Qaqani’s Weblog


STUDY ABROAD BECOMES A NEW PRIORITY FOR AZERBAIJANI GOVERNMENT

Posted in Azərbaycan,Təhsil və təqaüd by qaqani on December 17, 2007

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state of Azerbaijan’s education system reached very low levels. Azerbaijani students, graduating from local universities, are simply not ready for the needs and requirements of the globalized market economy. The government is seeking to bridge the gap in the field of human resources in the short-term through an impressive Study Abroad program. This program got off to a slow start, but is set to beomce a major factor in Azerbaijan’s development.

BACKGROUND: in October 2006, President Ilham Aliyev signed a new decree on establishing a scholarship program for Azerbaijani youth to study abroad. The program envisions sending hundreds of Azerbaijanis to prestigious universities abroad for degree and non-degree studies in order to fill the gap in human resources. For the initial year of the program, the government allocated 2,2 million manats (close to US$2.5 million) to cover the administrative costs as well as tuition expenses of students. It is expected that should all management issues of the program go smoothly, some 20 million manats will be spent on the program in the next few years.

This move comes as no surprise, since many international organizations and domestic experts have long advocated for the investment of oil revenues into human resources. The UNDP office in Baku has even been promoting a slogan called “let’s turn black gold into human gold.” And the local youth movement called “Alumni Network”, compromised mainly of alumni of various exchange programs, have been organizing public advocacy events to promote the idea of sending 5,000 Azerbaijani youth abroad. This campaign, under the slogan “Gelecek ozu gelmeyecek”- “The future won’t come by itself” has been widely covered in the local press. Public TV’s “Achig Ders”- “Open classroom” talk show program dedicated several discussions to this issue even before the Presidential decree was signed.

Similar programs exist in other oil-rich countries of the region, including Kazakhstan (the Balashak or Future program) and Uzbekistan (Umid or Hope) programs. Since the beginning of the 1990s, American, European and Japanese exchange programs and fellowship opportunities have flooded the country, by training a new generation of Azerbaijanis and providing quality work force for the booming private sector.

Azerbaijan is not new to study abroad programs. Even during Soviet times, under the leadership of Heydar Aliyev, then first secretary of the communist party of the Azerbaijani SSR, thousands of students were sent to universities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to be trained and returned home to Azerbaijan to lead the economy. In the post-Soviet period, the Azerbaijani government has been sending youth mainly to Turkey and Russia, but this trend was both small in numbers and poor in quality.

The new program, envisioned by President Aliyev, has been managed by three different state bodies, to ensure transparency and accountability. The highly respected State Committee for Student Exams collects applications and conducts necessary tests and interviews. Then, the selected students’ list is passed on to the Ministry of Education to manage the logistics of the travels as well as relations with the host universities and financial matters. The Ministry of Education also acts as the primary focal point for promotion and PR of the program in society. Finally, the list of selected students is given to the President’s commission on education, which considers a number of issues, such as the importance of the field of study and its relevance to the priority areas of the state.

In its first year of implementation, a number of problems emerged, such as the low awareness of the public regarding the existence of the program. This was the main reason for the small number of applicants and successfully selected persons, little over 40; the lack of pre-departure trainings and orientation for the selected students; the unclear list of universities eligible to participate in the program; and unclear procedural rules for the application process. The most difficult problem, however, remains the eligibility criteria itself: at the moment, students must individually apply and be accepted to a foreign university before becoming eligible for the scholarship funds. This effectively leaves many intelligent students out of the benefits of the program, because they are not familiar with the admissions rules in foreign universities and do not possess language skills as others do. The government is also considering to demand recipients of scholarship funds to sign a contract and promise to return to Azerbaijan upon the completion of the studies, to work for the government for several years. This practice, although widely spread in other countries, such as Turkey and Kazakhstan, remains a serious concern for the applicants.

IMPLICATIONS: Despite some shortcomings, which the state bodies promise to address in the second year of the Program, the Study Abroad program is a sign of very positive changes in the country. Foremost, it calms down some critics of the ruling regime, who claim that oil revenues are not spent wisely. Everyone will agree that spending on education will bring many dividends for the country and will allow making Azerbaijan’s development more sustainable.

Secondly, this program allows President Ilham Aliyev to show his vision and priorities. Upon election, he promised to create 600,000 new jobs, ensure the prosperity of the country, and turn Azerbaijan into the strongest state in the region. Without investing oil revenues into education, Azerbaijan will not be able to achieve these goals. Thus the President’s priority area has become education, and under his leadership the government has already built more than 170 new schools, repaired another 630 secondary schools, established a Diplomatic Academy, launched a process of computerization of schools, and invested into the development of cadre in the IT sector. These initiatives show that President Aliyev is keen to invest into social and humanitarian programs and ensure the sustainable development of the non-oil economy.

Finally, the Study abroad program is aimed at solving the shortage of human resources, which appeared in the local market since the rapid development of both the oil and non-oil economies in the mid-1990s. The Soviet-style educational system of Azerbaijan is not able to provide the necessary highly educated cadre for the booming economy of the country, because the curriculums are based on old materials and the teaching methodology is still top-down, strictly dogmatic. It is very difficult to change the mentality of hundreds of professors and shift the system into a new one overnight. The World Bank has provided a number of grants and loans for the restructuring of the education system, but this has yet to provide the desired results. Thus, a wide gap has emerged, where local universities are not able to provide the needed cadre for the booming banking, audit, constructing, legal, management, IT and many other sectors.

The study abroad program will help to alleviate this gap and supply badly needed professionals to the economy of Azerbaijan. The large influx of Western-educated personnel will positively impact the overall development of the country, because their management and governance style will be much more liberal, softer and open-minded than the one of the older generation. Western-educated cadre are more tolerant to the initiative on the part of students and to democracy, and thus it is expected that the increase of their numbers in the country will bring more positive societal changes as well.

CONCLUSIONS: President Ilham Aliyev has once again demonstrated that despite serious concerns about the management of oil revenues, he is keen to invest them for the benefit of the people, and this Study Abroad Program is one of the signs of this vision. The program is expected to significantly improve the economy of Azerbaijan, provide it with needed professionals and eventually ensure the sustainable development of Azerbaijan. But more importantly, the program will the lay foundation for future democratization as the alumni of these study programs will bring back not only skills, but also new values and norms.

By Fariz Ismailzade (12/12/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

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