A programme of investment and reform has changed the face of education in Mongolia as the sector has transitioned from a centralised, state-dominated Soviet system to a considerably more dynamic model. The government has focused resources and reform efforts on the basic educational system with international support. The private sector is also playing a significant part in supporting the transformation and enhancing the breadth and quality of education.

POLICY AND SPENDING: The government aims to maintain the share of the budget spent on education at around 20%, a relatively high level when compared to other nations in the region, according to the World Bank. In the 2012 draft budget, the government reaffirmed its commitment to increasing investment in education as a basis for human development. The budget includes an MNT83.4bn ($65.05m) allocation for tuition support to some 170,000 students, with each receiving MNT500,000 ($390).

Policy is focused on strengthening primary and secondary education, which are targeted in the National Development Strategy with the aim of meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals. Primary and secondary schooling is predominantly funded and provided by the government, though since 1991 private provision has emerged and expanded; public schools often look to supplement their state funds by tapping other revenue streams. Private provision has particularly flourished in the higher education segment.

Education expenditure is still relatively low per pupil, though with increasing resources it is likely to grow significantly over the next several years. Public spending equalled $206 per pupil in the primary segment, $285 in the secondary segment and $339 in tertiary education in 2007, according to the World Bank.

EDUCATION BREAKDOWN: More than a quarter of the population, some 26.3% or 732,000 Mongolians, were enrolled in educational institutes in 2010, according to the Mongolian Statistical Yearbook 2010, which is published by the National Statistical Office (NSO). Of these, the majority were primary and secondary school pupils, totalling 512,200. Of these, 265,600 attended primary school, 172,900 in “basic” and 73,700 in higher schools.

A further 216,000 students were enrolled in tertiary education; 46,100 at technical and vocational schools, 55,200 at institutes and colleges, and 114,500 at universities. In addition, 2900 people were taking evening and external classes and 400 were studying at foreign-affiliated institutions in Mongolia.

TEACHERS: Mongolia’s 40,400 teaching staff include 4700 at kindergartens, 26,400 at general schools, 2100 at technical and vocational schools and 7200 at universities, colleges and institutes. Throughout the system, teachers are predominantly female, with women accounting for 78.5% of staff. Mongolian schools thus have respectable pupil-teacher ratios, averaging 19.4 in the 2010/11 academic year, comparing favourably with other countries in similar stages of development.

Gross enrolment rates (GER) – the proportion of eligible children attending school – are high. The GER in general education is 94.8%, with 98.6% in primary schools and 94.7% at the secondary level. At the preschool level, the rate is 77.6%, which is particularly high given that education at this level is not compulsory.

Indeed, pre-school education has grown significantly, with the number of institutions rising to 843 in the 2010/11 school year, from 814 the previous year and 768 in 2007/08. The number of pupils enrolled in preschool institutions reached 125,700 in 2010/11, up from 109,500 in 2009/10 and 100,400 in 2007/08.

The drop-out rate for the 6-14 age group has fallen in recent years due to rising incomes and government and non-governmental efforts to increase attendance. In 2010/11 the rate was just 0.8%, with 3200 leaving school prematurely, down from 1.6% in 2007/08. This represents a great deal of progress from the 1990s, when enrolment dropped as the educational system struggled to adjust after the fall of communism.

TERTIARY INSTITUTIONS: The tertiary education segment is crowded for a country of Mongolia’s size, with a total of 176 institutions in 2010. In the public sector, there were 44 technical and vocational schools, seven institutes and colleges and nine universities. Private sector provision is made up of 19 technical and vocational schools, 88 institutes and colleges and four universities (see analysis).

The number of tertiary institutions increased by more than four-fold between 1992 and 2007, according to the World Bank, and the GER in tertiary education increased from 14% to 47% in that period. This emphasis on higher education, particularly on vocational institutions, will likely put the training of students in line with the needs of the local economy.

REFORM AND CAPACITY: The 2002 Education Law, implemented in the same year, shifted the system away from the communist-era system of 10 years of schooling, which comprised four years of compulsory primary education, four compulsory secondary years and two years of upper secondary education. The new 12-year system started from the academic year of 2008-2009 to accept children to schools at the age of six. By 2015 the government hopes to introduce a 6-4-2 system, with 12 years of compulsory schooling.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), one of the largest donors to the Mongolian education sector, is supporting this process and other reforms. To help implement the system changes, the ADB funds teacher training, curriculum and textbook development, the provision of teaching materials for six-year-olds and furniture for schools. I. Lonjid, the social sector officer at the ADB’s Mongolia resident mission, told OBG that, while adapting the system has been a challenge, feedback from both parents and teachers has been positive, and the changes would strengthen the system in the long term.

In 2009 Mongolia launched a reform and capacity drive overseen by the ADB, with a particular emphasis on in-service teacher training. The scheme also involves improvements to textbook publishing and the establishment of a revolving fund to finance textbook acquisition and rental. The nationwide implementation of the textbook project in 2012 will provide 100% of primary pupils and 40% of upper-grade students with free books.

IMPROVING ACCESS: One of the most important long-term education challenges that Mongolia is addressing is inequality. Access to schooling, the standards available and level of educational attainment vary considerably between rural and urban areas, as well as between ger (traditional Mongolian tents) and apartment areas, and between the well-off and the poor.

