Reform of Higher Education in the Lao People's Democratic Republic*


John C. Weidman

University of Pittsburgh, USA
School of Education
Department of Administrative and Policy Studies
5S01 Forbes Quadrangle
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Phone: 412-648-1772
FAX: 412-648-1784 or -5911

[10 October 1995]


*Paper presented at the 1995 Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Orlando, Florida, 1 November. To be published in Gerard A. Postiglione and Grace C.L. Mak (Eds.), Higher Education in Asia: An International Handbook. Westport, CT, USA:Greenwood Press, 1996.


Following the devastation of the Vietnam War, the part of the former French colony of Indochina in Southeast Asia known as Laos emerged from a civil war in which the victorious Pathet Lao established a communist government and renamed it the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) in 1975. Because of the continuing animosity of the United States and former French colonials as well as the Lao fear of Chinese intervention, the Lao PDR aligned itself with the Soviet Union. Consequently, the newly emerging country received a substantial fraction of its foreign aid from the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries during the first decade and a half of its existence as a republic under communist rule.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, not only were its constituent republics forced to fend for themselves at the mercy of an uncontrolled world economy but also many of the countries which had been under its sphere of influence (among them, the Lao PDR) were forced to do the same. For higher education institutions, this meant having to pay world market prices for books and equipment which had been provided either free or at very low cost as part of Soviet aid packages. It also meant severely reduced opportunity to send academic staff to universities in the Soviet Union or other Eastern European countries for advanced degrees, also at very minimal cost to the sending university. This chapter describes issues that have arisen as part of the mounting pressure to reform the higher education system of the Lao PDR.

In order to provide some background information about the Lao PDR, the next section of the chapter presents selected data about the country's economy. This is followed by a comprehensive picture of the entire education structure upon which higher education is based. Then capsule descriptions of the three university-level institutions are provided. The chapter concludes with an analysis of some of the pressing higher education issues in the Lao PDR along with some areas in which reforms are currently being or might be considered.

Background: Social and Economic Conditions

With a 1992 per capita Gross National Product (GNP) of US$250, the Lao PDR is among the group of countries designated by the World Bank as "low-income economies." It has a population of 4.4 million with an average life expectancy of 51 years (World Bank, 1994b, p. 162, Table 1). The adult illiteracy rate of 36% in the Lao PDR is much lower than the rates in two other low-income Asian countries, Bhutan (62%) and Nepal (74%), but considerable higher than the 12% illiteracy rate in Sri Lanka (World Bank, 1994a, p. 54, Table 2.5).

Despite its low per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the economy of the Lao PDR has shown healthy growth over the past several years that was stimulated by a program of economic reform initiated by the government in 1986 called the New Economic Mechanism (NEM). The NEM emphasized "reorienting the economy away from central planning and its emphasis on public ownership towards a market-oriented economy led by a vigorous private sector" (World Bank, 1994a, p. 1). While the shift to a more market-driven economy has not been without its problems, especially in financial institutions where the shift away from total government control has been difficult, considerable progress has been made.

Between 1988 and 1993, the real annual growth rate averaged 7.5%. With a population growth rate of 2.9%, real per capita income growth has been near 5%. Nearly 90% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, which includes livestock and fisheries (World Bank, 1994a, p. 5), but the share of agriculture in the total GDP has declined from 63% to 56% since 1987 while the industrial share has grown from 11% to 17%. Even though the share of GDP attributable to the service sector has remained around a quarter over this period, "the composition of services has shifted away from public services towards commercial services, largely privately provided" (World Bank, 1994a, p. 3). In 1992, 25% of the workforce was employed in urban areas and the average monthly salary of urban workers was 30,000 kip or approximately US$43 (World Bank, 1994a, pp. 61-62).

Primary and Secondary Education

The educational system in the Lao PDR that prepares students for postsecondary education includes a pre-school sector (creche and kindergarten), a 5-year primary school sector, a 3-year lower secondary sector, and a 3-year upper secondary sector. In 1991-92, there were "121 creches with 1,725 students; 922 kindergartens with 22,372 students; 7,101 primary schools (of which only 1,927 had all five primary grades) with 574,038 students; 707 lower secondary schools with 87,167 students; and 118 upper secondary schools with 30,172 students" (Murugasu, 1993, p. 11).

