Robert Stearns is the Director of the International School of Ulaanbataar, the only school in Mongolia to offer IB education. Previously, he held principal roles at schools in Hong Kong and Germany.
In this interview, he discusses the ideology that drives the education in the school and how it affects the employment pipeline in Mongolia. He also talks about Mongolia’s prospects as an education hub and the underlying factors that inform his assessment,
Enkhzul Orgodol: Mr. Robert Stearns is the director of the International School of Ulaanbaatar, which is the only school offering international baccalaureate. Is it correct? Primary, middle years, and diploma programs in Mongolia and the school itself was founded in 1992, as you can see in the background. Mr. Robert Stearns, or Bob, has over 40 years experience in the education industry and has worked across different continents, including Europe, America, and Asia. Bob, thank you very much for accepting our invitation and welcome to the show.
Robert Stearns: I’m honored to be here and thank you, Zula for the invitation and thank you to discover Mongolia travel and to BCM for sponsoring this because for me, it gives us an opportunity to explain a little bit about the school and about something that’s really close to our hearts as educators and that is education in Mongolia.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Right. I’m very glad to have someone from the education sector, because education is really the foundation of, and the feeding foundation of the other sectors. As you said, this is where the human resources, this is where the future labor force, or the workforce are built. ISU is planning to double the capacity of the school, I found out. Was the decision demand driven or opportunity driven?
Robert Stearns: Let me just explain a little bit about the background of ISU and then I’ll talk about the demand versus the opportunity drivers. ISU is a school that was founded by the parents that came to Mongolia in 1992. They came with the embassies and the NGO’s and as the foreign investment companies came in, the United Nations and all of those children that were coming in didn’t have a place to go to study. They couldn’t speak Mongolian so they couldn’t go into the Mongolian system and so a school was started up and it was supported by the embassies and this school gradually grew with the help of the US Embassy in particular. The US government and the Mongolian government actually created a bilateral agreement for this school in particular so our school actually thrives under this bilateral agreement, which gives us a very special status here in Mongolia.
We’re a non profit school. Any revenue that we have at the end of any fiscal year is recycled back into the school. We strive only to have enough revenue left over, enough surplus at the end of the year for those rainy days that might come along and make sure that we’re prepared for those. I would say in the first instance that the decision to double the capacity of the school was seen as an opportunity as the economy was growing. 2009, 10, 11, if you remember back in those days, the economy was really hot, the hottest economy in Asia so the opportunity was there to, With more and more expats coming in to grow the school to a critical size of about 600, 650, 700 students, which from an educational point of view, makes for an opportune size for a student body.
With that number of students, you can have facilities built that are purpose driven, that allow the learning activities and the curriculum to diversify, that you don’t have when you have a smaller number of students. You can have a strong curriculum, you can have a strong educational program with a small number of students but you can’t have the opportunities that might serve the best needs of all of the students. Let’s suppose in the sciences, you can study your chemistry, physics, and biology but with a larger school, you can add on other sciences that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to add on. We have facilities that are specialized such as a theater, which now allows students to learn about what it’s like in the backstage of the theater, the lights, the sounds. We have a pool so now our students can learn the skills of swimming, the things that they wouldn’t have the opportunity without the theater and the pool beforehand. That’s why the school planned to double. The opportunity came with the economy growing.
Demand driven in the sense that knowing that these foreign students were coming, then we needed to have a school that was gonna be ready to accept them. Of course, ASU was there and BSU started up a year or two later and so those schools also saw the opportunity and the demand but that was really, the demand for us was to make sure that as the students that we needed to serve, that they would have a place in the school.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Before asking the question, let me give you a brief explanation I heard from one of the current events. There were, I heard there was an even between education sector presenters as well as the employers, business community and I wouldn’t say if it was in Mongolia or elsewhere but they were saying the business community was complaining to the education sector that whoever they were preparing for them, basically the education sector are preparing the human force so the human resources for the business community were not meeting the expectations they were having in their jobs, in their work stations. Now, I think this discussion is getting even bigger worldwide, because we’re living in this era of technology and the technology is evolving so rapidly that is is hard, even for young people to keep you with the new forms of demand that the business community or the employers are seeking.
