Education in Mongolia

Education in Mongolia

Mongolia's education system has undergone major changes in the past century. The educational reforms during communist times were a stark break with traditional education that was often religious and esoteric. These reforms were modeled on Soviet education systems and greatly expanded access to education for Mongolian citizens. Among the changes was a transition from the traditional Mongolian script, from 1941 to 1946, to the Cyrillic alphabet. Literacy was also greatly expanded as most of the population enjoyed free primary school. However, the move to democracy and free markets in the 1990s has had some negative impacts on education in Mongolia, though these setbacks have been ameliorated some by an improving economy and policy reforms. Many adults also benefit from the non-formal distance education programs sponsored by the government in conjunction with foreign NGOs in Mongolia. Today education in Mongolia is overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science.


Education today

In June 2011, VSO Mongolia published a report on the Mongolian Education Sector which looked at progress, challenges and future priorities given the current socio-economic changes in Mongolia.[1] The report, which was launched to commemorate IYV+10 (10th Anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers, showed that there were numerous opportunities presented by the high level of economic growth, which has brought more resources into the sector. However, it showed that as Mongolia emerges onto the world stage, the disparity between rich and poor could leave many marginalised when it comes to benefitting from education. The report argued that the Mongolian Government has made an immense effort to develop the education sector at all levels since its transition to democracy with an admirable openness and willingness to progress towards its further development. This was particularly noted in accommodating for Mongolia's unique country characteristics such as the nomadic lifestyle, low population density in remote areas, and striving towards meeting international standards.

The report also showed that Mongolian people have always valued education over other attributes and have habitually made it their priority to educate their children. Due to these efforts, the findings showed that overall the parents were satisfied with their children’s progress at school. However, there were still many challenges that remain to be tackled. The findings also showed that amongst all stakeholders, there was an overwhelming majority who gave a negative response when asked about the performance of the sector at present; this was in terms of the quality of education (68%), Access to education (83%), and the inclusiveness of the system for disadvantaged groups (76%).

In concluding what VSO Mongolia achieved in its education programme over the last 20 years, the report showed that international volunteers have and continue to make a significant impact in the development of the education sector. Stakeholders who took part in this research generally held a positive view of the role and influence of the international volunteers, with 67% of respondents regarding them as having played a crucial role in education. While just over half of respondents had experience of working with international volunteers, 94% of all respondents were willing to work with them in the future. At this stage in Mongolia’s development, the relevance and impact of international volunteering was highlighted when addressing these challenges and future priorities in taking the education sector forward to achieve its ultimate goal of Education for All.

Pre-school education

Mongolia has an extensive, state-financed pre-school education system. Currently there are over 700 state and private kindergartens (name for a day care). While during socialist times, every sum used to have at least one nursery school and a kindergarten. Currently there only exist kindergartens that enroll children over the age of 3. In Ulaanbaatar, there are also some privately run nursery schools and kindergartens, many offer language training, for example, Russian.

Primary and secondary education

The system in place for lower-level education in Mongolia has been similar to the one used during communist times, though the government has begun reforms to expand it. The original system included four years of compulsory schooling followed by a further four years of compulsory lower-secondary education. There were then two years of upper-secondary non-compulsory education that either have a vocational, technical, or general education focus.[2] The expansion, began in 2004 with the official school entry age dropping from age 8 to 7. A further expansion is set to take place in 2008 with the entry grade-level dropping one more year to age 6. The goal is to have a 12 year, 6-4-2, system for primary and secondary education.[3]

As of 2003 there were 688 primary and secondary schools with about 528,000 students and 20,725 teachers. There were 32 vocational and technical training centers with 20,000 students and over 800 teachers.[4]

The earliest example of public education in Mongolia is a secular school set up by the Buddhist monk and poet Dazan Ravjaa at the Khamar Monastery in the 1820s.[5][6]


School children in Ulaanbaatar

As in many post-socialist countries, Mongolia's school system, previously based on the ten-year school, has been shifting towards eleven years of education. The official school entrance age has been lowered to six starting 2008. Compulsory education is eight years. Each school year begins on September 1st.

Schools in sum centers usually have boarding schools for pupils from the countryside. Many of these sum schools only go to the eighth grade, pupils who want to complete the secondary school then have to attend schools in the aimag centers.