Net enrollment ratios (% of age cohort enrolled) for each level were 61.6% for primary (ages 6-10), 7.4% for lower secondary (ages 11-13), and 3.6% for upper secondary (ages 14-16)(Murugasu, 1993, p. 14, Table 6). Currently, only 40% of an age cohort complete primary education, 30% of them move on to lower secondary school, and 12% move from lower to upper secondary school (Murugasu, 1993, p. 10). While females outnumber males at the pre-school level, all succeeding levels are predominantly male: 56.4% in primary, 60.2% in lower secondary, and 63.8% in upper secondary (Murugasu, 1993, p. 12, Table 2). Enrollment ratios are highest in the urban areas (4 of the country's 17 provinces), but they were below the national average in all of the remaining 13 provinces (Murugasu, 1993, p. 18).

Teacher Education

Teachers for primary and secondary education are trained in specialized pedagogical institutions, only a small number of which provide instruction that would be considered to be at the postsecondary level. Most teachers have completed only the level of education immediately above the one at which they are teaching. It is common to find many of the teacher training institutions sharing facilities under a single management structure. There are 50 institutions enrolling 4,820 students preparing teachers for the pre-schools and primary schools. They tend to provide a 3-year program for students who have completed lower secondary school.

For the preparation of secondary school teachers, there are 18 institutions enrolling 4,610 students preparing to teach in lower secondary schools. They tend to be either 3-year programs for lower secondary school graduates or 1-year programs for upper secondary school graduates. There are 3 postsecondary institutions enrolling 3,100 students preparing to teach in upper secondary schools. Most of these are 3-year training programs open to upper secondary school graduates (Murugasu, 1993, p. 28-29).

Postsecondary Technical Education

This sector includes two types of institutions, technical colleges and higher technical college, that are open to students who have completed upper secondary education. The 35 institutions included in this group prepare middle and higher-level technicians. Located strategically around the country, seven are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and the rest fall under other ministries. In 1988, enrollment was 5,265 in the 28 technical colleges and 1,136 in the 7 higher technical colleges. About 80 programs ranging from 1.3 to 3 years are offered in the technical colleges and 14 programs ranging from 1.5 to 5 years are offered in the higher technical colleges (Murugasu, 1993, pp. 21-22).

The Ministry of Health operated 4 technical colleges with 3-year, health-related programs that enrolled 1,071 students in 1988. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry operated 7 technical colleges that enrolled 928 students. The Ministry of Communication, Transport, Post and Construction had 7 institutions that enrolled 382 students. The Ministry of Economy, Planning and Finance ran 2 institutions that enrolled 535 in programs in planning, banking, finance and accounting. The Ministry of Culture operated three institutions that enrolled 135 students in courses in Lao arts and music, sculpture, metal and ceramic arts, dancing, and voice. A total of 1,136 students were enrolled in 1988 in the 7 higher technical colleges. The Ministry of Communication, Transport, Post and Communication accounted for about 63% of this total( Murugasu, 1993, p. 22).

University-Level Postsecondary Education

There are 3 institutions which are considered to provide university-level programs: the University Pedagogical Institute; the National Polytechnic Institute; and the University of Health Sciences. Each of these institutions provides specialized professional training of at least 4 years duration that is open to graduates of upper secondary schools. There is no national university providing programs in the arts and sciences. Admission to these institutions is based on a provincial quota system determined by the Ministry of Education (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 66; Spaulding, 1990, p. 117).

University Pedagogical Institute (UPI)

The University Pedagogical Institute (UPI) was founded in 1964 as the National Institute of Pedagogy of Vientiane for the training of primary and lower secondary school teachers. In 1975, it was merged with the Normal School of Viengsay to become a higher education institution providing 4-year programs for the training of upper secondary school teachers and was re-named the UPI in 1988. The UPI has a teaching staff of 260 and enrolls 2500 students in seven faculties: mathematics and physics, biology and chemistry, geography and history, psychology and educational sciences, Lao languages, and foreign languages. In addition to the main campus on the outskirts of the capital city of Vientiane (Dong Dok), there are campuses in the cities of Luang Prabang (the traditional royal capital) and Savannakhet, each enrolling 400 students (Can, 1991, p. 173). About 80% of the students complete their programs (Spaulding, 1990, p. 117).

National Polytechnic Institute (NPI)

The National Polytechnic Institute (NPI) was founded in Vientiane in 1984 to train engineers. NPI has a teaching staff of 100 in four faculties: fundamental sciences, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. Programs take 5 years to complete (Can, 1991, p. 174). All quota students must take a qualifying examination prior to enrollment and approximately 25% of the students are required to take a year of preparatory work prior to attending higher education courses (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 27, Table 5.14; p. 32). Enrollment in 1991-92 was 590 students (Murugasu, 1993, p. 27). The program completion rate for the NPI is only 52% (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 29).