For example, with S-T-E-M, the STEM, the AI, the artificial intelligence and big data are only a few of the long list of the buzzwords shaping the future of global workforce. I would say particularly in the advanced economies at the moment but we will have spillover effect in the midterm or in the long term as well. You are an institution, international institution that are preparing international, the future of the global, the global citizens, yet you are based in a country, specifically Mongolia, that is lacking lots of infrastructure on development to keep up with the development of advanced economies. How are you tackling … Do you find it challenging to have the expectations of your, maybe, parents or your students to meet the expectations or what you can offer in this situation?
Robert Stearns: It’s an interesting question. I’m going back to the beginning of your question. I can recall back in the 80’s in Ontario, the business community, and this may have been throughout Canada but certainly where I was in Ontario, the business community had a big impact on the curricula that were offered, the learning skills that we were trying inculcate in the schools. We shifted, wrongly in my opinion, to educating students to be part of the economy, to be part of the business and of course, we have to be that. It’s out bread and butter. Don’t we? But if we go back to the roots of education, if we go back to what education is really all about, it’s to teach our young people to become critical thinkers, to become logical, to become analytical, to think for themselves. That’s what education is really all about. It’s not to train people in specific skills. It’s not to train people to go our and be good robots in the workforce, to sit in the cubicles and not question.
Enkhzul Orgodol: You’re saying soft skills are more important than hard skills when you’re training the young children.
Robert Stearns: The hard skills come later. The soft skills, at the levels that I’m dealing with in primary and secondary school, the soft skills are the inquiry skills, the critical thinking skills. Those are the important skills. Those are the lifelong skills.
Enkhzul Orgodol: I see.
Robert Stearns: In that sense, if there’s a growing schism between the economy and what business people are saying versus what’s coming out of the educational sectors, that doesn’t make sense to me because I think more and more we’re finding the educational sectors around the world, in different countries are shifting to these soft skills. We don’t know what skills are gonna be needed 10 years from now, 15 years from now. Our children that are in primary grade, their jobs, their careers are probably not even created yet. We have to prepare students to be able to do anything, to be able to go into any area and apply and adapt. In terms of our school here in Mongolia, because it was a multifaceted question that you asked, I think we would not say there’s a mismatch between our school and the students that we’re teaching at the school.
First of all, our Mongolian, or sorry, our expat students, they are foreign students and they are going to go on into a foreign environment. Many of them are part of foreign families that do rotate from country to country and so it’s important for us to teach these students international mindedness and all the traits that come with being international so that they can not just cope but they can thrive as they go from country to country with their families. Quite likely, they will also be international when they, they won’t settle down in one country because it’s hard for them even to know what country to call home.
Our Mongolian students, we also would feel there’s a good match for them because as I mentioned, as I will mention in the interview later, Mongolia itself is becoming more international. It’s reaching out and therefore, it’s incumbent on us, with the students that come to us, students who we hope will aspire to be leaders in the country tomorrow, that they are internationally minded because that’s Mongolia’s aim. It doesn’t want to remain a landlocked, isolated country. It’s already reaching out in its foreign policy, in its partnerships with other countries, in its tourism, in other areas as well. There’s no mismatch there as well. I think students that come into this school are well setup if they’re Mongolian to be leaders in the Mongolian economy, to be very active participants in the Mongolian economy. For our foreign students, to be able to take what they’ve learned here and apply that elsewhere around the world.
Enkhzul Orgodol: When I was talking to the previous leaders, a lot of them, especially the foreigners were emphasizing cultural difference among their employees, local employees. One of them included their independence, their eagerness to be independent, as well as their eagerness to be leader in certain areas or I think behind that, those kinds of characteristics, competition or competitive mindset is there so I thought maybe that some area, Mongolia, those who are employed, those who are going to be employed, including the current secondary school students, if they could pick up this kind of collaborative mindset from their young age, then that might help them to be more internationally, not competitive but compete in the, I guess, workforce or human resources. Would you agree with that and is that what you’re visioning, maybe when you are stressing so much on the collaboration aspect?
Robert Stearns: The workforce today in general is dependent on people working together, synergistically.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Right.
