Azerbaijan has entered the millennium’s first decade wide-awake to the strategic importance of education and is intent on turning its plentiful “black gold” into “human gold”. While it has the natural resources to explode onto the international stage, the country has steadily been implementing key reforms to harness the potential of its people and secure a strong economy. The system is being overhauled in a three-pronged development strategy. Firstly, the government has embarked on large-scale construction projects—rebuilding and renovating schools across the country. Secondly, the old-fashioned pedagogical practices such as rote learning practiced in these schools are being dropped in favor of active learning and critical thinking. And, finally, vital links with international institutions are being hastily cemented within the tertiary and vocational sectors.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijani education system suddenly had to fend for itself. When decision-making was transferred to Azerbaijan in 1992, the government was confronted with several issues concerning the content and structure of the general curriculum. The curriculum for general schools at the time of independence was heavy going, with students expected to study up to 31 subjects, and educators required to make critical choices as to what had to be taught. For a start, adjustments needed to be made to the curriculum and syllabi to reflect the needs of a market economy, by introducing new subjects and optional courses relevant to Azerbaijan. Other areas of reform included adopting a less rigid classification of courses and subjects, and overcoming the country’s limited technical capacity for curriculum development. At the time of independence, there were few specifically trained staff or curriculum developers and few educators with much experience in the area.
The overriding force behind the changes is increased government spending. The amount of capital invested in education has increased six fold since 2003, while the salaries of education workers have risen on average by five fold, while students’ grants have increased 10 fold over the past five years. From the total state budget of AZN12.3 billion in 2010, 10.2%, or AZN1.27 billion, was allocated to the education sector. This represented an overall increase in spending of 11.2% over 2009. This spending has continued into 2011, with Misir Mardanov, Minister of Education, telling TBY that the state budget for 2011 has been defined at AZN12.74 billion, with AZN1.33 billion allocated to the education sector. This represents an AZN61.6 million, or 5%, increase over 2010.
Until recently, attention was paid principally to primary and secondary education. Thus, the move toward improving the quality of higher education in Azerbaijan has been largely led by the private sector. While the Ministry of Education signed up to the Bologna Process—a European Higher Education Area created to ensure academic degree standards and make quality assurance standards more comparable and compatible—in 2005, it is private universities that are pushing for internationally recognized academic excellence.
There are currently 49 universities operating in the Republic of Azerbaijan, including 34 state and 15 private higher education establishments, and progress has been made in financing the tertiary sector. Tangible successes from this investment can already been seen. The number of articles by Azerbaijani scientists published in foreign journals doubled to 2,036 over the past five years and the number of articles listed in citations index journals has also increased from 86 in 2008, to 159 in 2009, and to 229 in 2010. The number of theses published in materials for international conferences has also rapidly increased up from 636 to 1,271 over the same period. The Ministry of Education has focused on organizing various scientific events and international and local conferences at universities to raise the profile of Azerbaijani science, with 90 domestic and 23 international scientific and practical conferences held in 2010.
Access to higher education is still limited, with just 15% of school leavers passing exams and attaining a place at the highly competitive universities—there were 3.5 applicants for every place in 2011. The richest 20% of the population consistently account for nearly 40% of private spending, while the poorest 20% spends only approximately 10% of the total. The government is working to tackle this problem by increasing financial support for postgraduates, students, and high performing pupils of higher, secondary specialized, vocational schools, and lyceums.
The Azerbaijani government passed legislation to boost the vocational education sector in 2007. There are 108 vocational establishments, including 47 vocational lyceums, one vocational education center, and 59 vocational schools subordinate to the Ministry of Education, with eight located in penitentiary establishments. Various Ministry of Education-led programs are being supported by a number of private and international organizations including the European Commission, the British Council, UNESCO, and the World Bank. The building of “Vocational Education Center of High Technologies,” has large support from Korea’s DEW International, which will train personnel in the electric, automation, IT, car repair, electronics, and engineering disciplines.