In ger districts, around 37% of residents did not complete secondary education, according to the World Bank, while drop-out rates of current secondary-age pupils is 14.5%. In apartment districts, on the other hand, attainment beyond secondary education is not unlikely, with almost half of graduates moving on to higher or vocational education.

Furthermore, the World Bank has reported that Mongolia’s education aid programmes are generally well-executed, with tuition subsidies, free school supplies and books, and other initiatives benefitting the poor, despite “some leakage to the non-poor”. Around 70% of the students in ger areas and 45% in apartment areas pay no fees. The World Bank notes that schools in ger districts in particular have difficulties accommodating the increasing number of pupils, generally due to a lack of facilities. Expansion of existing schools and the founding, staffing and equipping of new ones will require substantial investment, both in the institutions themselves and in infrastructure to support them. Fortunately, Mongolia is now in a position to provide this investment. The World Bank’s assessment suggested a basic sum of MNT1.8m ($1404) per capita to ensure that every school works on a single shift and is properly supplied with infrastructure.

The Bank also suggested increasing the number of youth centres in the short term, while school expansion was ongoing, as well as boosting transportation to schools through road improvements and more frequent public transport services.

BETTER DELIVERY: Mongolia’s size and the distribution of the population mean that many children cannot travel to school daily from home and instead board at school, returning home for the holidays. There were 40,500 of these “dormitory pupils” in 2010/11. Due to schools opening in rural areas and migration to urban areas, the number of boarders has fallen in recent years, from 44,000 in 2007. The majority of dormitory pupils are from herder families. Provision of quality education for herders’ children has been a challenge for Mongolia, and there has been considerable success, with 120,000 children from herder households enrolled.

The ADB is running a Japanese-funded early childhood education project from 2010 to 2013 that aims to enhance access for marginalised groups, including developing “alternative early childhood education models” to deliver schooling for herder families and recent migrants from rural to urban areas. The scheme involves the establishment of 400 ger kindergartens and the training of 400 teachers to staff them; in 2011 the ADB acquired 152 gers, half to house the classes and half for kitchens, for the first 76 kindergartens.

GOING INTERNATIONAL: The sector has a growing private segment, though quality is inconsistent. The best private institutions offer as good an education as their equivalents almost anywhere in the world, while the worst have standards below those of public sector counterparts, Lonjid told OBG. Top Mongolian establishments include Orchlon, which is regarded as one of the best schools in the country. Orchlon is owned by conglomerate MCS Group and has a number of subjects which meet British-accredited IGCSE and A-levels standards. Orchlon competes with locally based international schools, the number of which is expected to increase in the coming years.

The most prominent international schools in Mongolia are the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU) and the American School of Ulaanbaatar (ASU). There are also a number of Chinese schools and five institutions run by Mongolian-Turkish schools, two in Ulaanbaatar and one each in Bayon-Olgii, Darkhan and Erdenet. Fees at ISU and ASU average around $20,000 per year, according to Robin Charpentier, a consultant at the National University of Mongolia (NUM), putting them beyond the means of most Mongolians, but affordable for many affluent locals, as well as expatriates. Indeed, it is considerably cheaper to send a child to one of Ulaanbaatar’s international establishments than to send them to most fee-paying schools abroad, though many wealthy Mongolians do the latter. The schools appeal both to expatriates who prefer to have their children close to them and to upwardly mobile Mongolians who are seeking quality education in an international environment. The standards of teaching, facilities, classroom materials and extra-curricular activities tend to be better at international schools. Pupils who take internationally recognised exams such as SATs and the International Baccalaureate also have access to top universities abroad, for example in the US and the UK.

That the sector is ripe for expansion is clear enough from the three-year waiting list for the ISU and ASU. This fact is not lost on Mongolian entrepreneurs looking for opportunities in education. The next big newcomer expected is the British School of Ulaanbaatar (BSU). The BSU is slated to open in September 2012 and is expected to launch with between 250 and 400 pupils, a number that will increase to 1000 in the future. At its launch, BSU is expected to have boarding facilities for 250 pupils, and the expectation is that it will enrol many of the children of expatriates working on mining projects in provincial Mongolia.

CAMBRIDGE SCHOOLS: The internationalisation of the school system is not limited to the private sector. In 2010 the public New Era High School in Ulaanbaatar opened its doors as the first “laboratory school” in the country. Laboratory schools are state-run bilingual institutions, which offer instruction in both English and Mongolian and follow the syllabus of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), an organisation owned by the UK’s University of Cambridge. Around 30 laboratory schools will be established by 2014, one in each aimag, or province, and district of Ulaanbaatar. The government is in the process of identifying which institutions will become laboratory schools and is recruiting and training the most able teachers to staff them. These are intended as pace-setting establishments, as well as pilot projects – if successful, the bilingual system and CIE syllabus could be rolled out to the entire nationwide school system.

“The laboratory schools will allow broader access to international universities,” Lonjid said. “They will help bring standards up to international levels and could set the course for the development of a bilingual school system, though these are still early days.”

OUTLOOK: While Mongolia’s education sector has come a long way since 1990, it is still encountering issues that affect many developing countries, including unequal access to schooling and patchy infrastructure. With the government committed to making substantial investments in the sector, and the support of international organisations, these issues are being addressed with generally good results. The next stage of educational development will involve increasing internationalisation, both in the form of new private schools and now in the form of the laboratory schools programme. Mongolia’s commitment to education is therefore reflected both through its investments and through its openness to new ideas and models of best practice.