In Ulaanbaatar and cities like Erdenet there are private schools, though of mixed quality. Ulaanbaatar also has some foreign-language themed public schools, for example for Russian, Chinese, English, and German.

In Ulaanbaatar, there are several private secondary schools that have instruction in English and Mongolian, and just a few that have English-only instruction. The International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU) is an independent co-educational day school offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum from Pre-School to Grade 12. ISU is fully accredited by the Council of International Schools(CIS) and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

Adult education

Higher education

Higher education in Mongolia came with the communist revolution in the early 20th century and was based on a Soviet model. Since its inception the higher education system has seen significant growth to this day. As of 2003 there were 178 colleges and universities, though only 48 of those were public. However, there were 98,031 students at the public universities compared to 31,197 private students, indicating the continued importance of publicly funded higher education in Mongolia. Under communist rule all higher education was provided free of charge. Since the early 90s, however, fees have been introduced, though the government still offers grants and scholarships.[7] The quality of education in the privately owned institutions is usually perceived as inferior.[citation needed]

There are many universities in Mongolia. The most prominent one is the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, which was founded in 1942 (as Choybalsan University) with three departments: education, medicine, and veterinary medicine. The faculty was Russian, as was the language of instruction. In 1983 the university's engineering institute and Russian-language teacher training institute became separate establishments, called the Polytechnic Institute and the Institute of Russian Language, respectively. The Polytechnic Institute, with 5,000 students, concentrated on engineering and mining. Mongolian State University, with about 4,000 students, taught pure science and mathematics, social science, economics, and philology. More than 90 percent of the faculty were Mongolian; teachers also came from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, France, and Britain. Much instruction was in Russian, reflecting the lack of Mongol-language texts in advanced and specialized fields.

Besides Mongolian State University there were seven other institutions of higher learning: the Institute of Medicine, the Institute of Agriculture, the Institute of Economics, the State Pedological Institute, the Polytechnic Institute, the Institute of Russian Language, and the Institute of Physical Culture. In the summer, all students had a work semester, in which they helped with the harvest, formed "shock work" teams for construction projects, or went to work in the Soviet Union or another Comecon country. In early 1989, the educational authorities announced that third-year and fourth-year engineering students would be told which enterprise they would be assigned to after graduation, so that their training could be focused with practical ends in mind.

Research and scholarship

Scholars suffer from Mongolia’s isolation from the rest of the world's knowledge society. Mongolian scholars tend to be dissatisfied with their access to information in general and some are still uncomfortable with online databases. In many cases university library resources are underdeveloped and not satisfactory to the needs of scholars. Furthermore, it may not be possible for scholars to subscribe to professional journals because of cost and language barriers. The most popular ways for scholars to find information is to borrow articles from colleagues, use a library copy, or get a copy from colleagues abroad. About 84% of scholars use the Internet for research, which is about the same percentage of English speakers. The increasing importance of the Internet in research and global academic exchanges has pushed more scholars to favor English over the language that used to dominate Mongolia's academia, Russian.[8]

Non-formal distance education

The Mongolian government through its Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (Mongolia), and often in conjunction with NGOs and outside government organizations, has implemented non-formal distance education programs promoting basic skill development. About 100,000 of Mongolia's 1,200,000 adults are taking part in some form of distance education.[9] The program often uses radio communications in order to overcome the problem of distance. This is particularly suitable to nomads, since their mobile lifestyles are not conducive to landline communications. The focus of these distance education programs is on rural populations that are in need of more skills than their urban counterparts. The radio classes are conducted using booklets sent to the participants and video instruction at learning centers. They are designed to help adults learn about a variety of topics that they might find useful in everyday life. Subjects such as nutrition, first aid, and hygiene are taught to help improve health. Classes ranging in topic from wool production to cooking to saddle-making are also taught as ways to help rural people improve existing skills and even possibly generate income from handiwork. Likewise, basic business classes on production, accounting, and marketing are taught as ways to improve rural residents' financial situation. There are courses using classic fairy tales to teach literacy, and also classes on math and current events.[10] Non-formal education is also one of the only ways for students who dropped out of school to attain a primary school equivalency education. From 2000 to 2004 28,356 students earned this equivalency through the non-formal program.[11]

