TBY talks to both the President and Rector of Khazar University on the history of the institution, its growth and targets, and the Azerbaijani higher education sector.
What is the story behind the establishment of Khazar University?
HAMLET ISHAKHANLI I was teaching and performing research in various countries before Azerbaijan achieved independence. At the same time I was looking to develop an educational institution, and took inspiration from universities I saw in the West. So, when I came back to Azerbaijan I started a campaign to raise awareness about the need to develop the country’s education system. It was not an easy task. It was at this time that I decided to establish this university, shortly before independence, in order to develop a new model with no ties that would bind it to the broken systems of the past. This new system included an American-style, student-centered credit-earning system in order to give students more flexibility. Another important aim was trying to establish an international environment in terms of students and professors. We also wanted to develop university-industry relations, something that was lacking during Soviet times. We received backing from the government of the time, and Khazar University was thus established.
How has the university developed in the number of programs it offers?
JOHN RYDER The curriculum is changing, and there are a number of reasons for this. One of the reasons is external factors, with the Ministry of Education ruling that private universities are no longer able to give degrees in medicine or law. We had very good medicine and law faculties, but unfortunately had to stop accepting first year students. We are, however, creating new programs, and at the undergraduate level we have launched a psychology program that has become very popular. We also have new degree programs preparing secondary level teachers in history, science, and other subjects. Electronic engineering is another new program, and we are now working on developing a biomedical engineering research lab with the aim of launching a program in that field. The strongest faculty is probably the School of Economics and Management, and this enables the close relationship between Khazar University and the business world. I believe that universities have a role to play in the social development of countries, yet the rhetoric universities often use is to the contrary. This is one aspect of Khazar that sets it apart from other educational institutions in that we see ourselves as having a responsibility to contribute to social development in Azerbaijan. For example we are currently engaged in a program to train people in project management, and this was mostly funded by BP.
Has the education system in Azerbaijan developed in accordance with your expectations over the last 20 years?
HI We can certainly see development in the education system: there has been a lot of positive change, and Azerbaijan’s universities are now on par with the Bologna Process and European Credit Transfer System. Many new textbooks have been published and international partnership programs have been initiated, including the Erasmus student exchange program for three higher learning institutions, including Khazar University. However, it has not developed totally according to my expectations. In particular, my idea was that competition amongst private universities would drive the development of quality; however, many private universities have followed in the footsteps of state universities in terms of poor operating standards. But a few of them are looking for real quality and are research-orientated, and this is positive. The same situation exists in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other places.
How does the university raise finances?
JR We are basically tuition-fee driven. We do not have any foundations supplying us with funds. We are now starting the process of a more Western-style development in terms of working closer with alumni, and more extensive fund-raising through a capital campaign and other activities. We are, of course, in an environment where there is no tradition of alumni networking or fund-raising, so the development of such a system will be slow.
What is Khazar University’s growth strategy?
HI It is important that the university has a good number of international programs, such as exchange, research, and training programs. The first partnership programs we developed were with US universities such as UCLA, Harvard, and Princeton. Khazar was successful at fundraising, and for this reason we were effective in establishing these early partnerships. We then shifted our focus to Europe, and took advantage of special European-funded programs on offer aimed at developing former Soviet universities. Through those programs we developed student support and quality assurance systems. Part of our philosophy is that institutional development is as important as curricular development. Over the last few years we have been interested in Far Eastern countries such as Malaysia, Japan, China, and South Korea, in which we have established student exchange, research, and faculty programs. It is fantastic progress for a university of our size and stage of development, but is still not enough. However, we are a leading institution in Azerbaijan, and will continue to be so.
What has been done to build connections with other universities internationally?
JR The university has been very outward looking since it began. UCLA assisted with early curriculum development. We have many agreements with universities that create opportunities for students. We have made an agreement with a Japanese university, and will send several students there to study. We also have an agreement with a Norwegian university. We have students coming from the Netherlands and the US, as well as other countries. I also believe that Khazar is a good place for universities that have programs with interest in Iran, as we have good relations with the Iranian embassy here, and it supports our Farsi language and Persian history programs. It is difficult to predict the success of a program, and there have been some surprises in that sense.
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