Annual tuition at what is considered by many to be the top K-12 school in the country, International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU), can be as high as 81 million MNT. In contrast, the annual tuition of what is considered by many to be the top university in the country, National University of Mongolia (NUM), is four million MNT. At first glance, since ISU is privately owned and NUM is state owned, this gap might seem like a matter of private institution versus public institution costs. The gap might even look like the ideal when looking at it without context. However, when delving deeper, signs of a more systemic problem begin to show.
Admittedly, the ISU’s tuition is a bit of an outlier, but many other private schools have tuitions that are double or triple that of NUM’s, the nation’s “top” university. These private schools do not charge exorbitant amounts just for the sake of it, the quality of education and the school facilities that they offer seem to justify their tuition. The primary and secondary education systems seem to have a well-balanced mix between private and public institutions, which allows the market to dictate private school tuition. While the higher education system also has a mix of private and public institutions, the market has been in a choke hold under the standards set by the country’s more well-established public universities.
Generally speaking, the tuition of a university being low is a great thing. It allows more equal opportunity for people of all backgrounds to receive higher education. In Mongolia, the aforementioned gap is indicative of the devaluation of higher education. There is no hierarchy of universities; 24,000 students attend the nation’s “top” university. The selection process is too lenient for what is supposed to be Mongolia’s best higher education institution. While there are hundreds of private schools competing for the brightest young minds, there are only a handful of established (mostly state owned and run) universities. Since the majority of university students study at the same select universities, their degrees have less prestigious value. This results in a seemingly educated yet redundant workforce. According to a 2015 study from the Labor Research Institute, of the 45,000 students graduating annually only 28,000 have found jobs. This leaves 17,000 students unemployed. The limited amount of choices leaves less opportunity for students to stand out, and results in more people looking to receive their higher education abroad.
Nowadays, thousands of students go abroad each year to study, in search of a higher quality higher education. The main reason for this seems to be the shortcomings of domestic universities. This has resulted in a major “brain drain”, with the most talented and capable young minds staying and working in the countries where they’ve received their degrees. This is already putting a strain on the development of the country, and will further negatively affect long term development. Improving higher education will create more incentive for students to stay, thereby slowing down the brain drain.
Granted, there is an underlying reason that many graduates do not come back: a lack of ideal jobs. Currently, the economy is not in a position to employ the qualified workforce that comes back with degrees from foreign universities. This is likely to improve as the economy develops and as local businesses are able to employ more people.
There is also a need to address the career redundancy problem in higher education. In the study done by the Labor Research Institute, there were approximately 2,000 jobs in the field of business administration, yet more than 5,000 to 6,000 students graduate in this field every year. This is a big factor in youth unemployment. There is a need to diversify the majors that universities offer, while also working to increase student interests in various fields through educational initiatives. The shortage of professional and capable Mongolian engineers, specifically mining engineers, has been well documented. As the mining output of the country intensifies and the number of mines increases, the demand for a professional workforce will follow suit.
We also need to realize that the prospect of a university education is not for everyone. Societal norms and pressures seem to push many unwilling students to enroll in universities. Realistically speaking, not everyone can thrive in an office setting. It is important to offer and make accessible the opportunity for higher education to everyone, but in our current situation, the job market is saturated with overqualified people. Therefore, there is a need to further develop technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions as a way to offer alternatives other than university. The TVET system was very well organized under socialism; it was a viable alternative to high school graduates not interested in higher education. The workforce that TVET institutions prepare can be as – if not more – valuable to society than the university educated workforce.
In terms of how to begin to change the higher education system, developing a partially-privatized state regulated higher education system would be the best step in improving universities. This is not to advocate for full-fledged privatization of the system. We have seen what excessive privatization can do, in particular, the case of the United States. However starting with privatizing a few of the state owned universities and further intensifying the diversification of institutions will create a system where universities will begin to compete for students. This healthy competition will incentivize universities to improve the quality of their education and their facilities. This would hopefully translate into university campuses being established outside of the city. Only then will we start to break away from the old Soviet-era system and begin to catch up with the global modern education system. The current top-heavy system does not allow for much competition. Letting the market decide where top honors go will ultimately be the best decision. Meanwhile, the government should operate select public universities and also focus on offering scholarships and loans to students who cannot otherwise afford higher education. Mongolia is a coun-
try that puts great emphasis on tertiary education, and as such, we know there is a demand for higher education. That demand will only increase as time goes on, so now is a critical time to reform our tertiary education system. Otherwise, we risk losing out on the global race for an educated workforce.