University of Health Sciences (UHS)

The University of Health Sciences (UHS) was founded in 1969 (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 66) as the Royal School of Medicine in Vientiane and re-named in 1975 (Can, 1991, p. 173. There are about 1000 students (Can, 1991, p. 191) enrolled in three programs staffed with about 50 full-time and 50 part-time teachers. General medicine is the largest with about 700 of the students enrolled in a 6-year course. Pharmacy has about 200 of the students enrolled in a 5-year course, and dentistry has about 100 of the students enrolled in a 4-year course. Program completion rates are 85% for general medicine, 79% for pharmacy, and 92% for dentistry (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, pp. 68-69).

Reform of Postsecondary Education: Problems and Prospects

The fundamental reform of postsecondary education in the Lao PDR that is currently being implemented with funding from the Asian Development Bank is the consolidation and rationalization of the system (Lamoureux, 1994). As originally proposed, the reform was to have focused on expanding the scope of the programs and academic staff in the University Pedagogical Institute, Dong Dok. The aims of this university were:

(i) to offer programs of studies leading to degrees in arts and sciences for meeting the manpower demands of such graduates;

(ii) to offer limited programs of post-graduate studies in arts and sciences, as well as carry out applied research in these areas;

(iii) to develop curriculum, textbooks and other instructional materials for the courses offered;

(iv) to organize and/or conduct in-service training programs for its own faculty as well as the teachers of upper secondary schools and teacher trainers of the lower secondary teacher training schools; and

(v) to collaborate with other institutes of higher learning inside and outside the country to develop new knowledge and innovations in different related fields/subjects (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 75).

The first aim also implies the need to provide instruction in all programs that is not too highly specialized in order to prepare students more adequately for a changing world in which market forces will be increasingly important in shaping opportunities, both individually and collectively. It also suggests that the curriculum should be expanded to cover the needs of the emerging market economy, an example of which would be the development of a degree program to train managers (Asian Development Bank, 1989b, p. 76). The second speaks to the need to provide advanced training for academic staff in university-level institutions within the country as costs of sending students to foreign universities become prohibitive.

The third reflects problems with outdated curriculum and materials, again due to extremely high costs in the international marketplace. It is reflected in poor libraries and laboratory facilities as well as in the limited access by students even to basic textbooks (Asian Development Bank, 1992, pp. 67-68). As a consequence, most instruction is little more than transmission of content in lectures during which students are expected to take copious notes that will be their primary source material for subsequent examinations. It also implies the importance of expanding the use of technology, including computers (Spaulding, 1990). The fourth emphasizes the need to provide in-service as well as continuing education for maintaining the knowledge and skills of the professionals being trained. Finally, the fifth reflects the need for building linkages with sister institutions in other countries.

Subsequent deliberations supported by another Asian Development Bank technical assistance project resulted in the formulation of a much more ambitious plan that seeks to phase in, over a period of several years, the consolidation of several existing post-secondary education institutions into a multi-campus national university under a single administrative structure (Lamoureux, 1994). This new institution would include as organizational units, rather than independent institutions, faculties of education, engineering, and medicine. Additional faculties, in part from existing institutions, that are anticipated include economics and management, agriculture, and law. Also anticipated is a change in the structure of degree programs, with all sharing a common two-year general education component, followed by a specialization of three to four years' duration.

All of this will require careful deliberation and planning within the particular cultural traditions of the Lao people in order for implementation to be effective. Additional funds will also have to be obtained, something which is very difficult in the face of increasing demands on governments to pay for goods and services at unsubsidized prices.

Two of the ways in which funding for higher education has been expanded and diversified is through charging fees to students and allowing the establishment of private sector higher institutions. Both of these methods are being used in Mongolia, another Asian country in which higher education was highly subsidized by the Soviet Union (Weidman, 1995). The establishment of student fees has usually been accompanied by government loan schemes so that poor students are not prevented from going on to higher education. The Asian Development Bank is funding a project in the Lao PDR to expand education through the private sector. While this project will initially focus on primary and secondary education, it may be extended to higher education at some future time.

The prospects for consolidation and rationalization of higher education in the Lao PDR seem reasonably good, especially since this reform is being supported financially by the Asian Development Bank as is expansion of education through the private sector. What remains to be seen is how long reform might take and whether or not there will be sufficient financial resources, both internal (via diversification of funding) and from external donor agencies.


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