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25th Sep 2019

Mongolian outbound higher than estimated, most of it going to Asian powerhouses

Just over three million people live in the East Asian country of Mongolia today, a small population that accounts for the relatively small number of Mongolian students who have gone abroad over the past decade. Certain destinations, however, are reporting significant recent increases in Mongolian student numbers, suggesting a higher outbound total than what has been reported by sources such as UNESCO (10,000 students outbound as of 2017) or International Education magazine (15,000 students in 2017).

For example, Mongolia is the #3 sender for South Korea; more than 7,300 Mongolian students studied there in 2018. China is another big recipient of Mongolian students, hosting more than 10,100 in 2018 according to the Chinese Ministry of education, a 30% increase since 2014. China has also provided scholarships to more than 2,500 Mongolian students since 2012, with 328 provided in 2018 alone.

Russia has also been increasing the number of scholarships provided to Mongolian students; Eurasianet, an independent news organisation covering the South Caucasus and Central Asian region, claims that “at any given moment, there are 2,000 Mongolians studying in universities across Russia, for free.”

Australia enrols another 3,500 or so, the majority of whom are currently in ELT studies (ELICOS), but this represents an increase of 189% since 2015, when the number was just 1,230. Japan hosted a similar number in 2018 – 3,125 – a 24% increase over 2017 when there were 2,517 Mongolian students in Japanese universities.

In contrast, the US enrolled just 1,480 Mongolian students in 2017/18 – a number that has grown by only 5% since 2014 – and Canada hosted just 255 in 2008, virtually the same total as in 2014.

Therefore, on a macro level, there are more than 25,000 Mongolian students abroad today, mostly in Asia. Certain market dynamics – e.g., a growing economy, large youth population, expanding higher education participation, quality issues at Mongolian universities – suggest this number could continue to increase in the near future. China, Japan, and Russia are three of the countries that stand to gain the most from increased demand for higher education among Mongolian youth.

Growing economy, high unemployment

The Mongolian economy is growing fairly quickly. The Asian Development Bank expects Mongolia’s economic growth to be 6.7% in 2019 and 6.3% in 2020, following a growth rate of 6.9% in 2018. Mining and agriculture are the primary sectors.

Unemployment in the country, however, has been a growing concern. From 1990 to 2019, the average unemployment rate was 7%, but this reached a high of 11.8% in the first quarter of 2019, before falling slightly to 10.1% in the second quarter. This means that unemployment is a bigger problem in Mongolia than in most other Asian countries, and it’s particularly acute among youth (16.5% of which were unemployed in 2018).

The issue of unemployment is also especially pressing because:

  1.  Youth make up 59% of the entire population; of that proportion, one quarter are under the age of 14.
  2. A high proportion of employed Mongolians work in low-productivity sectors.

Expanding participation in higher education

More than two-thirds (69%) of university-aged Mongolians are pursuing higher education in the country at either a public or private institution, and the number of graduate students has been climbing steadily in recent years. Enrolment in master’s-level courses, for example, has more than tripled since 2005. The number of tertiary institutions has expanded from 14 (when Mongolia was a centrally planned economy) to 95 (now that the country is an open-market economy); 67 of these are accredited.

Yet in April 2018, 40% of Mongolia’s university graduates were unemployed, a fact that the country’s Minister of Education, Culture, Science and Sport, Ms Tsedenbal Tsogzolmaa, says is partly due to a “skills mismatch between education and the labour market and quality not keeping pace with quantity in Mongolia’s rapidly expanding higher education sector.” As a result, the Mongolia National Council for Education Accreditation (MNCEA) designated 2018 as "Internal Quality Assurance Year."

In addition, there has been an Asian Development Bank-funded initiative called the Higher Education Reform Project (HERP) active in Mongolia from 2012–2019 aimed at transitioning the country to a knowledge economy. The desired outcomes for HERP are (1) improved quality and relevance of programmes; (2) improved higher education governance, management, and financing; and (3) better equity and access.

As intent as the Mongolian government may be to increase quality at its universities, however, it will take some time for this to happen. In the meantime, HERP has helped to fund the establishment of five distance learning centres in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar – where nearly half of the Mongolian population lives – and four provinces. MOOCs are also popular among Mongolian students.

Japan and China investing

The potential of Mongolian youth for STEM-related jobs has not escaped the notice of the Japanese government, which is facing a looming low-birth-rate economic crisis unless it imports talent. Mongolia is attracting international attention for its rise from 50th place in 2010 to 28th in 2018 in a global mathematics competition for high school students – the same place as India.

Experts believe that Japan will need 550,000 engineers to fill cutting-edge IT positions by 2030, one reason Japan is looking keenly at Mongolia. It opened three Japanese-style technical colleges – known as kosen – in Mongolia in 2014. When 140 students graduated with specialisations in artificial intelligence and other fields this spring, there was a job fair held for them with 29 companies from Japan and elsewhere in attendance. The three kosen are attached to the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, to the Institute of Engineering and Technology, and to the New Mongol Institute of Technology.

Meanwhile, Chinese aid will have helped to build 21 new schools and kindergartens in Mongolia by 2020, according to Ms Tsogzolmaa. The Minister added that, "China is the most popular overseas study destination for Mongolian students. The number of Mongolian students choosing to study in China is growing. And the number of Mongolian students who receive Chinese scholarships has continued to grow year by year.” This increased outbound is also enabled by China’s massive Belt and Road investment programme that stretches across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, a hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars initiative aimed at expanding China’s global power.

The Confucius Institute at the National University of Mongolia is offering Chinese language classes to significant numbers of Mongolian students and holds regular job fairs attended by major Chinese companies operating branches in the country including Huawei, Bank of China, and Air China.

Russia establishing closer ties

We can only expect growing Russian involvement in Mongolian higher education as well with the establishment of a “permanent bilateral treaty on friendship and extensive strategic partnership” earlier this month. Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the treaty “will raise our bilateral ties to a fundamentally new level," and have no expiration date. He stated:

“Today, Russian-Mongolian cooperation is comprehensive and multilateral, and covers the political, trade, economic, investment, financial, agricultural, scientific, education, cultural and sports areas.”

A growing hotspot for STEM

In short, Mongolia might have a history as a predominantly agricultural and mining-based economy, but it is on its way to becoming an important source of STEM talent in Asia. It will have to confront the issue of brain drain eventually, but for now, the government is embracing the opportunity provided by Asian powers to augment the quality of tertiary education and jobs its young people can access.

For additional background, please see:

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