Private tutoring in Cambodia (January 2011 – August 2012)

The Hidden Privatization of Public Education in Cambodia: Quality and Equity Implications of Private Tutoring

Funded by the Open Society Institute’s Privatisation in Education Research Initiative. Co-investigators: Iveta Silova and William C. Brehm

The boundaries between the public and private provision of education in Cambodia have become increasingly blurred. While the number of private schools remains marginal and generally limited to elite schools in urban areas, privatization is entering public schools—invisibly and often unofficially—on an unprecedented scale. Given policy pressures from international financial institutions, the boundaries between the public and the private are sometimes purposefully erased by government officials in the name of Universal Primary Education (UPI) and Education for All (EFA) in order to channel private funds into a severely underfunded public education system. In this context, the private provision of education not only becomes attractive to policymakers as a viable mechanism to closing the funding gap but also reflects government’s commitment to deregulation, decentralization, and marketization of the economy since the 1990s. In addition to government-led efforts, hidden privatization of education also thrives at the grass-root levels in the form of supplementary private tutoring, which allows teachers to supplement their meager salaries with additional income and offers students supplementary education of higher quality compared to public schools.

Notwithstanding the positive aspects of private tutoring—such as expanding knowledge and interests for individuals (Bray, 2007), accumulating human capital for societies (Psacharopoulos, 1994), and providing new strategies for coping with rapid geopolitical transitions for a variety of education stakeholders (Silova, 2009)—the supplementary tutoring in Cambodia has grown in size to such an extent that it is now arguably greater in demand, value, and income generation than the public education system. In essence, private tutoring has become more important to both teachers and students in Cambodia than the public education system because of its ability to generate higher incomes for teachers and provide a more complete (and individualized) education to students. The private provision of education through supplementary private tutoring has assumed similar forms to public education, becoming both a differentiated demand (focused primarily on subjects examined on national tests or thought to provide better job opportunities) and excess demand (meeting the inadequate supply of public education). It has, in effect, usurped the legitimacy of public education in Cambodia.

Although the Cambodian government made attempts to prohibit (albeit unsuccessfully) private tutoring in public schools in the 1999s, it now pursues a laissez-faire approach to supplementary tutoring. Left unregulated, private tutoring has begun to distort the mainstream curricula by shifting significant portions of curricular content from the public to the private provision of education. For example, some studies report public school teachers “blackmailing” their own students into attending supplementary lessons (Bray, 2007; Dawson, 2009). Since teachers earn less money per month than do garment workers (approximately $45 compared to $60), earning 1.8 times the per capita poverty line (World Bank, 2008), withholding information during mainstream education is but one way to ensure a market for supplementary tutoring lessons. Yet, the costs of supplementary education prohibit many students from attending private tutoring lessons (Bray, 1999, 2007; Dawson, 2009). Who attends private tutoring is therefore as important as what is learned during the extra sessions.

The proposed study builds on previous research about the scope and nature of private tutoring in Cambodia by directly addressing quality and equity implications of private tutoring in the broader context of privatization of public education. More specifically, the study will examine the following questions:

(1) How does Cambodian private tutoring contribute to the privatization of public education?

  • How do formal state structures and policies create the space for hidden privatization of public education in Cambodia?
  • What factors (or combination of factors) drive hidden privatization of public education?

(2) How is the quality of mainstream education affected by private tutoring?

  • What are the differences in pedagogies used in public schools compared to private tutoring?
  • How does this affect family choices regarding public versus private education provision?

(3) What implications does private tutoring have for long-term social and economic equity?

Outcomes of project:


Brehm, W.C. and Silova, I. (2014). Hidden privatization of public education in Cambodia: Equity implications of private tutoring. Journal of Educational Research Online, 6(1), pp. 94-116. (pdf)

Brehm, W.C. and Silova, I. (2014) “Ethical Dilemmas in the Education Marketplace: Shadow Education, Political Philosophy, and Social (In)justice in Cambodia” (pp. 161-180). In I. Macpherson, S.L. Robertson, and G. Walford (Eds.) Education, Privatisation, and Social Justice: Case studies from Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. London: Symposium Books. (pdf) (This chapter was praised in a review of the book.)

Silova, I. and Brehm, W.C. (2013). “The Shifting Boundaries of Teacher Professionalism: Education Privatization(s) in the Post-Socialist Education Space” (pp. 55-74). In T. Seddon, and J. Levin (eds.), World Year Book of Education, London: Routledge. (pdf)

Brehm, W.C., Silova, I. and Tuot, M. (2012). The Public-Private Education System in Cambodia: The impact and Implications of Complementary Tutoring. Budapest: Open Society Institute. (pdf)

Tuot, M. and Brehm, W.C. (2012). Private tutoring and public school study: A study in six schools in Cambodia. Siem Reap: This Life Cambodia. [Report in Khmer]


“The Public-Private Education System in Cambodia: Conceptualizing Complementary Private Tutoring” presented at the Open Society Foundations regional conference, Globalization, Regionalization and Privatization in and of Education in Asia, Kathmandu, Nepal (September 2012).

“Privatizing Public Education: Confronting Complementary Private Tutoring in Cambodia” presented at the Education Sector Working Group, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (August 2012).

“The Public-Private Education System in Cambodia: The Impact and Implications of Complementary Tutoring” presented at the EDUCAM monthly meeting, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (June 2012).

“Hidden privatization of public education in Cambodia: equity implications of private tutoring” presented at the Comparative and International Education Society conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico (April 2012).

“The Post-Conflict Social Contract in Cambodia: The Effects of Private Tutoring in Public Education” presented at the annual World History Association Conference, Siem Reap, Cambodia (January 2012).

“Privatization of Public Education in Cambodia: Equity Implications of Private Tutoring” presented to the Comparative Education Research Center, Hong Kong (September 2011).

“Education, Equity, and Development in Cambodia: All Education for Some?” presented at the Development Research Forum annual conference, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (September 2011).

“The hidden privatization of public education in Cambodia: Quality and equity implications of private tutoring” presented with Dr. Iveta Silova at the Comparative and International Education Society annual conference, Montreal, Canada (May 2011).

“New Approaches to the Study of Private Tutoring: The Case of Cambodia” presented with Sen Se and Billy Gorter at the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong annual conference, Hong Kong Institute of Education (February 2011).