Training institutions supporting tourism have also emerged. The state Vocational Education Training center (VET) is a Ministry of Education initiative aimed at modernizing and reforming vocational education and training in the tourism sector in line with modern European standards. The EU has provided more than AZN2.5 million worth of technical assistance to the Ministry of Education and will also equip the school with modern kitchen and hospitality facilities to provide European-level courses in the tourism sphere. The private sector boasts its own Azerbaijan Training Institute that sends its students abroad to learn international standards.
The university system, including both state and private institutions, is slowly gaining international attention from universities in Europe and North America. Since joining the Bologna Process, students have been given the opportunity to study abroad through the Erasmus program and other similar exchanges.
Over the last five years, nearly 200 Azerbaijani students were sent abroad to study through scholarship programs in partner countries. The vast majority study in countries such as Turkey, Russia, China, Egypt, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, at the expense of the state. Currently, 811 students continue their education at various universities overseas, and the number of students studying at their own expense has also increased. Universities are also investing in their staff, by sending them to study and work abroad to benefit from international standards.
The higher education sector is also taking advantage of the advanced industry links available in the country. BP has been partnered with Qafqaz University since 2009, having contributed $1.15 million to support undergraduate education in chemical, petroleum, and mechanical engineering disciplines. Much of the money has been used to fund modern laboratories specializing in such areas as general chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, chemical engineering, and physical chemistry.
The higher education system is working to ensure Azerbaijan becomes a center of excellence for the energy industry. The private English-language Khazar University has already linked with several European universities with programs aimed at developing its teaching staff. Programs specializing in business and energy are prized above all, and foreign universities are attracted to partner with Azerbaijan because of opportunities for their students to study abroad in an energy hub.
The State Oil Fund (SOFAZ) also plays a role in encouraging students to study abroad. SOFAZ funds full scholarships covering all tuition and accommodation costs, the only requirement being to come back and live in Azerbaijan for five years.
By signing the famed “Contract of the Century” in 1994, Azerbaijan received more than just oil wealth. The contract stipulates that foreign companies must play a role in developing Azerbaijan’s human capital. BP is the largest foreign employer of professional locals and recruitment focuses on technicians and college graduates. Its $12 million training facility at the Sangachal oil and gas terminal was developed in conjunction with KCA Deutag—a drilling contractor working on the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) field. The center graduates 400 specialists a year and comprises 24 classrooms, four information technology suites, several workshops, a drilling simulator, a fluid separation process—similar to the facilities on the platforms—and full emergency response facilities in which instructors can replicate challenging scenarios.
As a consequence, BP’s Azerbaijan business unit is also the largest employer of “Challenge” graduates—a three-year internal program designed for new graduates to move around the organization and develop a host of business skills. The company also funds English language learning opportunities both for students and for those teaching English as well as supporting a number of higher education institutions.
The participation of preschool education for children between the ages of three and six is offered through kindergartens. General education is organized at three levels: primary education (grades 1–4), basic education (grades 5–9), and secondary education (grades 10–11). Those graduating from general education can seek admission to either academic or vocational post-secondary education. There are three varieties of vocational education available to Azerbaijanis: technical occupational schools that offer one- or two-year programs; technical occupational lyceums that offer three- or four-year programs; and technical secondary schools and colleges that offer 3½- or four-year programs. Academic postsecondary education offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at both public and private institutions and universities across the country.
While access to general compulsory education is nearly universal, enrolment in higher education remains low. As a result of the programs realized in school construction, two-shift schools have decreased from 73% to 42.7%, and students studying on second shift have decreased from 34.5% to 19.6% over the past 10 years. One-shift schools have increased from 24.4% to 57.1% and students studying on the first shift have increased from 64.9% to 80.3%. The Ministry of Education in partnership with the World Bank, within the Education Sector Development Project framework, has prepared a concept and strategy for constant pedagogical education and teacher training in Azerbaijan, and implemented a new curriculum providing training courses for primary teachers. A drive towards active learning is now being piloted in 15% of the country’s schools.
© The Business Year