Azerbaijan's culture has always harbored a deep respect for educational values. This is embodied in the country's Azerbaijan 2020 mission statement, which seeks to raise standards across the sector and introduce ICT as a standard part of the learning experience at all levels.

The ghosts of Soviet-era mismanagement of the education sector have still not been fully laid to rest. Until they are banished to the past, Azerbaijan's education establishment will find it nigh on impossible to properly reform. It is vital they succeed today, more than ever—an economy weighed down by flagging energy prices needs the momentum that a vibrant and innovative education sector brings. Yet the effects of education reforms take time before their full impact is realized in the economy at large. The education system faces several challenges that need to be overcome if the growing market economy is to be adequately supported. Thankfully, Azerbaijan is making moves in the right direction.

Budget 2016

The budget for education in 2016 is estimated to be AZN1.7 billion, or 10.5% of the government's budget for the year, a rise of 2.4% on 2015. Spending has fluctuated; in 2011, education was allotted 11%. In 2000, total government expenditure on education was 7.5% of GDP. Yet spending on education has remained lower than that of many comparable countries across the region.
Reforms have so far yielded greater access at the primary level, but much more is needed to develop Azerbaijan's secondary and higher educational sectors. The figures tell the story: preschool is allocated ANZ157 million, secondary education ANZ43 million, and higher education just ANZ37 million.

Pre-school and primary

Part of the reason for the proportionally high spending on pre-schooling is that Azerbaijan has one of the lowest net enrollment rates (NERs) of the region at 24%. This is lower than Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Mongolia. And pre-primary attendance is lower still, at just 9%. In rural areas, the figure is 2% attendance. Hence the high spending on this sector to increase the number of kindergartens available to parents, the majority of who recognize the importance of pre-school, or early-years education. The system as it stands has an above-average teacher-pupil ratio of 1:12. The Universal Millennial Goal sought, among other things, to achieve universal primary education by 2015. A wider goal is to improve access to education at all levels and to ensure equality across the board.

Secondary education

The UNDP points out that, in terms of quality of education, two facts stand out in particular. First, Azerbaijan's students are at a level in mathematics that is more normally associated with much richer countries. And second, the country has succeeded in all but eliminating the achievement gap between children from low- and high-income households. There is little difference in the standardized test results of children from poor and rich families. There are not many countries in the world that can boast this.
However, some analysts fear not enough reform has reached teacher-training programs. Some 79% of Azerbaijani 15-year-olds fail to attain even basic mastery of reading, which risks hampering their ability to progress any further through the education system. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan's literacy rate remains very high, at 99.5%, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It is interesting to note that literacy remained high throughout the 20th century, despite three changes to the script: from Arabic to Roman, from Roman to Cyrillic, and from Cyrillic back to a hybrid Cyrillic-Roman, the modified Roman taught today. One of the newly-independent country's first laws was to approve the new script. At the end of the Soviet era, around 18% of teaching was in Russian. Today, Russian and English are taught equally across the curriculum as second or third languages.

Higher education

There are 36 state-run and 15 private universities in Azerbaijan. The leading public universities are generally considered to be Baku State University and Azerbaijan State Economic University. The Ministry for Education states that there are 124,925 students in higher education, a number that has grown steadily over the past 10 years, although enrollment rose 16% between 2010 and 2012. There are just over 12,000 professors. Baku State University (founded in 1919 as the University of Azerbaijan) has 12 departments, and is home to the largest library in Azerbaijan.

In many ways, universities are the success story of Azerbaijan's education system. But although a recent trend has been for private universities to restructure themselves as public institutions, in general the number of public universities—and vocational training higher education colleges—has failed to keep pace with demand. The Institute of Petroleum and Chemistry, noted for its academic excellence, specializes in courses in petrochemicals and geology. The Institute has 15,000 students.

Education policy

The appointment in 2013 of the youthful Mikayil Jabbarov as Minister for Education marked a turning point for the country's education policies. He came to office with a mandate to review the whole educational system and introduce reforms to realign the sector with the needs of the economy. First and foremost was the need to remold the system in such a way as to finally sever the historic ties to Moscow, the center of the old Soviet republics thousands of kilometers away.

At the heart of the ministry's task is to realize the 2020 program for education in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan 2020 aims to achieve a level of pre-school education that is on par with that of the European average by 2020. The program seeks to implement a 12-year general education system—one that embraces the qualities of schools of “ideas and thought." This as opposed to the traditional, rote notion of a “memory school." There will be greater specialization at the secondary level, and information technology will be made central to the learning experience throughout all subjects and all levels of the curriculum. Under the program, which was launched in 2012, all schools and educational establishments will be given full, high-speed access to the Internet. There will be 1,000 “electronic schools" to allow remote access to education and e-learning. Existing brick-and-mortar schools across the land will be renovated, repaired, and modernized. Training of teachers is to be brought fully inline with Western European standards.

Science is also a big part of Azerbaijan 2020. Viewed by the government as an intrinsic part of the new, knowledge-based economy, science is being elevated to a prominent new role in the country's educational landscape. Government initiatives and grants are persuading more students than ever to study a science subject. The 2015 Year of Agriculture saw a big uptake in agrarian science, and the range of subject areas is growing all the time. Scientific research and learning is also linked to technology and ICT—two related areas that are crucial to the government's vision of the country's development of a digital, knowledge-based society. If it manages to sustain its funding through these dark days of low energy prices, the country should be well on its way to achieving such a vision. In so doing, Azerbaijan will have liberated itself from its dependency on the oil and gas fields of yore.