Laos, also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), with a population of 7.06 million, is ASEAN’s only landlocked country.1 Along with its larger neighbour Vietnam, Laos has been ruled by a one-party communist government since 1975, which has centralised control of most of the country’s institutions. Laos’s small economy — with a GDP of USD58 billion — is heavily reliant on its natural resources and geographic position along the Mekong River, though it is growing at a rate of over 7% annually. Approximately 67.1% of its population resided in rural areas in 2015,2 most of whom did not have access to higher education. Lao is the official language of the government and native language of the majority population; being a former French colony, French remains a language of significance, particularly to Lao education — the French colonial government was the first to establish a centralised schooling system in Laos. Laos, a Buddhist society historically, also has a long tradition of education for children in temples in rural communities. As a low-income country, the Lao government prioritises access to basic education for its citizens. As higher education institutions in French Indochina (of which Laos was a constituent part) were concentrated in present-day Vietnam, universities and colleges have only emerged in Laos recently.
Laos’s higher education system had a late start relative to its neighbours, with its first comprehensive university — the National University of Laos (NUOL) — opening in 1996 following the merger of 10 smaller HEIs which were managed by different government ministries. Substantial changes to the Lao higher education system were provoked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which made it less viable for Laos to send its students to neighbouring communist countries for university education; the number of Lao students studying abroad in 1991-1995 dropped to a quarter of the number during the period of 1986-1990.3 The establishment of NUOL as Laos’s flagship public university occurred following the onset of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), the government’s introduction of structural reforms in 1986 with the objective of transitioning from a centrally planned, socialist economy to a market-oriented one.4 In the 2000s, three additional public universities — Champasack University, Souphan-ouvong University and Savannakhet University — were respectively established in the south, north and centre of the country. In tandem with the opening of these universities, the government allowed several private HEIs to open in 2000 as part of wider reforms. To date, NUOL remains the most prestigious institution in the country with the most qualified staff and best resources. It is the only university that offers PhD degrees. NUOL has also received considerable assistance from the Asian Development Bank in reorganising itself towards autonomy prior to 2001.5 Its fifth university, the University of Health and Science, is the only public university administered by the Ministry of Public Health. Between 2000 and 2007, NUOL’s enrolment grew from only 9,689 to 37,112.6 However, in recent years, enrolment in Lao universities has been declining, which reflects the lack of demand for skilled labour in the local job market. In 2020, NUOL only had 20,075 students enrolled, a 54% decrease since 2007. Likewise, only 14% of Laos’s university students majored in STEM disciplines in 2012, while 42.5%, 12.8% and 19.4% majored in social sciences; business and law; and the humanities and education, respectively.
The Ministry of Education and Sport (MOES) is currently the primary body responsible for governance of Laos’s HEIs and TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) institutions. The public higher education system is highly centralised, and although universities have the autonomy to develop curricula to meet market demand, any changes must be approved by the MOES. All university faculty and staff are considered civil servants with similar salaries and employment packages as others in the public sector. As of 2017, only 9% of university faculty have PhDs and 55% have Master’s degrees.7 The scarcity of trained faculty has translated into a weak research culture in Lao universities and a stronger focus on teaching. Prior to 2012, public universities charged only a registration fee for its students and received the rest of its funding directly from the MOES. After the introduction of tuition fees in 2012, however, university revenues increased by approximately 45%.8 However, the long-time normalisation of tuition-free higher education in Lao HEIs has made it a difficult transition for students and families to accept, contributing to declining enrolment. Public universities also started leasing space on their campuses to the private sector to diversify their revenue away from government funding.9 In 2013, approximately 15.3% of the education budget was assigned to higher education recurring expenses, and TVET institutions received 3.5%. In 2014, 36.6% of the government’s education budget (or 1.3% of GDP) was devoted to higher education.10
Education Sector Development Plan (2016–2020)
In 2016, the MOES released their four-year plan for developing Laos’s education system. Regarding higher education, the ministry cites a mismatch between public and private HEIs’ course offerings and labour market demand, which has contributed to shrinking enrolment. As part of the plan, the MOES aimed to have 200,000 students (45,000 of which are at the five public universities) by 2020. In addition to aiming for 85% graduate employability, the plan focuses on increased access for disadvantaged demographics by providing additional scholarships and loans to ethnic minorities, low-income and female students, with a target of 45% female enrolment.11 The MOES also promised to create new student service centres and career counselling offices in public HEIs to guide students to employability, link academic training to job market preparation and address study challenges. Overall, the MOES allotted a budget of USD90.04 million (835.42 billion kip) over the four-year period, 41% of which is devoted to administrative expenditures, while the remaining was invested in new facilities and infrastructure.12
