have 230 and more than 70 of them are over 60 years old,” explained principal Yang Jinyi of Duan Hua, the country’s biggest Chinese school, while talking to Xinhua in 2018.

“Most of the new teachers are the school’s graduates who choose to stay and work here after graduation”

“Most of the new teachers are the school’s graduates who choose to stay and work here after graduation.”

The biggest factor, however, is the cost.

Tuition fees have increased by 37.6% over the last five years to a current annual average of US$4,870.

While this is low compared to regional and international counterparts, the average annual income in Cambodia is $1,390.

A lack of regulation with regards to private schools, particularly in terms of how they are registered, has also led to a proliferation of international schools with no international accreditation.

This means that while there are several international schools that advertise trilingual programs, they are only accredited by the local ministry  – although one proudly lists on its website having accreditation from an American religious group.

“To be a reputable international school in Cambodia, the school must be accredited by the international accreditation bodies,” stated the report.

“There are a large number of schools that have opened under the pretence of being a traditional ‘international’ school, but only a few schools are formally accredited.”

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