Reforming higher education to increase Mongolia’s competitiveness

The Mongol Messenger
2018-05-23 17:23:40

ADB-funded higher education project’s implementation rate 70 percent

There are more than 130 thousand students acquiring higher education in over 97 institutes in Mongolia.  However, there is a number of existing problems in the higher education subsector, leading to low competitiveness and employment rates among university graduates. 
To increase the number of Mongolia’s globally competitive higher education graduates responsive to labor market demands, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Sports (MECSS) is realizing the Higher Education Reform Project (HERP) in 2012-2019, with financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The total fund of the project is USD 20 million, 10 percent of which is contributed by the Government of Mongolia. The project outcome will be an improved, well-managed, equitable higher education system.
As 2019, the final year of project implementation nears, T.Amarjargalan, Project Director and Director of Higher Education Policy Department of the MECSS discussed the importance of the project with the Mongol Messenger. We started with her assessment of the current state of tertiary education in Mongolia. She said, “The higher education subsector in Mongolia has seen stable development over the years. The oldest institutions are celebrating their 70th or 80th anniversary.”
On the other hand, the Director acknowledged the existing challenge of higher education quality saying, “The education sector policy was clear in the socialist era.  But in the 1990s, the policy was disrupted, leaving it unclear that the education sector should train whom for what.  Basically, years between 1985 and 1995 are considered to be a period of the downfall of the higher education subsector.  From 1995 to 2003, we witnessed a significant increase in the number of higher education institutes, with the peak number nearing 200. So these years were of increase in quantity. As for now, there are 97 active higher education institutes, which stood the test of time. The higher education subsector is seeing an increase in quality in recent years.”
She proceeded, “The Law of Mongolia on Education requires all higher education institutions to be accredited, and it is a form of monitoring of the subsector.  There are 67 accredited institutions at the moment. We have been observing the rest, and responsive and decisive actions will be taken starting from next year. The Ministry also oversees the implementation of the curriculum. Most importantly, the society is changing its attitude towards a performance-based evaluation of graduates.”

When asked to identify the challenges the higher education subsector was facing prior to the arrival of the project, T.Amarjargalan said, “Although there were inconsistency and instability in the government policy on higher education subsector and its direction, the higher education institutes still kept abreast of the international and the sectoral trends.  However, there was a lack of proper quality assessment. Furthermore, the subsector wasn’t responsive to the labor market demands. These and other obstacles were classified into three components, which includes several remedy actions aimed to improve the competitiveness of the subsector.
As such, the project is expected to deliver the following three outputs - improved quality and relevance of higher education programs; improved effectiveness of higher education governance, management, and financing; and improved equity and access.  Under these components, numerous actions were taken and investment made into the following areas:
•    Establishing Labor market information system
•    Supporting Program/Curriculum development
•    Strengthening National Accreditation System
•    International accreditation
•    National accreditation
•    Upgrading learning environment
•    Faculty development
•    Building research capacity
•    Supporting HEIs to transform into entrepreneurial universities
•    Increasing access to education
•    Strengthening Higher Education Management Information System
•    Promoting gender equality in higher education
•    Create student-oriented services

T.Amarjargalan then illustrated the significance of HERP in the development of higher education subsector saying, “The main concept of the project revolves around the role of higher education institutions in the development of Mongolia and the elevation of their performance. Today, Mongolia is working towards a knowledge-based society.  It is important to produce human resources capable of utilizing their intelligence on a higher level.  The higher education subsector aims to bring forth Mongolians who don’t only have knowledge but can use them for the country. HERP is the first major project being realized in scope of the goal to establish a knowledge-based society. There has not been as a large-scale project as HERP in the higher education subsector."

According to the Director, the HERP is 70 percent complete at present. The Ministry and the ADB evaluate the implementation progress regularly.  Since 2012, the launch year of the project, it was decided that the project scheme would be revised to correlate to the new objectives set by the Government in the education sector.  In particular, the 2018-2019 actions of the project reflect the Government Action Plan, especially in terms of assisting the development of research universities, preparing for the launch of a national program on outcome-based education, ensuring equal access to higher education and supporting the ‘Student with Income’ program. 

