TBY talks to Misir Mardanov, Minister of Education, on the evolving Azerbaijani education sector.

HE Misir Mardanov
From 1971 to 1989 Misir Mardanov worked as a teacher and Associate Professor of Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty of Azerbaijan State University. He was then appointed Director of the Department of Higher Education of the Ministry of National Education of the Azerbaijan Republic, Deputy Minister of Education in 1989. Mr. Mardanov was the Vice-Rector of Baku State University for academic affairs before becoming Rector in 1998. He was appointed Minister of Education in 1998.

How has access to higher education in Azerbaijan improved since independence?

At present, our country has 51 higher educational institutions, and of these 15 are private higher education centers, which run both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in 139 different specialties. The quality and access to higher education in Azerbaijan is increasing year by year. In this regard, the government has taken steps to facilitate access to higher education for students with disabilities as well as internally displaced persons who have lost both parents, covering their education costs. Therefore, we can say that we have successfully implemented state programs and other types of measures to broaden educational opportunities for Azerbaijan's youth, improved the quality and infrastructure of the sector, and further integrated our higher education system into the international system. Education and the ability to create more opportunities for Azerbaijani students are some of the priorities of our government, and we have been implementing new financing mechanisms since 2010. I would also like to stress the significant role played by private institutions in order to leverage both the quality and capacity of the higher education system in our country. Currently, there are 19,616 students, including 418 foreign citizens, studying in these institutions. The majority of the private universities in our country have exclusive partnerships with international universities, take part in grant programs to encourage student and staff exchanges as well as to improve their material and technical bases, and provide their students with high-standard infrastructure such as campuses, laboratories, and offices. However, I would not like to forget about the magnificent work done by our many public universities, which today can compete with private institutions in terms of teaching standards. Finally, it should be noted that the British QS World University Rankings included Baku State University and Qafqaz University in its 2011 list, which speaks volumes about the improvements made to our higher education system.

The Ministry aims to make some changes to the policy of financing the education of local university graduates abroad. How are you working toward encouraging more Azerbaijani students to follow their studies abroad?

President Ilham Aliyev approved a state program on education in foreign countries for 2007-2015, and its main objective is to contribute to the development of a competitive economic system, expanding education opportunities for our students, and ensuring the country's needs for high-level and qualified staff. Up until now, about 5,000 Azerbaijani students have benefited from our financial programs, and we target to increase annual figures, supporting some 1,000 students abroad every year. Turning “black gold into human capital" is one of our priorities for the future, and the measures implemented in this regard will also position Azerbaijan, which enjoys a very stable political life thanks to our President, as a leading regional country in terms of education.

At the beginning of 2012, the Ministry opened a new vocational school in Baku, and the country has over 50 of such centers. How significant are these developments?

The State Program on the Development of Technical Vocational Education 2007-2012 has enabled the country to expand the network of technical and vocational education institutions, strengthen the material-technical base, increase the number of students that are taking the vocational education path, improve international cooperation, update curriculums in accordance with the requirements of the labor market, and address other issues designed to improve staff training. A total of 12 technical vocational education institutions have been renovated within the framework of the State Program, and 14 more have been provided with better and more modern equipment. Also, we have accelerated the digitalization of textbooks and the system as a whole through the education portal, which in the future will provide electronic vocational education courses, electronic books, video lessons, and all sorts of media facilities for students. Our main target is to train highly-skilled personnel and staff to adapt them to contemporary labor market demands, which at the end of the day will also contribute to strengthening the process of diversification in the national economy.

What plans does the Ministry have for e-learning?

The integration of new technology into the education system in Azerbaijan has been gradually implemented since we approved a state program on the matter aimed at developing applications, providing schools with equipment, and, of course, training staff. We have more than 500 schools connected to the “network for education;" there is one computer for every 20 pupils, whereas in 2004 the ratio was one for every 1,063 pupils. Around 9,000 teachers were provided with computers, and for the first time in history we have developed and integrated electronic subjects and their complementary resources into schools, and 1,000 schools have been provided with broadband internet.

How is the Ministry working to ensure the quality of teachers' knowledge and skills, content of textbooks, and assessment systems?

Teachers play a vital role in the formation of a student's personality, and that's undeniable. Modern teachers should be able to adapt themselves to today's necessities, as students have a wide range of potential opportunities. Over the last few years we have been adapting the curriculum content for primary education within the scope of general education reforms to increase the level of pedagogical personnel, new subjects, assessment systems, the use of modern teaching methods, and training processes. We are planning to carry on with such reforms, especially in the field of teacher training, textbook content, teaching strategies, and assessment systems. In addition, in recent years, the Ministry of Education has introduced new regulations in connection with the management of schools, in order to improve their efficiency, and it is important to note that we have been doing so along with schools, school boards, and councils, because we believe that it is important to involve the pupils' parents in the process of school governance.