Mongolia International University: A beautiful but fragile vision

The MIU campus, photo from their website. The dorm hasn’t been built yet.

I’ve been wanting to write a bit more about Mongolia International University (MIU) for a while now. I’ve been struggling with a post about teaching here that I hope to finish soon. But I thought giving you a more general idea about the university would be helpful, too. I wrote about what it was like to teach here back in November, but I have had some more time to develop my perspective on, and knowledge of, the school itself, so I wanted to write about that. Higher education has some of the same issues no matter where you are (especially adequate funding), but some are very context-specific.

MIU’s motto is “Educating Tomorrow’s Global Leaders.” It’s a tall order, but everything about the school is geared towards giving students an international focus and cultivating their leadership abilities. It is also a Christian school, so leadership is defined in very specific, service-oriented ways that might contrast a bit from a place like Harvard Business School. According to its website, MIU’s mission is:

  • “To educate and develop leaders in Mongolia and throughout Central Asia who possess honesty, integrity and professionalism
  • To be an innovative leader for higher education, providing relevant areas of study at the leading edge
  • To cultivate an international community of current and future leaders through a multicultural campus and global partnerships
  • To foster a culture of servant leadership in Mongolia and throughout Central Asia”

The university first opened in 2002 with 66 students (36 in International Business Management and 30 on Computer Science), now has over 500 students and 60 faculty members, and continues to grow. My department, Media and Communication, was founded in 2016 by Professor Woohyun Won, after he retired from Korea University. Indeed, the president of the university, Dr. Oh-Moon Kwon, and many of the faculty are Korean, as were the founders of the university. The university is thus international from its very inception. Students have come from not only Mongolia but also the USA, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Tuva, Yakutia, New Zealand, Germany, and Nigeria. Faculty and administrators are international as well, many of them from South Korea, the USA, India, Malaysia, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

The common language at the university is English. Students study in English, and faculty (for the most part) teach in English. This contrasts with Mongolia National University, where faculty teach in their native language, which is translated into Mongolian in the classroom. There are other English-language universities springing up around Ulaanbaatar, but MIU is one of the oldest and best-developed, which is one of its major attractions for students.

The students don’t always become completely proficient in English, though, and I think this is where the international students have an advantage. The students do tend to cluster together by nationality, and the Mongolian students spend a lot of time in and outside of class speaking Mongolian. Even with my junior-level students who are in their third year studying in English, when I ask a question, a lively discussion in Mongolian ensues before someone translates their response into English. (The junior Media and Communication class are all Mongolian.) The international students, on the other hand, spend more time speaking English, because they have to speak English to other students to be understood. I particularly noticed this with my sophomore class, which is pretty much bifurcated between students who barely speak English and mainly speak Mongolian outside of class, and a couple of fluent Mongolian students and a Russian with excellent English who tend to work together. I tell them all that the more they speak English, the better their English will be, but I think the temptation is too great to stick to one’s native language.

My department attending a special lecture from a Korean tourism representative, an opportunity to hear English outside the classroom

The international integration at MIU is tenuous, at best. One of the chief attractions of the university is its international character and curriculum (more on this to follow), and the opportunity to perfect one’s English. But I have heard from some students that the Mongolian students are not easily able to integrate with the international students, and often encourage each other to “stick to your own kind.” Indeed, there are Mongolian students who have many international friends, but they can be ostracized by other Mongolian students as a result. The international interest of the students thus has its limits. This surprised me when I first found out about it, because there are quite a few universities to choose from in Ulaanbaatar, and MIU is quite expensive, so studying here is definitely a conscious choice.

For the international students, I often wonder what they get out of studying here as opposed to in their home countries. Some are here because they were already living here for one reason or another, but some come here specifically to study at MIU. They do get a high-quality education, but I can’t help but wonder what the job opportunities are in a country like South Korea (which is highly competitive) when you have a B.A. from a Mongolian university, however good it is. Of course, many of them have told me that they plan to go on to graduate school in the USA or elsewhere, and having a degree from an international university would already help with that. And MIU has several exchange programs so that students can study here and then study at a Korean or American university as well. The latest program has been set up with SUNY Albany, for example.

