Speaking at the Education World Forum in London, you emphasized the importance of attracting talented and qualified personnel to work in Azerbaijan. What are some of the ways that the Ministry works to realize this goal?
We are firmly convinced that one cannot have an isolated educational system that demonstrates efficiency in a globalized world. This thesis has been duly reflected in the State Strategy on the Development of Education in Azerbaijan, which was one of the first conceptual documents approved by President Ilham Aliyev after his successful re-election to his new term in October 2013. The State Strategy mentions such elements as integration into the world, something that our country has been deprived of for a lengthy period of time, and the internationalization of education. With this in mind, the higher education institutions in Azerbaijan were given broad autonomy powers, including in the field of developing international links. The Ministry encourages Azerbaijani universities to establish efficient long-term partnerships with recognized foreign entities. We welcome the cooperation projects and programs designed with a view to bring in required international experience and best practices to Azerbaijan in the required fields. The strategic vision is to build the capacity of the local institutions and thus raise the quality of education and research in Azerbaijan.
The Baku branch of the First Moscow State Medical University is in its first year of operation. How do partnerships with international education institutions like this help improve the domestic education sector?
The Baku branch of the First Moscow State Medical University was established in 2015, while the branch of the Moscow State University has been operating in Baku since 2008. We are glad to host the branches of these two distinguished institutions, with their recognized international reputation. The mission of these arrangements is to provide the citizens of Azerbaijan an opportunity to study at these universities without having to cross the border. We consider this to be a good long-term investment in the capacity-building of the domestic education sector, internationalization of higher education, and diversification of educational opportunities. The establishment of university branches does not represent the only way toward this goal. This effort includes the intensification of academic exchanges for students, faculty members, and researchers. An important track is the establishment of joint degree and double diploma programs. We are glad to note that many Azerbaijani universities made good progress on this path, establishing programs with counterparts in the UK, Germany, Turkey, and other countries. We are conducting active talks with foreign partners aimed at opening joint departments or schools in specific fields at individual Azerbaijani institutions. We encourage foreign students to study in Azerbaijan in various formats, be it a full-scale degree program, a short-term stay under academic exchange, or other arrangements. The Azerbaijani education sector has a lot to offer, particularly in the traditionally strong fields such as oil and gas engineering and oriental studies. We are not resting on our laurels, but working hard to develop other relevant fields as well.
With the ongoing directive to strengthen the non-oil sector of the economy, a new focus is being placed on ICT and the industrial sector. How does the educational system in Azerbaijan provide opportunities for students to thrive in these innovative sectors?
The State Strategy on Development of Education emphasizes the concepts of a knowledge-based economy and information society. The ongoing global economic and financial crisis makes the task of developing the non-oil sector increasingly relevant. This includes the fields of ICT, agriculture, tourism, and other industries, where Azerbaijan has a good potential and comparative advantage at the regional and international scale. Education plays a key role in this. The first step is to adjust the educational system to the needs and requirements of economic and social development. The educational system must be able to prepare the workforce needed today. It is equally important to ensure that this workforce will be able to adapt to the constantly changing environment. Therefore, students must develop critical thinking and have tools for life-long learning. We are working with the local higher educational institutions to make sure they adopt a flexible approach in designing their respective study programs, which must evolve to provide a better response to the new challenges. Here I would like to stress the SABAH Group's initiative. This innovative project's mission is to bring together the best performing students, provide them with new educational programs, and eventually create a spillover effect on the entire higher education sector. The toolbox here includes, but is not limited to, the deeper study of foreign languages to access global knowledge sources, the creation of business incubators to promote a start-up culture, and the establishment of career centers to help the students plan their employment strategies. We see an interaction between education, research, and innovation, or a so called “knowledge triangle,” as our pathway to a knowledge-based economy. The Ministry encourages universities to strengthen links with employers, who should play more active roles as major stakeholders in the education process. This track involves not only internship opportunities in industry, but also the engagement of non-academic stakeholders in preparation of curricula in order to make it more suitable to the labor market's needs, and offer much closer cooperation in industry-driven research. The creative scientific capacity of universities must contribute to the development of the economy and job-creation.
As the State Program for Azerbaijani Youth Education Abroad ended in 2015, how will the Ministry continue to address this subject within the new framework of the Azerbaijan 2020 Strategy?
The State Program was launched upon a personal initiative by the President of Azerbaijan. It was designed to address the short to mid-term needs of Azerbaijan's development in selected fields, and we have sufficient reason to believe it was a success. Hundreds of students have already graduated, while the rest continue their studies at the best foreign universities, with the last student expected to graduate in 2021. The program's alumni are in high demand on Azerbaijan's labor market, with 60% of them employed in the private sector and 40% in the public sector, respectively, including at senior positions. We are taking active steps to ensure that the knowledge and skills acquired by the alumni can find the most efficient application in Azerbaijan. Those wishing to join the civil service are waived from the initial test exam. We encourage the local educational institutions to recruit the Program's alumni for teaching and research. In June 2015, the Ministry launched a pilot project to create a framework for internships and career services for the graduates of the State Program, as well as for current students. We intend to expand this project in the near future to cover other students as well. We are also proud to have 18 alumni on the Ministry's team.
Azerbaijan has been routinely hosting very large sporting events like the 2015 European Games, and the Formula One Grand Prix is upcoming. Amidst this national movement, how does the Ministry work to get young students engaged in sporting programs?
We are proud that as a result of visionary policy initiated by the President of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has become a host of regular large-scale international events, including sports. I am proud to note that out of the 18,000 volunteers engaged at the Baku 2015 European Games, 14,000 were students. The Ministry worked to create favorable conditions for the volunteering movement, which turned the Games into a great festival of sports and friendship. We initiated the SABAH Volunteer project, which covered social activities and the improvement of teaching in higher education. Hundreds of students were involved in volunteering activities within the project and contributed to a number of events. Based on this successful experience, we decided to expand the format through the Student-Volunteer program under the brand “One” in higher education institutions. Creating a single database for student volunteers, the program helps with the appropriation of new skills, abilities, and habits, and facilitates new projects held in Azerbaijan. The upcoming Formula One Grand Prix Baku circuit will be a new opportunity in this dimension. Improving student's physical health, psychological sustainability, and training achievements by physical training and sport represent priority directions. The projects that further the development of sport and physical training are supported by the Ministry. The Ministry implements various programs to promote a healthy lifestyle among students, raise their interest in sports and physical training, and improve education on physical training. The Ministry also promotes programs like the Olympic movement TOPs, which is involved in the creation of modern education technology on physical training, and "Healthy Education-Healthy Nation." National competitions in Olympic sports were held between pupils in the framework of an awareness-raising campaign conducted prior to the First European Games and more than 10,000 school kids participated.
After the parliamentary elections of 2015, what is the Ministry's outlook for working with the new Parliament on strengthening education in the country?
The Ministry of Education attaches special importance to developing good working relations with the Parliament, including its Committee on Education and Science. Education is not a static structure, but rather a perpetually evolving phenomenon. This dynamic necessitates a flexible approach, including through legislative adaptation. The Ministry has already initiated a few legislative changes with a view to remove bureaucratic obstacles and raise the overall efficiency of the educational system. A constructive dialogue with the Parliament is vital in this regard. Relations with Parliament also play an important role in the context of engaging the general public in the reform process. Directly elected by citizens, the Milli Majlis is an important channel to learn about the attitudes and reactions of the public to existing problems and reforms carried out by the Ministry. A timely and objective feedback communicated by Parliament is a helpful tool in the overall reform strategy.