Mongolia: Out in the Cold

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia | Built in the 1960s, the primary school in the Ikh-Uul soum (rural district) featured shoddy construction to begin with. Now years later, the building is extremely slanted to one side, and many worry that the school runs the risk of falling down around the 800 pupils and teachers it houses in the absence of better facilities.

The state of the building might suggest low investment in the education sector, but in recent years, the Mongolian government has steadily increased allocations, reaching a high of 25 percent of the state budget in 2008. High public expenditures on education are not surprising given that more than half of Mongolia’s population is composed of school-age children – 1.5 million out of a total of 2.6 million people.  Other reasons are Mongolia’s low population density and harsh winter conditions, which translate into higher overall costs to deliver education to its many rural students.

However, the effects of this cash infusion have yet to be seen, say education experts.  Many Mongolian schools, particularly in rural areas, operate in tumbledown buildings with a shortage of teachers, resources, and students, while schools in the capital cope with overcrowding and overworked teachers.  And the education system’s rigid funding structure makes it difficult for schools to divert resources that might ease this situation in the short run.

Windfall for Education

Mongolia has shown impressive economic progress in the post-Soviet period, with its real GDP growth reaching a high of 9.9 percent in 2007 according to the World Bank.  The government puts the 2008 rate at an even higher figure of 10.6 percent. That has helped boost the level of funding for the education sector to 432 billion tögrög (Tg), which is the equivalent of approximately $278 million.

A Mongolian student tries out an OLPC laptop. Photo by Carla Gomez.

A Mongolian student tries out an OLPC laptop. Photo by Carla Gomez.

But that figure is deceptive.  Almost 90 percent went to overheads like teachers’ salaries and heating and electricity for schools and dormitories, leaving just under $37 million for investment in the country’s crumbling education infrastructure. And no money at all was set aside for revamping the higher education sector.

In spite of its recent economic successes, Mongolia was not able to escape the global economic downturn, due in large part to a bust in the price of copper, the country’s main commodity export, after a three-year high. The financial situation has cast doubt on Mongolia’s ability to maintain such high levels of financial support for education in the near future.

Shoddy Facilities

Though the government is currently constructing 12 new secondary schools, 13 sport complexes, 17 kindergartens, and five dormitories that house pupils traveling from rural areas, many rural and urban schools are operating in rundown facilities dating back to the Soviet period.

Moreover, many of these buildings lack heat in the winter, because they do not have central heating systems.  As a result, they combat the bitter cold using various other fuels such as wood and coal, and ersatz heating equipment such as old furnaces and even diesel motors.

However, the task of setting building and renovation priorities has been hampered by a lack of information on the part of the state. S. Narantsogt, director of the Department of Finance and Investment at the Ministry of Education, admitted, “We have not done any detailed research on how many school buildings are needed in Ulaanbaatar and in rural areas. But we know that more school buildings are needed in general, particularly in Ulaanbaatar.” The State Specialist Inspection Agency is currently investigating whether or not existing buildings meet its standards.

The director of a primary school in the Zavkhan aimag (province), who wished to remain anonymous, complained that most of the secondary schools in the soums and bags (villages) were built under communism and have not received any state funding to construct new facilities in the period since. And school administrators do not have the right to divert already insufficient funds to school maintenance without receiving formal state approval, which is rarely forthcoming.

The director pointed to the slanted primary school building in Ikh-Uul soum as a prime example of the lack of funding.

However, things may be looking up for the school, after it was featured on Mongolian National Public Television this March.  Teachers were interviewed on camera and appealed to state authorities to finally provide the necessary funds for the school’s new building.

Narantsogt of the Education Ministry has promised that the government will come through with the needed funds. “The school building does not meet the norm,” he explained.  “A specialist of the ministry returned from Zavkhan after inspecting it and now the ministry has set aside money for a new building for the Ikh-Uul soum school in the 2009 budget.  A new building will be constructed this year.”

International experts have also argued that the state’s rigid financing structure contributes to persistent infrastructural problems and inefficient use of funds.  In February 2009, the World Bank issued a report entitled “Public Expenditure and Financial Management”, which recommended that the Mongolian government increase school maintenance budgets and reduce waste associated with fixed costs such as heating by renovating buildings, switching over to more fuel-efficient systems, and installing meters for utilities.

In spite of the sorry state of many Mongolian schools, the government has made some strides toward equipping students with modern resources. In October 2007, the state ordered a first batch of 10,000 computers from the One Laptop per Child Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a low-cost computer. President Nambaryn Enkhbayar has pledged to provide every child in the nation with a laptop by the end of 2010, but it is an open question whether the government can come up with the finances to make that commitment a reality. According to government figures, one out of every six students has received a computer so far.

Rural Flight, Urban Crowding

The dire situation in rural schools has led many families to migrate to urban areas, where they can provide their children with a higher-quality education.  Families living in rural towns and villages move to the provincial centers, while families in the larger provincial towns move on to Ulaanbaatar in search of better opportunities.  In turn, many wealthier families in the capital send their children to study abroad.

Recent research conducted by the National University of Mongolia found that one third of rural-to-urban migrants cited the desire to give their children a good education as their main reason for leaving the countryside.

A rural school in Bulgan region, Mongolia. Photo by Harunire.

A rural school in Bulgan region, Mongolia. Photo by Harunire.

Rural areas have a difficult time attracting qualified educators, with rural teachers typically earning less than their urban counterparts. The Education Ministry put the average base salary of teachers across the country at approximately $215 per month in 2007, after a fourfold increase over the period 2004-2007. But base salaries are primarily determined through length of experience, and the most experienced and qualified teachers tend to be found in the cities.