Robert Stearns: The students at a young age, at our school, begin to work in groups. They begin to work in teams. It doesn’t mean that they don’t work alone from time to time and it doesn’t mean that the teamwork is always smooth. It’s a learned behavior, how to accept the ideas of others, how to incorporate them and work together for the good of the whole team and how to drive a team when some people aren’t necessarily pulling their weight on the team or some people are going off on other tangents and all of that takes time and practice and it develops personal skills, interpersonal skills. Those carry on then through the higher grades and then into the workforce. When you go into the workforce, you’ll see that you have people are working together, they don’t work alone. They have cubicles, I suppose, in some areas that they tend to work all day in the cubicle but I think of my own children who are in their 40’s now and they work as parts of teams all the time so it’s a very important, there’s a sense of competition in that sometimes with the team itself and we don’t diminish that. In our science classes, for example, we’ll have science competitions and in our math classes, we’ll have math competitions so it’s not to drive the competition out but it’s to use the team to synergistically compete.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Do you see Mongolia having the potential of becoming, I don’t know, educational hub or educational center for the region at some point because a lot of people emphasize the Mongolians are blessed with language abilities, they can learn Chinese, they can learn Russian quite easily for example and these two countries are two of the major powers in the country, not only in terms of political but in many aspects. On the other hand, there’s cultural difference as we just discussed about. Mongolians are not too open to accept changes, welcoming foreigners, etc and also lagging behind many emerging markets in terms of many infrastructure developments, especially the road, having the public parks, etc. There is the aspiration to become some form of regional hub, whether it would be in the educational sector, it would be in the financial sector but the reality is pulling it back. What’s your personal opinion on that?
Robert Stearns: I think the first question comes to mind when I think about this educational hub for Mongolia is what would be the motivation to become an educational hub when you have other possibilities to focus on? I suppose one primary motivation would be to attract the best and the brightest to drive innovation and with innovation, then the economy can be driven as well so I suppose in one sense, in a landlocked country like Mongolia, in the geographical position that it is in, to become an educational hub to attract that innovation and that innovation can then drive a knowledge economy or a value added economy that gets away from the resource driven economy that now exists. I suppose another motivation to certainly improve the educational levels here, if not become a worldwide hub, is to retain your own bright young people and not allow that brain drain out of the country, to keep the people here. A couple of reasons you might want to consider Mongolia as an educational hub.
What’s holding it back? The infrastructure, yes, you mentioned that and I think, I’ve been here six years and in the six years I’ve been here, I’ve seen wonderful improvements in the infrastructure, the road systems and so on. It’s no longer just a city that’s out in the middle of nowhere. This is an urban environment that can hold its head up with any other modern urban environment in many ways but air quality, I think, is one of the most important infrastructural areas that needs to be tackled and we’ve seen more and more voice on that in the last, This year, especially and I think if you’re looking at attracting young students to come into Mongolia to stay, to stay afterwards, the air quality – You’ve got beautiful blue skies here and we’ve gotta see them more often.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Definitely.
Robert Stearns: I think infrastructure, to me, that’s the most important. Yes, water is scarce here so water quality also has to be maintained, improved, so that it doesn’t become a limiting factor. I think beyond the infrastructure, if you look at the institutional factors that would help build an educational hub, the school system needs to be drastically improved at the primary and the secondary level. The overcrowded classrooms, the multi phases per day because they feed into universities and colleges and institutions of training that are gonna be world class. If your own people can’t enter those, the educational hub is not going to be successful so it has to start at the ground up. I think if you look at the top level, because when you think of educational hub, you think of those universities, those colleges, those arts and sciences areas, the universities and the colleges here need to gain international accreditation.
So in the first instance, I think that has to be sought after very vigorously and I know at least one of the science universities here is seeking international accreditation. With that international accreditation, of course, that forces the standards to come up but it also brings that worldwide recognition so students who are considering, “Should I go and study in Mongolia? Will my degree be recognized?” Yes, it will be because it’s an accredited institution, internationally accredited. That’s what we boast about here. We’re internationally accredited so any student that graduates with an ISU diploma has got a diploma that is internationally recognized.