Another reason to study here is that it is an explicitly Christian university. I was curious what this would be like, and I was surprised to learn that not all the students are Christian, though I suspect most of the faculty are. Indeed, many of the faculty are missionaries from their home countries, financially supported by their missions (which is one of the reasons why the faculty salary here is quite low). But in my classes, I think that while the international students are Christian, maybe half of the Mongolian students or less are. The ones who are not Christian seem to be perfectly happy here, and it doesn’t seem to interfere with their cohesiveness with other students. Our junior class has several different religious affiliations (including non-religious), and they are a very tight-knit group. (Over a third of Mongolians in general identify as non-religious.)

However, some people I spoke with outside the university have said that Mongolians can be reluctant to study here because they have heard that the Korean faculty are evangelical and try to convert the students (indeed, one professor I spoke with was changing his English study group to a Bible study group and losing many of its members in the process). I thought that was interesting, and it may present challenges for student recruitment eventually, though MIU certainly has enough going for it to be attractive to students of all religious backgrounds.

The university does considerable outreach each winter to high schools not only in Ulaanbaatar but out in the rural areas. At one of our university-wide faculty meetings, the Dean of Academic and Student Affairs discussed the need for more representation from the rural areas because of Ministry of Education mandates. (Ministry of Education oversight seems to be quite stringent here in Mongolia.) So far, the student population keeps growing, but they were concerned about next year because the number of high school graduates overall is lower. Apparently, there was a decline in the birth rate eighteen years ago, so the class of 2019 is going to be much smaller than the previous year. (Indeed, right now, Emma’s school is the only one that is open in Ulaanbaatar because of the current flu outbreak; schools are expected to open up after the lunar new year in February.)

One of the other points that MIU offers is its international curriculum. I say international, but at least in the Media and Communication courses, it’s American, because the textbooks are. I brought a lot of books with me to use in my classes, and they were all American, as is the main introductory textbook the department has been using. I suspect this is true in other departments as well. My global media course should be better, but I was struck by how difficult it was to find an intercultural communication textbook that isn’t US-focused. (This is a good job for someone, but not me—write a truly global intercultural communication text.) I ended up going with a book I had used before, because this was the one course I was teaching that I had already taught, and I wanted to have at least one text I was familiar with. For the journalism and introductory courses, what I ended up doing was a lot of research on the media situation in Mongolia, and setting up comparisons whenever possible, because even my Mongolian students don’t know a lot about ownership structures in the media system here.

MIU has a lot to offer outside of its academic curriculum, as well. I have already written about its unique ethic of encouraging close relationships between students, staff, and faculty, which is tied to its Christian character. Student life is also very active, with a strong student council, sponsoring activities ranging from chess tournaments to the annual Art Festival, a chance for students from each department to showcase their performance abilities on stage. I was able to attend most of this year’s Art Festival, which was held on a Saturday in November, and I was truly blown away. There is some genuine talent here. I loved the more traditional Mongolian performances, but of course there was plenty of American and other international pop music as well. The Festival is set up as a competition between the departments, and the Media and Communication Department one last year, but they were unseated by the Fashion Design Department this year, and a strong showing from the brand-new International Relations Department.

The campus is very…compact…with only four buildings currently (two class/administrative buildings, the dormitory, and the secondary school that is connected to the university). A fifth building has been going up since we arrived: a new gymnasium. I am not sure what all will be in it, aside from a basketball/volleyball court, but I am hoping there will be space for people to work out in their free time. (This has been one of the real challenges of living here for someone who is used to being outdoors all the time—how to get exercise! Going up and down the stairs, and goofy aerobics videos get a little boring, but cardio outdoors is out of the question here for most of the school year.) It’s been interesting to observe the construction, which we can see from our living room balcony, and I’ve been able to watch from my office window. I can now understand why the brand-new dorm (which only opened last year) has had some interesting issues, including some major water leaks downstairs, and bits of the ceiling falling in our apartment. The buildings go up very quickly here, and the speed of the concrete and rebar construction doesn’t seem to allow the concrete to set before the next story is added on.