Furthermore, urban teachers are eligible for more salary supplements – top-ups for activities that are considered additional to teaching hours, such as marking assignments, as well as bonuses for exceptional teaching results – because of their bigger class sizes.  They can also pick up more private tutoring jobs on the side.

In contrast to rural schools, Ulaanbaatar’s secondary schools, in particular, operate at well above capacity with a ratio of 77 pupils to one teacher.  The net effect has been a decrease in the quality of education and the amount of attention the teachers can pay to each individual student.

In the capital, overcrowding has also led to a burgeoning industry in private schools, but tuition for these schools is expensive – on par with university fees – making it an option available only to wealthier families. Fees can be anywhere between $700 and $1,500 per year. No data exists on how many families are now opting for private education, but the perception is that an increasing number are sending their children to these schools.  Popular opinion holds that private schools have better academic standards than state-run schools.

M. Monkhtsetseg, the mother of a fourth-grade pupil, praised the “Oyunii Nakhia” private school that she had chosen for her child in Ulaanbaatar. “The school is very good. Classes rarely have more than 15 pupils, and they teach all subjects, even music and physical education, in a professional way.  The school is much more responsible to its students.”  She also pointed out that private schools teach more diverse subjects: at the school her child attends, students start learning English from the first grade and Japanese from the fifth grade.

No Handouts for Universities

None of the billions of tögrög allocated to education in 2008 was spent on reforming Mongolia’s higher education sector.  Funding for both private and public universities is derived entirely from students’ tuition payments.

Only one state program exists to funnel money to higher education institutes, the State Training Fund.  The program was created in 1992 to provide loans to students from poorer families, as well as high-achieving students.  Until 2004, these loans were a form of non-repayable financial aid for students.

In 2004, 60 percent of those receiving the loans were from economically-disadvantaged families, according to the report,  “Mongolian Education and Training Fund 2004” produced by the government and the World Bank; however, according to the 2009 research conducted by the World Bank, 54 percent of recipients do not, in fact, come from poor families.  Many of the students receiving the loans were from the families of civil servants and other state workers, which has led the World Bank to criticize the State Training Fund for not having a stronger system of monitoring who actually receives the loans and evaluating their impact.

Though public universities have the right to make their own financial plans, the government has kept tuition fees relatively stable since the 1990s, leading to a dearth of skilled professors and resources.  And even though enrollment rates have skyrocketed – from around 30,000 in 2004 to approximately 160,000 in 2008, according to government figures – this has not translated into higher operating budgets for Mongolian universities.

As a result, cash-strapped universities have also been forced to rely on additional payments from applicants.  If students don’t pass their admission exams but still want to attend university, they can simply pay a “near-missers’ fee” – a one-time payment to secure a spot. Tuition at the National University is Tg 840,000 ($580) per year and the payment is typically Tg 1 million to 2 million ($700-$1,400), while Ulaanbaatar University’s tuition is Tg 504,000 ($350) and the payment is about Tg 400,000 ($280).

The Mongolian National University in Ulaanbaatar. Photo by Alan Cordova.

The Mongolian National University in Ulaanbaatar. Photo by Alan Cordova.

Though the government is not rethinking this funding structure, R. Bat-Erdene, director of the Department of Information and Monitoring at the Ministry of Education, says the authorities plan to introduce some reforms aimed at raising university standards. The changes would include the establishment of formal campuses (in the North American sense) as well as research centers and think tanks at state universities.  Currently, universities, struggling to afford their overheads, can scarcely foot the bill for social and scientific research that might distinguish them at home and abroad.

“The quality of higher education is not good in Mongolia; it does not meet international standards,” admitted Bat-erdene.  “Universities can’t attract good professors because they can’t pay high salaries, since all universities are financed with tuition alone… in the United States, students pay an average of $35,000 per year.  In Mongolia, university fees scarcely reach $1,000.” Of course, universities also rely on the additional payments by students hoping to be admitted in the second round of admissions.

Professors’ salaries are primarily tied to their teaching hours, not to their length of experience or professional achievements.  As a result, most are not motivated to introduce more interactive and demanding teaching methods into the classroom.

Kh. Ganchimer, a student at Ulaanbaatar University, complained, “We supposedly have the right to change professors if they just read the same old lectures and we don’t like it, but it doesn’t mean anything since there is a lack of skilled professors and no one to replace them with.”  According to 2006 data from the Ministry of Education, the professional qualifications of professors and lecturers in Mongolian universities are severely lacking, with only 1,341 of public and private universities’ 6,517 full-time instructors holding PhDs.  The vast majority holds only master’s degrees and around one third of the professors have been teaching for five years or less.

Ganchimer also lamented the logistical difficulties that students face when trying to study outside of the classroom.  Mongolia has only one decent-sized library, the National Central Library in Ulaanbaatar.  Due to the swelling student body, the library is now open 24 hours a day.  But, as students explain, that is not nearly enough to meet demand, since there is a critical lack of books and reference material.

B. Monkhchimeg, also a student at Ulaanbaatar University, said, “We try to take books out of the Central Library in the early morning because otherwise, we won’t find them – other students will have already taken them…  Many students spend whole nights there studying.”

“Private universities have their own libraries, but they don’t have the most modern, latest books either,” she added.

Private universities have flowered in the period since the 1990s, far outnumbering state institutions. According to data from the Ministry of Education for the 2006-07 academic year, 117 of the country’s 165 higher education institutes were private and 48,552 of the country’s 142,030 students attended private schools.  But, because of limits on how much tuition they can charge, private universities can scarcely offer higher-quality resources and instruction than state schools.  Furthermore, due to low salaries, many full-time professors in public universities also moonlight as part-time lecturers in the private system, making the quality of the learning experience comparable at best.


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