Education reform and investment are vitally important for Mongolia. The country is set to come into immense wealth from mining, and it needs to spend that money wisely so that the people have the skills, expertise and knowledge to make a living from the industry now and make a living after the minerals are depleted. It must make a few very long-term commitments to guarantee its future beyond the coming resources boom, and education is one of them.

Education is also important so Mongolia develops as a well-functioning civil society. It is an open and democratic nation, and the people need a certain level of literacy and a basic understanding of their history, institutions and their rights and responsibilities to be good citizens. It is a delicate transition; Mongolia must utilise its wealth quickly and efficiently enough so that it avoids the pitfalls of rapid prosperity and benefits from it in a sustainable way.

“The government is looking at how to better use the proceeds from natural resources. It has started to focus on educational reforms,” said I. Lonjid, the senior social sector officer of the Mongolia Resident Mission of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

MIXED RESULTS: The country has a lot of work to do on its education sector. After the fall of the Soviet Union and socialism in the early 1990s, a number of different strategies were pursued with mixed results.

At first, education was decentralised and the Ministry of Education and Science managed the sector lightly. The Education Law of 1995 created the ground for universities to approve their own charters and budgets. In part, this was pragmatic, as the country had lost subsidies. To an extent, the decentralised approach reflected the mood and philosophy of the time. The country had just liberated itself, and the priority was to limit control and to allow the people a degree of latitude previously not possible under socialism. These were invariably turbulent times, and the country and its people underwent a multitude of different ideas, structures, solutions and philosophies.

“After being isolated and ideological, the country became chaotic in many ways, very open to different platforms and paradigms,” said R. Bat-Erdene, executive director, the American University of Mongolia.

UNDERFUNDED: While the transformation was an overall positive for the country, it left the education sector underfunded and poorly managed. Public spending on education fell from about 20% of the national budget under the Soviet era to 11.86% (in 2011). The student-to-faculty ratio rose and essentials such as textbooks were in short supply. Quality eroded at many institutions, and their structures became highly unbalanced. Lacking endowments or major government funding, they became almost dependent upon tuition fees. Long-term capital spending on assets or the building of research facilities was impossible. The major institutions lived hand-to-mouth.

Education did prosper; after reforms, private colleges and universities were opened and the number of people receiving degrees rose dramatically.

In 1990, some 13,825 students received bachelor’s degrees in the country. By 2002 that number hit 89,125. By the 2002/03 academic year, the country had 185 institutions of higher education, 136 of which were private. The boom led to other, unintended, consequences. More people were receiving degrees, but there were few appropriate jobs for them. Even when the economy grows fast, as it has for the past few years, most of the employment opportunities are unskilled positions or skilled mining or construction jobs. According to local newspaper Undesnii Shuudan, only about one-third of 2011 graduates received jobs. Mongolia over-educated its people.

“There are too many educated people and not much demand in the market,” Z. Bolor, executive director of International Technical College, told OBG. “A few years ago everyone wanted to go to university and get a BA or master’s, but they still work as waitresses.”

OLD SCHOOL: And even while Mongolia made efforts to cast off the Soviet-style system of education, some of the more negative attributes of it remained. Before reform, teaching in Mongolia was regimented, top-down and very much focused on rote memorisation. It was a product of central planning and emphasised the preparation of students for specific tasks and above all loyalty to the system. The ideology is gone, but the basic culture remains. The transition to a more open, child-centric methods is a work in progress and incomplete, and students tend to complete their schooling lacking certain critical reasoning skills and are less well-rounded than they might have if the old ways had been completely abandoned.

SOLID FOUNDATION: While the socialist educational system may have not allowed students to fully develop, it did cover the basics and established a respect for learning. In fact, literacy is Mongolia stands at 97.4% despite periods over the past two decades when some children were unable to attend school due to economic hardships. The primary completion rate is currently above 100%, up from about 75% in 1995, according to World Bank figures. The enrolment rate in primary school was 98.6% in 2011, up from 80.7% in 1995. The fact is that Mongolia had a solid foundation under socialism and has been pursuing reforms steadily since the early 1990s. While not all reforms have been effective, they have on the whole resulted in better education over time.

The 1992 Constitution mentions education as a right and guarantees a free basic schooling. The Education Law was revised in 1995, removing the socialist ideology and noting that education should be humanistic and democratic. The ADB produced a sector review in 1993, a master plan was drawn up in 1994, and through 2000 a series of National Programmes were initiated, for technical education, preschool education, Mongolian script and non-formal education.

The Education Law of 2002 (amended in 2003, 2006 and 2008) went on to stipulate that schooling would be used to develop free and productive people and help the country be secure and grow in a sustainable manner. The 2002 law also discussed decentralisation. Child-centred learning was introduced in the 1990s, standards-based education in 1998, and competency-based education in 2003. Basic education was extended from 10 years to 12 years in 2008.

