Obviously, state visits have symbolic purposes and motivations, but they are also the occasion for announcements in a bilateral relationship. I tried to guess at what the intentions for the state visit to Mongolia by Governor General David Johnston were ahead of the visit.
Visa-Free Travel for Canadians
I was clearly right on the most concrete outcome that was announced during the visit, namely 30-day visa free travel to Mongolia for Canadians as of January 2014. This announcement was very much in line with Mongolia’s recent initiatives to extend this visa-free travel privilege to a number of partner nations. As the citizen of a privileged nation (in my case, Germany) who enjoys visa-free travel to many countries of the world, it’s important to remember what a privilege this is. I’m always reminded of this when I interact with Mongolians and learn about their tribulations in planning travel to various countries that do not reciprocate this visa-free travel status.
The announcement was made during the meeting of President Elbegdorj and Governor General Johnston in the morning of the first day of the State Visit.
Other news and concrete steps have been sparse. In his speeches (to the Mongolian parliament and at a state dinner) the Governor General has referred to similarities between Canada and Mongolia frequently, has emphasized people-to-people contacts, and has pointed to Canadian investments as well as past support for Mongolia (like the curriculum for democracy that was pursued during Mongolia’s chairmanship of the Community of Democracies).
Education in the Canada-Mongolia Relationship
It is noticeable, but perhaps not surprising given the Governor General’s academic background, that education has been of central concern in a number of the meetings. Especially when it is lumped together with “people-to-people” bilateral relations, this emphasis was not only reflected in the Governor General’s speeches, but in his schedule as well which included a roundtable discussion focused on education. The Mongolian participants in this discussion included representatives from all the public universities and Ms Oyungerel, Minister of Culture and Tourism. Ms Oyungerel also expressed her surprise and delight at the inclusion of a special session on education in the schedule.
At this meeting, I noted as an aside, that we had organized a somewhat similar discussion of education for the visit of then-President Bagabandi in 2004, pointing to a nice symmetry in the concerns with education. It was this visit by the Mongolian president that provided some of the impetus for the pursuit of Mongolia expertise at UBC and I very much hope that the roundtable in Ulaanbaatar may have a similar impact.
Mongolian participants in the roundtable gave an overview over their institutions (representatives from universities) as well as over educational policy (from the Ministry of Education). In these remarks as they pertained to higher education, there was a clear focus on the improvement of quality over an expansion of quantity in higher education, a bit of a refrain from Mongolian policy-makers in recent times.
Canadian participants in turn highlighted their interest in Mongolia and potential collaborations in areas such as distance education, the fostering of research capacity, and academic standards.