Each of Mongolia's 21 aimags has its own Education and Culture Department which administers both formal and non-formal education programs within its borders. Each aimag is responsible for developing the content of their programs and implementing them. For non-formal distance education, however, there are also two country-wide programs: “The National Program of Non-Formal Education Development” and the “National Program for Distance Education.” Pedagogical training for the instructors is taken care of by the Center for Non-formal Education, which is part of Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (Mongolia). There is also a National Education Inspection Service that monitors the programs, so it not clear how much how much control the national-level of the Ministry of Education compared to the aimag-level.[12]

The non-formal distance education program also makes use of "enlightenment centers," often located in schools or government offices, to distribute educational materials.[13]

Specific projects

Gobi Nomadic Women's Project

Funding and support sources

  • UNICEF program to help children who drop out from school.[14]
  • Government of Denmark (funded the Gobi Nomadic Women’s Project)


Pre-modern times

Education in Mongolia traditionally was controlled by the Buddhist monasteries and was limited to monks. Tibetan was the language of instruction, the canonical and liturgical language, and it was used at the lower levels of education. Higher-level education was available in the major monasteries, and often many years were required to complete formal degrees, which included training in logic and debate. With the exception of medicine, which involved an extensive pharmacopoeia and training in herbal medicines, higher education was esoteric and unworldly. Major monasteries supported four colleges: philosophy, doctrine, and protocol; medicine; mathematics, astrology, and divination; and demonology and demon suppression. In the early twentieth century, officials and wealthy families hired tutors for their children, and government offices operated informal apprenticeships that taught the intricacies of written records, standard forms, and accounting. Official Mongolian sources, which tended to depict the prerevolutionary period as one of total backwardness, probably underestimated the level of literacy, but it was undoubtedly low.

1911-1921 period

Secular education began soon after the collapse of Chinese authority in 1911. A Mongol-language school under Russian auspices opened in Yihe Huree in 1912; much of the teaching of the forty-seven pupils was done by Buryat Mongols from Siberia. In the same year, a military school with Russian instructors opened. By 1914 a school teaching Russian to Mongolian children was operating in the capital. Its graduates, in a pattern that was to become common, went to cities in Russia for further education. Perhaps in response to the challenge of the few secular schools, monasteries in the 1920s were running schools for boys who did not have to take monastic vows. Such schools used the Mongol language and the curricula had a heavily religious content.

Creation of a public school system

Education expanded slowly throughout the 1920s. As late as 1934, when 55 percent of all party members were illiterate, secular state schools enrolled only 2.7 percent of all children between the ages of eight and seventeen, while 13 percent of that age group were in monastic schools. Suppression of the monasteries in 1938 and 1939 closed the monastic schools, and the state schools expanded steadily throughout the 1940s and the 1950s. In 1941 the traditional Mongol script, based on the Uighur script, was replaced by Cyrillic. It took from 1941 to 1946-- sources differ on the date--to implement the change completely. Mongolian authorities announced that universal adult literacy had been achieved by 1968. A Russian-owned printing shop, opened in Yihe Huree in the early twentieth century, turned out Mongolian translations of Russian novels and political tracts; in 1915 it printed Mongolia's first newspaper, Niysleliyn Hureeniy Sonon Bichig (News of the Capital Huree).

Situation in the 1980s

In 1981 education consumed 20 percent of the state budget, and by 1985 27 percent (511,200) of the country's population was enrolled in educational institutions from primary through university levels. The education system, based on the Soviet model, had eight years of compulsory education and a ten-year school system, enrolling students between the ages of seven and seventeen. The first four years were primary education; the second four, were secondary. Some students left school after the eighth year, while the others went on to either two more years of general secondary education or to specialized vocational schools. Some remote settlements offered only four-year primary schools, after which students transferred to a central eight-year school. Many schools in rural areas were eight-year schools, called incomplete secondary schools. Full ten-year schools, complete secondary schools, were common in cities, and they represented the goal that all regions hoped to achieve. In 1988 about 40 percent of the graduates of general schools went on to vocational schools; 20 percent, to higher education; and the remainder joined the work force. Most rural schools had boarding facilities to serve the children of dispersed and nomadic herders; 77 percent of rural pupils in 1984 were boarders. From the lowest grades, efforts were made to link schooling with the world of work, and students routinely put in a few hours a week on useful work outside the school. Military training, including weapons instruction and outdoor exercises, began in the schools.