This brings me to one of the biggest issues that MIU faces, and what it has in common with many higher education institutions everywhere in the world: funding. MIU is a private university, but its tuition is limited by what the market will bear, what students in this region can afford to pay. There are scholarships available for low-income students, but the university has many financial demands. MIU is supported by church communities in South Korea, and there is a permanent fundraising office in Seoul, Korea. And, in one of those crazy small-world coincidences, I just found out that the MIU Silk Road Foundation, set up in 2014 to channel donations from the United States, is based in Carlsbad, California, near where we were living before we came here—indeed, a few miles from our house as the crow flies. The university relies on material donations as well; much of the technology on campus is second-hand, including the hardworking printer my department shares with the General Education Department, which feels like it’s held together by rubber bands and chewing gum sometimes.

All the construction is costly, too. Watching the gym building go up has been fascinating, but the realization of how much is being done on a tight budget has hit me several times. Not least when, early one morning after walking Emma to the taxi in the parking lot to go to school, I came across the university’s president standing near the gym with a pained expression on his face. I commented that he looked worried, and he said yes, that they were having trouble hanging on to the construction crew as winter was approaching. Many construction jobs around the city were rushing to finish up before it got too cold, and workers were being offered lots of incentives to go elsewhere. There had also been a few problems with the construction that had required new ditches to be dug and re-dug, so the building was costing more than originally planned.

Faculty recruitment also seems to be a constant urgency, with new faculty needed in many departments every semester, including my own. This is where MIU feels fragile to me; my own department has an extreme shortage of faculty, especially as an increasing number of required courses need to be covered. I am teaching double the number of courses I was told that I would, because there is simply no one else to teach them. And next year, when our department has to cover the entire four-year curriculum, new faculty will be needed again. Faculty recruitment is difficult because the university offers low pay compared with other schools around Ulaanbaatar, and other international options people might be attracted by. Even the staff pay is not high by local standards, which causes turnover among the staff. People who work here all have a reason to be here besides financial gain; they are drawn by the mission of the university, the chance to be in an international atmosphere, and, most importantly, the chance to be in a Christian environment and have their religious faith supported in a country that is only around 2.2% Christian.

While I am waiting for the second semester to begin (we don’t start teaching until the last week of February), I have had a chance to reflect more on my experience here at MIU, and I find it compelling. There are definitely difficulties here that are different from the ones I faced at UCSD, but there is also something very powerful about this place and what it is trying to accomplish. Financially, it’s not really possible for us to stay here long-term, but I am very happy we came. I only hope I am giving to MIU as much as it is giving me.

8 thoughts on “Mongolia International University: A beautiful but fragile vision

  1. What do you think “culture of servant leadership” means (in the mission statement)?

    Why is Korea so interested in investing in higher education there in particular, do you think?


    1. Hi Marie! Good questions. Korea and Mongolia have a long history. There’s a lot of interaction between the two countries (a lot of people from here go to work there, and there are a lot of business connections, for example). Also “servant leadership” is a style of leadership that instead of being top-down is based on service to others, putting others’ needs first and helping others to achieve their potential. In this context I’m pretty sure it is explicitly Christian (think Jesus washing people’s feet, for example).


    2. It’s actually just a euphemism for Christianity, as the school is funded by and administered by missionaries.


  2. Absolutely am enjoying reading your posts. Quite an adventure you and Emma are on. Seems like you both are adjusting quite well.

    I wondered about the Korean connection too. Thx for explaining. Intrigued by the Foundation in Carlsbad. Perhaps I should learn more!! Do students at MIU have exchange opportunities in the states? Perhaps something to consider for San Diego!!

    Hoping future blogs share more about your travels internally and more about the people and life in Mongolia.

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey. Hi to Emma!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sue! Yes, there is an arrangement with SUNY Albany for exchanges. We honestly haven’t gotten out of town much – I am working too hard, and Emma’s in school. So this is real life, right? Thanks for reading and commenting! I like hearing what people get out of this.


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