After 2000, the government took aim at some of the excesses of past reforms. It specifically began to close down and merge a number of colleges and universities. From the high of 185 in 2002/03, the total number of higher education institutions was reduced to 113 in 2010/11. The culling was particularly severe among public institutions. There, the total was slashed from a high of 49 in 2005/06 down to 16 in 2010/11. The Law on Education was further amended in October 2012. In some cases private colleges have merged and ceased operations altogether following major criticism, Bat-Erdene said to OBG.

HOMEWORK: Still, quite a bit of work needs to be done. Much of it is simply a continuation and refining of previous reforms, but some involves new areas of concern. The exact status of higher education institutions, as businesses or public services, and the recognition of non-profit status is one; tuition is another. According to Mongolian Economy, a local magazine, tuition rates at Mongolian universities are as much as MNT2m ($1450) a year, compared with MNT200,000 ($145) in the late 1990s. Monthly average wages are about $400 in the country. The government has discussed limiting tuition increases and having universities adjust tuition fees depending on the specific income level of a student’s family.

The country recognises that while a lot has been accomplished in the sector, the job is incomplete and in some cases policies and programmes have been ineffective. “During these years, there have been a lot of mistakes,” said B. Urgamaltsetseg, the vice-minister at the Ministry of Education and Science.

UPRIGHT MONGOLIAN MAN: According to the vice-minister, the government intends to focus on areas that have been overlooked so far. Its agenda includes much that has been discussed or attempted previously, including: accreditation based on quality rather than quantity; student evaluation of all schools; an independent committee that will allow for public participation in educational policy development; the establishment of a national education fund; bringing local education to international standards; making teacher selection more transparent; sending Mongolian students overseas to study in the best universities; building housing; and improving school food.

The new government is also setting its sights higher and beginning to tackle issues more difficult to address. It is taking a comprehensive look at exactly how education is approached in the country and what can be done to not only improve scores on standardised tests, but also to produce better workers and citizens. The intention of programme and the exact plan of action is difficult to pin down, but it dovetails with and is very much a part of many other changes going on in contemporary Mongolian society as it seeks to adjust its democracy to get the right balance between openness and a sense of national identity. The vice minister says what they are looking for can roughly be translated as the “Upright Mongolian Man”.

“For years, there has only been a push to achieve,” she said. “But we have forgotten the personal side of the person: I am good at maths, but I don’t know how to respect my elder.” She went on to add, “every individual should be part of society,” highlighting that “we need to make right Mongolian citizens.”

The campaign in part seems to be focused on culture. Under socialism, Mongolia’s history was replaced with a foreign overlay; Mongolians are pushing to get their history back and are working to come up with an identity. The revival of Chinggis Khan is one element of this struggle. This is an ongoing process, and there does not seem to be a right answer. For a while in the late 1990s, the traditional Mongolian script was revived only to be replaced again by the Cyrillic script. As much as the current trend is nationalistic, it is also internationalist, and this is the case with education. The country is looking for the right model, and while Mongolia and being Mongolian is central to reforms, the authorities are searching the world to looking for models and best practices, in Asia, in Europe and in North America, respectively.

TVET: The area of reform likely to have the most direct impact is the development of the technical training sector, known as technical and vocational education and training (TVET). The government, corporations and citizens alike are aware of the mismatch between levels of education and available jobs. Hence, offering more courses directly relevant to the growth industries – primarily mining and construction – is one way of achieving a supply-demand balance.

Mongolia has a long history of TVET education, but as with education in general, the history has been marked with several ups and downs. The sector thrived under socialism, and in the 1990s the country had 26,421 TVET students. After reform, that number fell to as low as 7555. It has since recovered, and total TVET enrolment was 46,071 in 2010/11. However, as with the sector in general, TVET suffers from under investment and inconsistent quality.

For most of the post-socialism period, the sector still functioned the old way. A certain number of students were ordered in different fields — 1000 hairdressers, 1500 welders, for example — with little regard for the needs of industry as a whole.

“We are outdated, using the old Soviet model,” said Ts. Undrakh, the VET project acting director of the Millennium Challenge Account-Mongolia. “The curriculum did not meet the demand for labour.”

FOREIGN PARTICIPATION: In addition to official government support, TVET is being aided by international donors and being pursued as a business by private enterprise. The Millennium Challenge Account has been working in Mongolia since 2009 on the construction and renovation of TVET schools, utilising a $41.6m US government grant to build five new schools and rehabilitate 17. The International Technical College (ITC) is partnering several Australian companies to focus primarily on occupational health and safety issues, namely TAFE South Australia, Vertical Horizonz Australia and RECEO Solutions. The thinking is that global companies will want their employees to be prepared to work to international safety standards. ITC has courses such as Working at Height, Confined Spaces Entry and Basic First Aid.

OUTLOOK: The government is open to foreign participation in the education sector, and all indications are that it is pleased with what investors and donor groups are doing with respect to schools and training. Concern is building, though, about international consultants. The government appreciates advice, but it is starting to find itself paying for reports with loan money that has to be paid back (the ADB just reclassified Mongolia as a loan country, meaning that it is seen a rich enough to be unqualified for outright grants). The government is becoming more careful about accepting this sort of aid, and is more interested in programmes that actually implement something, such as building schools, rather than simply restating what Mongolian officials seemingly already know.