Enkhzul Orgodol: If these kinds of supply side problems are started out at least at a certain level, then I guess the demand side could be motivated more in addition to having the certification, etc, it’s much less costly here. Would you agree? For example, we have this American University of Mongolia in here, I’m not so sure about their accreditation yet because I haven’t looked into, but if there are for example young people from other Asian countries or central Asian countries, who are willing to gain degree in an American institution, instead of going to America, if they can come to Mongolia, it would be much cost efficient for them, wouldn’t it?
Robert Stearns: That’s right. If you’re looking at Central Asia or you’re looking at East Asia and in those areas it is very expensive to look at, or China, you look at Hong Kong, those areas, they’re expensive so if you can provide that at a much more efficient price level then yes, that would be a big attractor right there.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Right.
Robert Stearns: I think one of the steps that Mongolia could, The American University of Mongolia, is a good start, but you could kickstart that process by inviting franchise campuses. The population is spread out across the country and from the student centers, students, when they graduate from the local schools move into regional schools and eventually perhaps to UB or to Erdenet or Darkhan or places like that and so those have to be built up as well. Also you have the satellite campuses over at Darkhan and Erdenet and Central Lake and places like that so that because this population is so spread out, the ease of getting to these has to be there.
Enkhzul Orgodol: As I mentioned to you before starting the interview, the intended target audience of this project is not only Mongolian really, I want it to be international, international investors and entrepreneurs who are looking at fresh opportunities in Mongolia. That’s why based on what you just said, is it correct to summarize that there are lots of opportunities of setting up educational institutions in Mongolia to meet the demands from the population who are so spread out but that had to be done with proper planning and that should not be done from the top but more systematically?
Robert Stearns: Yes, I agree. It has to be done right from the bottom, more systematically. Otherwise, it won’t be sustaining.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Wouldn’t you think the population,I guess the reason why I started talking about the educational hub or welcoming students from other countries, not only designing institutions for the local locals is that, the number of … The size of the market, because Mongolia is only 3 million people, the size of the market is just too small, I think, for any big investments. However, we do have other competitive advantages like having the big land mass and having very attractive, beautiful campus built not too far from Ulaanbaatar but still where international students, as well as the locals can gain world class or international education.
Robert Stearns: If that’s all you wanted is to have, because Mongolia as the exotic destination for students to come over and complete their tertiary eduction here and a well recognized university, college, an arts and science college,That can be setup but that doesn’t create an educational hub, that just creates an institution of opportunity. You look at what Korea did on Jeju Island, they’ve setup an educational hub on Jeju Island that starts right from the beginning, right from the lower grades, all the way through and that island itself, because of its UNESCO world heritage designation, its beauty, away from the hubbub of the Korean big cities, it’s banking on that to attract students and it’s got the franchise campuses over there already, even at the secondary level for example. Private, for profit schools in other countries have setup franchises on Jeju Island so that could be here, but they are attracting mostly Korean students with some international. If you want to setup a university here, like AUM that’s attracting international, then sure, but that’s not gonna build your educational hub.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Bob, it was really informative and educational interview for me. I think, of course you know, you’re from the education sector and you’re institution is not for profit, but I think it would be good to have these words heard in this kind of business context as well, because I’m talking of responsible business, sustainable business, any investors and entrepreneurs should be aware of the kind of human centric aspects you mentioned and I’m very grateful that I had you in my interview and I myself as a parent was educated a lot in many ways as well and I would like to wish you all the best in your next step. You said you were moving to
Robert Stearns: China.
Enkhzul Orgodol: China, yes. I hope that you will stay in touch with your old school, the current school, which will be old soon and to ensure the kind of messages you want to pursue is still there and maybe to our viewers, you can share your final thoughts and we can call off.
Robert Stearns: I wanted to say thank you to you, Zula for giving me the opportunity to explain about the school. We are a member of the BCM and I have had opportunity, a couple of times, to present to the BCM on specialized topics, but so that your viewers can understand there are schools here in UB, that are ready to accept the children of international families, of investing families that are coming to UB and it’s a growing sector here so thank you for the opportunity for us to explain what we do at this school. It was a good chance for us to talk a little bit about ISU.
Enkhzul Orgodol: Right. It’s a great pleasure. Thank you.