For students who had completed eight years of schooling, there were two types of career-oriented schools: vocational schools (sometimes called vocational/technical schools in Mongolian publications) and specialized secondary schools. The distinction between the two was not clear. Vocational schools appeared to train more highly skilled workers, such as machinists, heavy-equipment operators, and construction workers, providing a terminal education to students who did not excel in the classroom. The specialized secondary schools, which corresponded to the Soviet technicum provided two-year or three-year courses at the junior college level. They trained paraprofessionals and technicians, such as primary school teachers, medical technicians, or bookkeepers. Students with diplomas from specialized secondary schools could apply for admission to higher education. As more funds and more technically trained teachers became available, the number of vocational schools increased. In 1988 there were 43 vocational schools, which enrolled 30,000 students in 110 fields. Specialized secondary schools offered two-year or three-year courses, and students received room and board and a monthly stipend. During their stints of practical work in factories or other enterprises, they received the normal salary for their work. The reform of secondary education under way in the 1988-89 school year called for three-year vocational courses for students with eight years of general education. Students who graduated from complete ten-year courses could spend one year in vocational schools. The ninth-year and tenth-year classes in general education schools prepared students for college admission or for generalized whitecollar work.

In 1985 Mongolia had more than 900 general education schools, 40 vocational schools, 28 specialized secondary schools, 1 university, and 7 institutes. The general schools enrolled 435,900 students; vocational schools, 27,700; specialized secondary schools, 23,000; and higher education, 24,600 (see table 6, Appendix). Women made up 63 percent of all students in higher education, and girls constituted 58 percent of students in specialized secondary schools. Women were 67 percent of all teachers in general schools, 50 percent of teachers in specialized secondary schools, and 33 percent of higher education faculty. In 1985 kindergartens, serving families in which both parents worked full time, enrolled 20 percent of the children who were three to seven years old.


Mongolia has a high literacy rate, consistently rated around 98%.[15] This is a high figure for a country that is often rated as one of the poorest in Asia. For comparison it is useful to note that the World Bank, which supports the above figure, rates Mongolia’s more prosperous neighbor China’s literacy rate at 91%.[16] Mongolia has benefited from compulsory primary education under the communist regime in the 20th century, continuing in similar form today.[17] The fact that 90% of the population speaks Khalka Mongolian as their primary language may help literacy in that resources can be largely focused on one language.[18] The Mongolian government's non-formal distance education programs also provide opportunities for citizens to learn to read and write.[19] [20]

Mongolian literacy has its start near the beginning of the Mongolian Empire in 1204 when Genghis Khan commissioned the Uyghur scribe Tatar-Tonga to create what became the traditional Mongolian script, or "Mongol Bichig."[21]

Historically most of the Mongolia population could not read. As late as 1934 55% of communist party members were illiterate.[22]


Primary education has experienced some turbulence with the rise of free markets and increasing urbanization. As more families move to the cities with their children urban schools are suffering from overcrowding while rural schools suffer from low attendance. After the communist regime stepped down and free markets were introduced, the Mongolian education system was reformed through decentralization and handing control over to local provincial governments. Prior to this, the government highly subsidized education Mongolia with education spending consuming 27% of the budget in 1985[23] (by 1999 this number dropped below 15% of the total budget).[24] Every child, no matter how rural, could go to well equipped schools that had some of the lowest student to teacher ratios in the world.[25]

This situation changed when privatization of herds and the economic downturn of the 1990s put pressure on the financial stability of families and strained school budgets. This led to an increasing amount of children being taken from school and put to work helping their families. The introduction of capitalism led 36.3% of the Mongolian population below the poverty line by 1995. At one point more than 15% of rural children were being put to work herding every year, and over 8% of urban children were working in cities rather than attending school. Some herders questioned the need for education if their children were only going to be tending flocks themselves. The dropout phenomenon was exacerbated by the fact that many children needed to attend distant boarding schools. At one point these schools implemented a “Meat Requirement” to help cover the cost of feeding students. That meant a family had to pay 70 kg of meat per child a year. The “Meat Requirement” was in essence a school fee that some families could not afford, and it has since been rescinded. Boys also suffered the most from the dropout rates because they were more likely to be needed tending herds and were often seen as problem students. Fortunately, primary education in Mongolia has largely rebounded and school dropout rates are decreasing. However, the quick growth of dropouts during the economically turbulent 1990s does illustrate how fragile access to education can be in Mongolia. And while legal safeguards are in place guaranteeing 8 years of primary education, there is still no way to enforce these laws.[26]


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.

