June 7, 2017

DAY AFTER THE GRADUATION CEREMONY

Approximately 40,000 students will be graduated from Mongolian universities this spring. Eighty percent of whom will start looking for jobs the day after their graduation ceremony.

A taxi driver shared with me the other day “I have two university diplomas, but they are useless to my life. The government is full of people with diplomas, yet our country never seems to get out of crises. Now, we do not need education, but a street-smart leader with a strict rule.” It is a pity that more people are getting to think the same as he does.

Why has the value of higher education hit the floor? Where are we going with this? It is time people had a careful look at our education sector and find the answers.

Grey education 

According to the United Nations education index, Mongolia scored 0.694 in 2013, while Finland and the United States scored 0.815 and 0.890 respectively, where the score of 1 is the ideal education level.

Education in Mongolia is categorized as preschool (2-5 year-olds), general (6-18 year-olds), technical, and higher education.

The 2015-2016 statistics on preschool education show that Mongolia enrolled 85 percent of all children aged 2-5 years in kindergartens, which is a leading number globally. A total of 225,000 children currently go to 1,288 kindergartens, 64 of which are public. The kindergartens have 25,000 employees (20,000 of them are public servants), including teachers and other staff, and 6,833 of them are full-time employees, and 6,133 are assistant teachers. Since 2012, the government has provided variable costs per child in the form of 872,000 MNT to each soum, 710,000 to every aimag center, 705,000 to the capital city, and an additional 1,650 for kindergarten lunch. These funds are coming from the public budget. The average salary of kindergarten teachers is 610,000 MNT a month.

Mongolia has a total of 768 general education schools (636 are public, and 132 are private), which currently have 535,000 students. Approximately 504,000 students go to public high schools, while 31,000 receive education from private schools. The base cost of public schools is provided from the public budget along with variable costs of 500,000 MNT on average per student. Some of 132 private schools are for-profit organizations that charge an annual payment of 9 million MNT on average from parents and still receive variable costs from the public budget. Although providing variable costs to each student may look right, the public budget funds that are currently going to private schools should benefit the public schools who are in a financially weaker position. The top priority should be using these funds to build more public schools, so that the current public schools can stop operating in three shifts with extremely crowded classrooms.

Approximately 10 million MNT is being invested in a private school student a year, which is a stark difference to the 1 million MNT being expended on a student who goes to a public school. This is creating a huge gap in the quality of education, and causing a social disparity in general education. For instance, three public schools that offer Cambridge curriculum (Shine Erin, Shine Ekhlel, Mongol Temuulel) received 7.2, 4.1, and 4.4 billion MNT in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. These investments are 25 times more than the variable cost allocated to one student in a normal public school. It is impossible for ordinary people to have their kids enrolled in these three schools.

In the 2015/2016 academic year, 162,000 students were studying in a total of 100 universities and other higher education institutions (17 public, 78 private, and 5 foreign institutions). Ninety five thousand students go to public universities, 67 thousand enrolled in private institutions, and 300 students study in foreign higher education institutions operating in Mongolia. These institutions employ 13,000 people altogether, 7,100 of which are full time teachers. When every student was allowed to receive a monthly stipend of 70,000 MNT in 2011, private and for-profit universities were given an incentive to increase the number of students.

Our universities are not making substantial improvements on the quality of the education they provide, and are unable to prepare students whose skills and education meet the requirements of businesses. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly hard for graduates to find a job.

Since 2010, Mongolia has been spending an average of 5.5 percent of its public budget on education sector. However, Ulaanbaatar still sees a growing trend in the number of high schools that operate in three shifts, the number of students per classroom, and the workload per teacher. No improvement is seen in the training provided by higher education universities. The limited amount of funds that comes from the public budget needs to go to the public schools rather than private ones.

Examples of well-functioning education systems

Companies must have skilled employees in the first place to deliver high quality goods and services. The same way applies to the public services. To allow students to meet such requirements, every child should have the opportunity to obtain good quality general education, regardless of where they live and how wealthy their parents are. This is how Finland, with 5 million people, sees education, and all of its 15-year-olds score high on native language, mathematics, and natural sciences. Finland has a higher education curriculum at national level, and the curricula are managed at regional level. They rely heavily on the skills of teachers, and do not charge students because the costs are entirely covered by the public budget. Equality and fairness are fully practiced in their education. Student loans and stipends for accommodation are also available in Finland.

New Zealand has a population of 4.5 million, yet operates only eight universities. Although the tuition fee is high, students are accessible to loans. It allows the parents have less pressure, and gives students the incentive to make a responsible choice, study hard, and find employment quickly. In order to teach in New Zealand, one has to have a doctorate degree and own published, peer-reviewed articles.

Oakland University gets 60 percent of its financial revenue from research works. Their professors spend 40 percent of their time teaching, 40 percent doing research, and 20 percent doing other academic work. The quality of education is high because the lectures are based on research works.

Sixty percent of financial sources of New Zealand universities come from the payments made by ministries, government agencies, and city administrations for research works. These universities are always wealthy and have a long list of research requests because decisions are not made without research there. This is how strong bonds are established between universities and government organizations.

Mongolia can study these experiences and implement them effectively. For example, we could have our universities focus on research, and provide funding through government funds in exchange for research works.

Another important piece that needs to be completed in Mongolia’s education sector is protecting intellectual property and building the culture where people’s ideas are not copied. Some countries even have websites that check plagiarism in essays, course works, and other tasks. Copying during exams must be stopped at any university. This way the students will be offered an opportunity to genuinely create and think critically.

Albert Einstein once said “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” In order to develop critical thinking abilities, students need to read, write, think, study, and experiment. It is time to evaluate the quality of education by thinking abilities