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Mongolia is a landlocked Northern Asian country sandwiched between China and Russia. It is slightly smaller than Alaska with a population of 2.8 million nearly a third of which resides in Ulaanbaatar, the national capital. Mongolia’s history tends to revolve around the 13th century and Genghis and Kublai Khan. However, from the time that Genghis Khan’s empire broke apart in the 14th century, little is known in the world of modern Mongolia.

The history of Mongolia in the 20th century is accurately reflected by its geography. Sandwiched between China and the Soviet Union, this landlocked country faced influence from one or the other. With influence came financial support. As a distant province, Mongolia remained under Chinese rule until 1921 when it gained independence with Soviet support. A Communist regime came to power in 1924, and the two countries remained closely aligned until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s.

Though it was never annexed by the Soviet Union, Mongolia exchanged rule by China for dependence upon the Soviets. Mongolia received significant subsidies from the Soviets—at times as much as a third of its GDP of the country. Despite its sovereignty, the country remains heavily dependent upon its neighbors.

Ninety-five percent of the population is Mongol with the remainder being mostly Kazakh. The predominant language is Khalka Mongol. The country’s economy is traditionally founded in herding and agriculture, but there is a large and growing service industry with a significant portion in the “gray” or “shadow” economy (elements of the economy which are not tracked through governmental mechanisms). After an initial recession following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s economy is beginning to rebound as they manage their way from a command economy to a free market.

Like many of the post-Soviet countries, Mongolia owes its educational system to the Soviets. Prior to its independence, formal education did not exist for the majority of the population. What education occurred took place in Tibetan monasteries. In the early twentieth century, Russia began to establish secondary schools in the country, but it was not until the Soviets that modern education at all levels was established. A strong professional/technical system was supported by a robust primary/secondary system. Excellent students were sent to other portions of the Soviet Union for higher education until the first university was established in 1942 with the National University of Mongolia.

Currently, the country sees an escalation in demand for higher education. Interest in technical and vocational education has dramatically declined while, like Kyrgyzstan, demand for higher education has skyrocketed. The result has been a reduction in governmental control of higher education, privatization, and an increasingly educated population that may outgrow the labor market.


Education at all levels is administered by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Sport (MOECSS). MOECSS is responsible for establishing educational standards, textbooks, state examination procedures, licensing of higher educational institutions, and credential recognition agreements with other countries. Educational law has its foundation in Article 8 of the country’s constitutions which declares that Mongolian is the official language of the state and that the population has a right to education and basic general education is to be free. Also, the parliament of the country adopted the Law on Vocational Education and Training in 2002.

In addition to MOECSS, an accreditation body for higher education institutions was established in 1998. The Mongolian National Council for Education Accreditation functions alongside MOSTEC to accredit higher education in Mongolia. Although originally established as a governmental agency, NCHEA was transformed into an independent organization in 2000. Accreditation allows these institutions to receive governmental support and for their students to receive governmental funds.

Primary Education

The Mongolian system of primary/secondary education has progressed from a 10-year (4+4+2) system, with students enrolling at age 8 (before 2004, when the last 10-year cohort of students was admitted); to an 11-year (5+4+2) system, with students enrolling at age 7 (beginning in 2005), and most recently, a 12-year system (6+3+3), with students enrolling at age 6 (beginning in 2008).

Time Period Total Years Structure Starting Age Cohort
Prior to 2005 10 4+4+2 8 Last graduating class in 2014
2005-07 11 5+4+2 7 First official graduating class in 2017
2008 onwards 12 6+3+3 6 First official graduating class in 2020

The curriculum at the primary level includes Mongolian language, mathematics, history, social and natural studies, music, fine arts, and physical education.

Secondary Education

In addition to the subjects studied during the primary years, students at the lower and upper secondary levels study Mongolian literature, Russian, English, geography, biology, physics, chemistry and astronomy.

After 4 to 6 years of primary education (see chart above), students enter lower secondary education for 3 or 4 years. Upon completion of lower secondary education, students can enter upper secondary education or technical and vocational education.

Students entering upper secondary education study for an additional 2 to 3 years and, upon graduation, are eligible to apply for university admission. The credential awarded at the end of upper secondary education is the Buren Dund Bolovsrolun Unemlekh (Certificate of Complete Secondary Education), colloquially called the Gerchilgee.

Enrollments in vocational educational institutions have declined since independence. Government spending cuts as well as the growth of the higher education sector has contributed to the decline of technical and vocational education in Mongolia. The government has begun to respond to this decline and to support vocational education, but the results of this effort remain to be seen.

Higher Education

There are three types of higher education institutions in Mongolia: Colleges (kollej), Institutes (deed surguul) and Universities (ikh surguul). Colleges may award bachelor's degrees only, while institutes can award both bachelor's and master's degrees, with universities having the authority to award bachelor's, master's and doctoral (PhD) degrees.

Between 2000 and 2010, the growth in the number of both government and private institutions was very impressive. The number of government institutions grew from 56,000 to 100,000 during that decade, while the number of private institutions grew from 28,000 to 64,000 for the same period. And, as an indication of increased access, the number of students enrolled in all higher education institutions grew from 85,000 to 165,000 from 2000 to 2010.

A breakdown by degree level follows:

Bachelor's degree enrollments grew from 77,000 to 148,000
Master's degree enrollments went from 3500 to 10,500
Doctoral program enrollments went from 1600 to 2100.

Diploma program enrollments remained constant at approximately 4000. The only decrease in enrollments was among foreign institutions operating in Mongolia; from a peak of 480 to 386 such programs.

No quality assurance among higher education institutions existed until 1999, when an institutional accreditation system similar to that found in the United States was adopted. The new system includes institutional self-study and an external site-visit evaluation. Accreditation is granted for a period of 5 years. Some institutions are given 6 to 12 months of probation during which they must address deficiencies. Academic program accreditation was implemented in 2009.

Private institutions, having been written into law in 1991, with the first institutions opening the following year, did not fare well when government accreditation ensued in 1999. Many private institutions were not approved for accreditation, indeed, some did not bother to apply and others closed on their own. So, both the program and institutional accreditation systems seem to work well to this day, among both government and private institutions of higher education.

Ann Koenig

Associate Director, International, AACRAO (retired)


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