  1. ^ Tsolmon Gundenbal & Aliénor Salmon, The Mongolian Education Sector and the Role of International Volunteers, [1], (ISBN-978-1-903697-10-8) VSO Mongolia 2011
  2. ^ Sedgwick, Robert. "Education in Mongolia." World Education News and Reviews, 2003. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  3. ^ "Mongolia." World Bank, June 2007. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  4. ^ "Education." Mongolian Embassy to the United States. No date. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  5. ^ "Biography." Danzan Ravjaa: The Heritage of the "Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi.", No date. Accessed 27 June 2008.
  6. ^ "Pedagological Heritage." Danzan Ravjaa: The Heritage of the "Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi.", No date. Accessed 27 June 2008.
  7. ^ Baasanjav, Mijid; Munkhbaatar, Begzjav and Lkhamsuren, Udval. “The Changing Structure of Higher Education in Mongolia.” World Education News and Reviews. 16.4 (2003).
  8. ^ Yadamsuren, Borchuluun. "Report of the Study on Information Needs of Mongolian Scholars." American Center for Mongolian Studies Library. Accessed 24 June 2008.
  9. ^ Del Rosario, Mercedes. “Mongolian Dropout Study.” Mongolian Education Alliance Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, 2005. Accessed 9 July 2008.
  10. ^ Robinson, Bernadette. “In the Green Desert: Non-Formal Distance Education Project for Women in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia.” Education for All: Making it Work Innovation Series, 12. UNESCO, Paris, France (1997) 1-41.
  11. ^ Del Rosario, Mercedes. “Mongolian Dropout Study.” Mongolian Education Alliance Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, 2005. Accessed 9 July 2008.
  12. ^ Del Rosario, Mercedes. “Mongolian Dropout Study.” Mongolian Education Alliance Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, 2005. Accessed 9 July 2008.
  13. ^ Robinson, Clinton and Otgonbayar, Chultem. "Surch Amidarya: Learning for Life Non-formal Basic Distance Education in Mongolia Impact Evaluation." United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, New York, 2003. Accessed 9 July 2008.
  14. ^ "Mongolia: Fostering Partnerships with Parents." UNICEF, 2004. Accessed 9 July 2008.
  15. ^ “Mongolia” World Bank Education at a Glance. No date. World Bank. Accessed 8 May 2008.
  16. ^ “China” World Bank Education at a Glance. No date. World Bank. Accessed 8 May 2008.
  17. ^ Del Rosario, Mercedes. “Mongolian Dropout Study.” Mongolian Education Alliance Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, 2005.
  18. ^ “Mongolia” Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook. Accessed 7 May 2008.
  19. ^ Literacy Resource Centre of Mongolia (LRCM). National Centre for Non Formal and Distance Education (NFDE). Accessed 12 June 2008.
  20. ^ (Mongolian site) National Centre for Non Formal and Distance Education. Accessed 12 June 2008.
  21. ^ Omniglot, "Writing Systems and Languages of the World." Accessed 12 June 2008.
  22. ^ Worden, Robert L. and Savada, Andrea Matles, editors. "Education" in Mongolia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  23. ^ Worden, Robert L. and Savada, Andrea Matles, editors. "Education" in Mongolia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  24. ^ Weidman, John C. "Developing the Mongolia Education Sector Strategy 2000-2005: Reflections of a Consultant for the Asian Development Bank." Current Issues in Comparative Education, 2001. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  25. ^ Dedolph, Carolyn. "Mongolia: Education for All." Asian Development Bank, 2008. Accessed 3 July 2008.
  26. ^ Del Rosario, Mercedes. “Mongolian Dropout Study.” Mongolian Education Alliance, Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, 2005. Accessed 3 July 2008.

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