Upgrading the learning environment of universities

The HERP has made a significant contribution to the growth of Mongolian universities, which aim to develop as a research university, especially in terms of upgrading the learning environment. Supporting the promotion of scientific and technological research at universities, a total of MNT 8.2 billion has been spent on the establishment of 24 laboratories, 10 of which will function as shared research laboratories between universities and academics. At present, guidelines for laboratory sharing are being drafted. 
The Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST) received assistance worth MNT 1.6 billion, which was spent on the procurement of equipment and tools for seven laboratories, five of which will be shared. T.Namnan, Vice President for Research and Cooperation of the MUST, explained the role of laboratories in the curriculum saying, “We strive to produce graduates, who are highly competitive and skilled on any job, and these laboratories will be a significant help in achieving this goal.  It is impossible to produce a good engineer without sufficient laboratory learning experience.” More than a thousand MUST students work in these laboratories today. 
There is only one shared research laboratory at the National University of Mongolia (NUM), which is the Laser Research Laboratory.  Currently, a team of nine researchers is conducting basic research at the laboratory. According to team member Ts.Khos-Ochir (Ph.D.), the laboratory is the first of its kind to be established in Mongolia.  The researchers are working on three research projects based at the laboratory and have already published their first research article on the ‘Zeitschrift fuer Kristallographie - Crystalline Materials’ scientific journal. 
At the New Materials Laboratory of the NUM, established in the academic year of 2015-2016, more than 20 students and academics are conducting research. The latest developments in their research include the invention of a new water filtration material and an artificial mud for treatment purpose, which are at the experimental stage. 
The technological advancement of the laboratories is providing new opportunities for students to conduct a wide variety of research. For instance, B.Amarsaikhan, a third-year student of software engineering program at the NUM is conducting a research on augmented and virtual reality at the Computer Graphics & Multimedia Research Laboratory.  He said, “Before the laboratory was established in 2015, we were unable to work on a research like this. My research is primarily based at the laboratory, and I have learned to practice consistency in my learning process. Moreover, I am improving my English as I gain up-to-date knowledge related to the industry every day.”
HERP provided assistance worth MNT 4.2 billion with the establishment of 11 laboratories at the National University of Mongolia (NUM).  Several of these laboratories are now located at the NUM Library. 


Increasing access to education through distance learning

Under the project’s main component to increase access to higher education, five distance learning centers were established in Ulaanbaatar and four provinces. Specifically, the Mongolian State University of Education (MSUE), Khovd University, Zavkhan branch of the National University of Mongolia, Arkhangai branch of the MSUE and Dornod University have been provided with equipment for distance learning worth MNT 1 billion.  The purpose of these centers is to expand higher education outreach to at least 2,000 rural teachers and students through the development of e-Learning Platform.

Ch.Lodoiravsal, Assistant Professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of the NUM and e-Learning Consultant to the project, explained the importance of developing distance learning in Mongolia saying, “About 91 percent of the students pursue higher education in Ulaanbaatar.  Introduction of distance learning is important in reducing the migration from provinces to the capital city for higher education and improving the quality of higher education provided by rural universities.  Therefore, four of the five universities chosen to establish the distance learning centers are provincial.” As the main university of teacher education, the Distance Learning Center of the MSUE will function as the headquarters.  
The MSUE Distance Learning Center was inaugurated in January 2018, since when a series of e-workshops themed ‘Online Course Planning’ has successfully been organized among 75 teachers from the five centers.  Through the e-workshop, the organizers aimed to amass and exchange distance learning experience and train faculty members in e-learning and distance education. 
T.Gantulga, information technology teacher at the Dornod University in Choibalsan city of Dornod Aimag is one of the 16 faculty members who represented Dornod University in the ‘Online Course Planning’ e-workshop. He reflected on his experience saying, “We usually have to travel to Ulaanbaatar if we want to attend a seminar or similar activities. The Distance Learning Center gave us a great opportunity to gain knowledge while staying home and at work. I think that distance learning can be very efficient since we study the subject beforehand, as a result of which a very constructive discussion takes place later with the instructor and the peers.  Moreover, I like the fact that we can study the course content more than once and without time and place restrictions as opposed to classroom teaching, where the lecture is delivered only once.  The course content is also very interesting.” The Dornod University is utilizing its Distance Learning Center for non-educational purposes as well, following requests from local government bodies to conduct a video-conference. Also, a Japanese volunteer worker at the Dornod University used the Center to teach a lesson on Mongolian culture and history to fifth-grade pupils in Japan. 
As such, the establishment of the Distance Learning Centers has laid the foundation for the development of a distance learning system in Mongolia. The Centers will focus their activities on delivering higher education to master’s and doctoral students in the rural universities since these students have more access to the internet and a computer compared to bachelor’s students. 
The article was published on the 19th issue of the Mongol Messenger on May 11.