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Mongolia's universities: A woman's world

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Nomin Lhagvasuren
Publication Date 3 February 2002
Cite as EurasiaNet, Mongolia's universities: A woman's world, 3 February 2002, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Nomin Lhagvasuren: 2/3/02

A EurasiaNet Partner Post from Transitions Online

A walk through the corridors of Mongolia's universities and colleges can leave a visitor somewhat surprised. Almost everywhere, women's faces dominate – so much so that one might wonder if the men are hiding. But they are not. Universities in Mongolia simply do not enroll many men: Sixty percent of graduates are women, and in some places women outnumber men four to one.

This, of course, is not because Mongolian mothers give birth to fewer boys. In fact, in every age category in Mongolia, men are equally represented. Nor is the imbalance in the educational system – internationally, an educational system is said to be imbalanced if the gender gap is wider than 10 percent – a legacy of the communist era. Then, men and women were equally likely to enter higher education.

Many explanations have been suggested, but no one quite knows why the balance has been lost. The Education Ministry is worried, and the head of the ministry's policy-coordination unit, M. Baasanjav, is calling for a comprehensive study of the issue in order to build a policy platform to redress the problem. There are some regional differences, but the real factors seem to be a mix of economic, social, gender, and institutional influences. And it is widely accepted that the roots lie in the state of secondary schooling in the 1990s: a period of transition, economic hardship, and reform.


In part, women's dominance simply reflects their success all the way through the three major sets of exams at secondary schools, in the fifth, eighth, and 10th grades. Education experts emphasize that the school system itself encourages young people to leave before they reach the university level. Since there are not enough schools – especially in the countryside – to allow everyone to enter the ninth grade, students must pass exams in the eighth grade. J. Batdeleg, a first-year undergraduate studying chemistry at Mongolian State University, says that by the time he was in the 10th grade, he was one of only seven boys in a class of 29. Now he is one of three men in a class of 13. According to official statistics, in the current school year, 58 percent of ninth-graders are girls.

Many educational analysts believe that sifting out students in the eighth grade is wrong. "Because boys are usually more daredevilish and mobile, they tend not to show the best results at school during their teenage years," says T. Amgalan, the director of a Mongolian nongovernmental organization (NGO) called the Gender Center for Sustainable Development. "They usually become more responsible in the final grades of secondary school. Therefore it is too bad if they drop out of school at the eighth grade. The more accurate and concentrated ones stay, and as a rule, they are girls."

D. Boldbaatar of Mongolian State University explains it from a different socioeconomic angle. He believes girls were better able to cope with the post-communist transition. In the last decade, low salaries forced many teachers to look for new jobs, while the money squeeze meant parents paid less attention to academic performance. He argues that those pupils who were more settled and more home-oriented were better focused and less influenced by the increase in drinking and crime – and most those pupils were, in his view, girls.

More than that, Boldbaatar adds, "they choose to pursue education." A. Batjargal, deputy head of the monitoring unit in the Education Ministry, believes one factor affecting pupils' choices was the gender imbalance in the teaching staff. According to November 2001 ministry figures, 70 percent of secondary school teachers – and 90 percent of primary school teachers – are women. That figure does drop to 50 percent in higher education, however, reducing the overall percentage of women educators in the classroom to 73 percent.


In contrast, some boys (predominantly from the city) chose in recent years to take advantage of the economic opportunities opening up, responding to the challenges by entering private businesses. Some felt responsibility and the others a pressure from their parents to help their families raise livestock and sustain their household's economy. That reasoning was particularly strong in the early 1990s, when Mongolia's pastoral economy began to be rapidly privatized.

It was no easy matter to change from collective farming to private herding and – following the breakdown of the communist distribution system – to get goods to market in a vast country. Privatization brought with it a new division of labor, with the family becoming the working unit. Privatization also brought variations in the number of animals managed. And educationalists have noticed that children from families with relatively large numbers of livestock have been dropping out of schools more than other children, to help their parents raise livestock and in all other activities connected with the business of herding.

Agriculture – raising livestock as well as farming, hunting, and forestry – accounts for more than 33 percent of the Mongolian economy. About one-third of the population is rural; herders make up 8 percent of the total population of 2.4 million.