As for TVET institutions, the MOES’s four-year plan also set out to increase enrolment in TVET institutions to 51,000 students by 2020 from 34,500 in 2016. Over the same four-year period, the MOES contributed USD67.84 million (629.76 billion kip) to TVET institutions, USD15.73 million of which was invested in the construction of new classrooms, student and teacher dormitories and experimental classrooms.13
Internationalisation in Lao higher education primarily takes the form of joint degree programmes and MOUs with foreign institutions; research centres that focus on neighbouring countries (e.g., the Research Center on China in NUOL); and the presence of foreign institutes within Lao universities. The NUOL has 151 MOUs with 31 foreign institutions as of 2020. In 2010, following the Lao government’s signing of the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with the People’s Republic of China in 2009, the Chinese government-linked Confucius Institute established a branch inside NUOL, bringing 185 Chinese language teachers to Laos. In 2019, the Chinese government funded and opened a new Confucius Institute building in Vientiane with modern facilities, which Lao officials hoped would “build a window for the Lao people to look into China” and foster bilateral exchanges.14 The Kunming University of Science and Technology in neighbouring Yunnan Province is also active in internationalisation projects in Laos, jointly managing NUOL’s Management Science PhD programme with the university’s postgraduate office and coordinating the establishment of an additional Confucius Institute in northern Laos together with Souphanouvong University in 2018.15
Collaboration with institutions from foreign countries is not limited to those from China. The Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), funded by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, invested USD2 million into the construction of a vocational training centre in Laos between 2002 and 2005, which enrolled over 500 students in 2008.16 In 2000, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) opened the Laos-Japan Center in NUOL, offering training in business and development studies for Lao students. In 2010, the centre changed its name to the Laos-Japan Human Resource Development Institute (LJI) to focus on human resources development, training in Japanese-style management and facilitate Japanese-Lao bilateral relations with cultural events and language classes. LJI offers two-year MBA programmes co-instructed by Japanese and Lao lecturers, from which 248 students graduated in 2017.17
Zane Kheir recently graduated with a PhD in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
United Nations Institute for Statistics, “Lao People’s Democratic Republic”, accessed January 25, 2021, http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/la.
Lao Statistics Bureau, Ministry of Planning and Investment, “Results of Population and Housing Census 2015”, October 21, 2016, https://lao.unfpa.org/en/publications/results-population-and-housing-census-2015-english-version.
Bounheng Siharath, “The Higher Education in Lao PDR and Roles of International Cooperation for Its University Development — National University of Laos”, Graduate School of International Development [blog], Nagoya University, accessed January 26, 2021, https:// www2.gsid.nagoya-u.ac.jp/blog/anda/files/2010/06/19_bounheng-siharath.pdf.
Keiichi Ogawa, “Higher Education in Lao PDR”, in The Political Economy of Educational Reforms and Capacity Development in Southeast Asia Vol. 13, eds. Yasushi Hirosato and Yuto Kitamura (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 283-301.
Yves Bourdet, Strengthening Higher Education and Research in Laos (Stockholm: Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 2001).
Ministry of Education, “Economic Relevance Survey Report”, 2009.
Ministry of Education and Sports, “Department of Higher Education Statistics”, 2017.
Khamtanch Chanthy and Saykhong Saynasine, “Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ” in The International Encyclopedia of Higher Education Systems and Institutions, eds. Pedro Nuno Teixeira and Jung-Cheol Shin et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2020).
World Bank, “Lao PDR: School Autonomy and Accountability Country Report 2016”, April 2017, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/27663.
Ministry of Education and Sports, Laos People Democratic Republic, “Education and Sports Sector Development Plan (2016-2020)”, May 2016, https://www.dvv-international.la/fileadmin/files/south-and-southeast-asia/documents/ESDP_2016-2020-EN.pdf.
Ibid., 70, Figure 8.4.
Ibid., 64–65, Figure 7.4.
“New compound of Confucius Institute handed over to Laos”, China Daily, June 28, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201906/28/WS5d15acf1a3103dbf1432adcc.html.
“First Confucius Institute in Northern Laos Inaugurated”, Xinhuanet.com, July 15, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-07/15/c_137324317.htm.
Hong-Min Chun and Kyu Cheol Eo, “Aid for Skills Development: South Korea Case Study”, 2012, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000217875_eng
“MBA Program”, Laos-Japan Institute, accessed January 26, 2021, http://22.214.171.124/index.php/en/programs-courses/business-courses.