Saturday, May 31, 2014

Vocational English & Technical Education Programs in Mongolia: Challenges and Opportunities

I currently teach general and professional English to aspiring painters, secretaries, graphic designers, and tour guides. As I quickly learned, vocational English programs require a degree of specialization not found in most other secondary and tertiary educational contexts. Regardless of the type of program, vocational students need not only practical English vocabulary for their field but also a working knowledge of industry-specific skills, norms, trends, and best practices necessary for their profession. These are lofty goals for educators in vocational institutions but ensuring they are met is vital to the future of Mongolia’s economic growth. Drawing from my personal experiences, this post will address universal difficulties facing technical English programs, survey issues in the field of vocational education as a whole, and offer suggestions for making Mongolia’s technical and vocational education system as strong as possible.

Teaching vocational English is a difficult but worthwhile undertaking. Students are often not familiar or comfortable with concepts, vocabulary, and background knowledge of their subject in their native language upon the start of their programs. This is only natural considering many pupils do not have extensive real-life experience within their fields prior to enrollment. However, this adds a challenge for educators. Unlike general English programs that typically begin with elementary-level ideas and vocabulary, most of which students easily identify from comparable words in their native language, in technical programs students do not necessarily possess a strong basis for learning relevant English terms. Further, not all pupils entering technical schools have a thorough grasp of elementary English grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation. Conversational English speaking ability can be very low and student motivation is at times a problem.

Nevertheless, it’s imperative for all students to understand the importance of mastering English relevant to their field. It doesn’t matter the profession in which a student is interested, in the modern global economy customers, clients, investors, managers, business owners, and colleagues in Mongolia are more likely than ever to speak English as a first or second language. Possessing the adequate skills to communicate with people in a workplace setting is invaluable. Further, in order to perform at a high level and continue to develop professionally, workers in all industries should consult up-to-date resources. Many of these materials are only available in English which leave non-speakers and non-readers behind.

Unfortunately, educational institutions all over the world are struggling to provide vocational students with practical skills to make them employable — and not just English skills. There are several reasons for this. First, too many higher education institutions in Asia continue to use dry and outdated methods of English instruction. Reading, translation, and rote repetition of texts is not an effective strategy and leaves students bored and unmotivated. Instead, methods should be made more dynamic and include activities aimed at increasing the production of spoken English related to the tasks pupils will be performing in a real life environment. Always popular among my students, games and competitions should be incorporated into the classroom on a daily basis to keep students’ attention and increase retention of knowledge. Also, field trips, hands-on seminars, and workshops should be used to supplement students’ English knowledge of their disciplines in a setting that replicates their real-life work environment. For instance, today I’m going to an art gallery with my students.

A second major problem with vocational institutions is that many schools lack sufficient communication with professional organizations, ministries, and companies within their fields. This is the case in Mongolia but it’s not unique in that regard. The result is, no matter how hard students work, they’re not being adequately prepared for a real workplace environment, leading to poor employment prospects. Many students have little faith they are gaining relevant or employable skills, which further demotivates them. Curricula must be designed in coordination with industry leaders to guarantee that the skills-focus, English vocabulary, and methodologies of instruction are up-to-date, relevant, and effective.

Globally, as well as within Mongolia, government ministries of education and labor should do more to foster business-education partnerships. Larger tax breaks should be given to businesses that engage in collaboration with vocational schools and existing deductions should be made more widely known. Ongoing partnerships should be better publicized by all parties to encourage further networking between industry and vocational schools.

Furthermore, student internships and apprenticeships should be required for graduates of all high-quality programs and institutions. I’m very pleased with Rajiv Gandhi’s summer internship program for hospitality students who gain real-world skills as hotel staff each year. Opportunities for practical experience should be facilitated by every vocational school. Emphasis should be placed on opportunities where pupils can practice both professional and English-language skills. It’s impossible for students to be employable upon graduation if they have no work experience or training.

Databases should be made of hired graduates from every department in a vocational or technical institution to assess the employability of students. Schools could then use this information to find opportunities for further internship placements and partnerships. Importantly, this employment information should also be required of every vocational school by the Ministry of Labor in order to better assess the needs of the labor market. With sufficient information, Mongolia’s Ministry of Labor could more effectively guide its vocational and technical education system to supply the correct number of graduates to meet the current demand for jobs in each economic sector.

This could benefit not just students and vocational and technical schools but Mongolia’s entire economy. Why have massive programs for auto workers when there are not enough factory jobs for all the trained graduates? Why have small or non-existent programs for construction and mining when there is still a large demand for workers in these sectors? Sadly, some companies are not currently able to meet their needs for skilled workers domestically and may instead hire better-trained but more expensive foreign employees.

With statistics on student success the Ministry of Labor could then provide incentives for schools to expand programs in sectors of strong economic growth and cut programs that waste valuable tax money as well as students’ and instructors’ time. These changes are difficult but necessary to ensuring both the immediate and long-term success of Mongolia’s economy.

There‘s much to be done to improve vocational English and technical educational systems to the point where both graduates and businesses are reaching their full potential. Most of these issues are not specific to Mongolia but also found in many other countries, including the United States. However, there are many causes for hope. My students work very hard and many show a very high aptitude for learning English as well as learning vocational skills. If educational administrators, government representatives, and business leaders convene to discuss these critical issues, and consider policy changes, Mongolian vocational students will have an even brighter future.

Bio: Peter Bittner is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at the Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic School of Art and Production in Ulaanbaatar(

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