Ts. Oyun-Undraa, who will graduate from the Tenger private institute of social sciences and economics in Ulaanbaatar this year, was able come to the capital from the province of Suhbaatar only because of her brother's decision to give up studying for herding. "My brother dropped out of school after the eighth grade. I remember that the teachers were very frustrated at his decision, because he was an A student. But he chose to become a herder to be able to raise livestock and sustain our family," she says. "To ensure our livelihood, my brother did not pursue further studies." Without the support of her brother, she would have had no chance of studying. Nor would her cousins – her brother has given help to his extended family as well.

If Mongolian attitudes toward male responsibility may keep boys out of the classroom, widespread values regarding a woman's place encourage girls to study. Oyun-Undraa believes the predominant attitude among parents in the countryside is that girls should study so that they are not dependent on or dominated by a future husband. This is part of the traditional mentality of the Mongolians, NGO experts say. Mongolians prefer to empower women through knowledge. Men, they believe, have power enough to survive with or without an education and can make a livelihood in more ways than women can. Manual labor is one example. When times are hard – and the 1990s were hard – those attitudes may be enough to skew the gender balance.

Not all schools are female-dominated. Schools that may lead to jobs with more difficult working conditions have maintained their male populations. According to B. Purevtogtokh, dean of the Geological Engineering School of the Mongolian Science and Technology University, that is one reason there are more male students in geological engineering classes.

However, with the decline of much of Mongolian industry and less demand for labor in traditionally male-dominated professions, there are fewer technical classes of that kind. Courses in the humanities and white-collar subjects such as accounting and management now make up the majority, and women dominate those classes. Women are also increasingly, and boldly, entering occupations traditionally considered to be men's domain, such as geology and gold mining.


"If this situation continues long enough, this [imbalance] may negatively affect social life, especially family life," warns A. Batjargal, deputy head of the monitoring department in the Education Ministry. D. Oyunkhorol, a member of parliament and founder of a private educational institute attended mostly by women, argues, "The negative effects are already here. Girls are not paying attention to men without an education. Girls nowadays say Mongolian men are not worthy of them." She believes that the gender imbalance in education is one of the reasons for the rising rate of divorce.

Areas where knowledge-empowered women are unarguably having an impact are the social sector and, increasingly, small and medium business. But while women are filling up executive positions in every sector of Mongolia's economy, legislative and political power remains in the hands of men. In Mongolia's 76-seat parliament there are only six women – and that is the best figure in years. And men's dominance of politics skews recruitment policy in the civil service. Oyunkhorol, one of those six women parliamentarians, says: "Today's practice is to appoint civil servants not on the basis of their knowledge and education but on their membership in a political party. I wish there were a state policy valuing people with education." But education itself, a female-dominated profession, is managed and headed mainly by men.

In the communist era, the gender balance was readily managed. A policy was announced, numbers were set, and the due number of men and women entered higher-education institutions each year. Making policy now is course much more complex. As M. Baasanjav of the Education Ministry's policy unit says: "Now it is impossible to do that because any gender regulations come down to the issue of human rights: if a person wants to study and can pay for it, gender does not matter."

While Baasanjav may be pushing for studies of the problem that will identify reasons, consequences, and possible policies, there is a risk the study may end up in everyone's – and no one's – portfolio. "The issue of a comprehensive study lies on the intersection of many ministries' activities, including health and labor," said Baasanjav.

By the time that happens, the picture may be significantly different. "The situation has been improving for the past three years," says A. Batjargal, deputy head of the monitoring department in the Education Ministry. Then, 70 percent of all graduates from universities and technical schools were women; now, the figure is 60 percent.

Perhaps men are now developing (or returning to) a different understanding of the importance of higher education. While many reasons may be behind the imbalance, simple economics may be helping to restore the balance. While an oversupply of educated workers means that many university graduates cannot find jobs, they still have better prospects than the 50 percent of Mongolia's work force aged 16 to 55 who are unemployed. According to Oyun-Undraa, her brother – who has seen his livestock decimated by successive waves of savage winter storms and summer droughts – sometimes regrets he did not continue with his studies.

Posted February 3, 2002 © Eurasianet

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