Health & Education

Class Heroes


Educators in Azerbaijan are working to transfer the country's economic momentum to the educational sector, where increased spending alone is not enough to put decades of Soviet mismanagement behind.

More schools, in and of themselves, do not guarantee improved economic conditions or better educational outcomes, and decades of increased taxpayer spending per-student in American public schools have shown this. Any educational strategy must take this into account by regarding the didactic process as more than a numbers game. A World Bank study substantiated this position, suggesting strongly that the cognitive skills of the population—as opposed to purely academic attainment—are strongly related to individual earnings, income distribution, and economic growth. In Azerbaijan, a hard-fought struggle to improve the country’s educational system is underway, and the stakes are high. Even as the country’s economy has taken off, its educators have struggled to keep the pace—in spite of consecutive growth in education budgets—with many calling for even more reform.

In early 2015, President HE Ilham Aliyev approved the State Education Development Strategy, and in doing so, gave the go-ahead for the country’s education financing costs to be brought up to 6% of GDP. This move reflects a meaningful raise in overall educational spending—which dipped to 2.8% of GDP in 2010—that will allow the country to fund educational institutions that are in line with its economic capabilities. For the 2014 national budget, education expenses were expected to be around $2.11 billion, which represents an 8% increase over the previous years spending, bringing education spending up to 8.2% of the total state budget.With assistance from the State Oil Fund in 2012, a program that offered Azerbaijan’s brightest young minds the opportunity to study abroad was rolled out with a $10 million allocation that set the stage for new approaches. Another indication that the government was changing course was the appointment of Mikayil Jabbarov as minister of education in early 2013. Mr. Jabbarov took the reins with a mandate to conduct a complete and critical review of the entire educational system in line with the objectives of the national economy, as well as the development of human capital. Under his leadership, the ministry faced up to a reality that has impeded their efforts over the last decades—and one that Mr. Jabbarov is committed to rectifying. The country’s education system, inherited from the Soviet regime, was created to meet the requirements of a centralized, soviet economic system, where objectives were defined thousands of miles away. As Azerbaijan has emerged as a vibrant neoliberal economic success story, its educational system has failed to follow suite, and increased funding alone has not prepared its students for the economic realities that they face upon graduation.

Like other post-Soviet states, Azerbaijan’s recovery from decades of centralized economic command was a tortuous affair that lasted for more than a decade with per capita GDP below $1,000. The first few years of independence were also marked by a ratcheting up of aggression from Armenia and a refugee crisis that exacerbated existing economic and social hardships for the rest of the decade, in spite of a Russian brokered 1994 ceasefire. Between 1985 and 1990, the crude birth rate was 27.3 per 1,000 whereas from 1995 to 2,000 this rate fell to 18.9 indicating a sharp fall off. During the same time period, fertility rates saw a similar rate of decline. Events of this magnitude invariable have long-term implications on a country’s trajectory, and in Azerbaijan’s case, poverty and conflict produced a demographic decline that has manifested itself over the last decade and a half.

Returning to enrollment rates, secondary institutions, most of which are state run, are contending with temporarily declining enrollment rates while preschools are dealing with the exact opposite—a surge in demand driven by a growing population and nearly a decade of economic growth. For the 2000/2001 school year, there were 1,814 preschool-level educational institutions, of which 1,650 were run by the Ministry of Education and 164 were run by other organizations (not to be confused with private schools). By the 2011-12 academic years, there were slightly fewer such schools at 1,652, with the entry of 29 private schools being the most noticeable development. With only around 8,000 more students than a decade before in classrooms, the numbers correspond with birth rates that have, for the most part, remained far below the Soviet-era rates.

In 1991, preschool gross enrollment rates were just slightly above 30%, by 2010 they were just above 15%, and by 2012 had recovered slightly to around 26.6%. This is far behind the 99.7% enrollment rate for primary school students in the country. While economic and demographic factors certainly can explain this trend, the county is still far behind its economic counterparts in this regard. For 2012, Central Asia had preschool enrollment rates of 33.9%, and for upper middle-income countries in general the rate was 61.7%—pointing to an area that still needs more attention.

It looks as if the state is throwing its weight behind this issue. In early 2015, President Ilham Aliyev approved plans for the implementation of the State Education Development Strategy, which encourages new preschools through private sector initiatives such as tax incentives. This move comes on the tail of a year of increased attention to the matter led by Education Minister Mikail Jabbarov, who stressed improvement in the areas of content, teaching, and facilities. Jabbarov pointed out that although there were already almost 15,000 preschool teachers, training and curriculum had fallen to the wayside.

Universities are Azerbaijan’s success story, with enrollment between 2000-01 and 2013-14 rising from 119,683 to 147,055. An interesting trend during this time period was the decrease in private universities, both in number and enrollment. Concurrently, 11 more state universities opened their doors. According to the World Bank, these university openings are not keeping pace with the number of applications—which will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, university enrollment was up over 16%, while applications rose by 1.53%. From a less esoteric standpoint, vocational schools and lyceums are also seeing increased enrollment, although the number of institutions is not rising. From the 2000-01 to the 2013-14 school year, enrollment rose by proximately 5,000. Efforts to further develop tertiary education in the country are therefor timely and worth paying attention to, as the final stages of education are most closely linked with the growth of high-skilled jobs and industries.

Speaking to TBY, Prof. Adalat J. Muradov of the Azerbaijan State University of Economics called for “highly qualified professors from abroad to be involved…more investment into training of [Azerbaijani] professors in foreign universities and western education [incorporated into Azerbaijani schools].” Muradov echoes a widespread acknowledgement that educators in Azerbaijan are working against the clock to keep apace with the economic transformation, and hopes are pinned to the “2020 program for education in Azerbaijan.”

Since the appointment of Mr. Jabbarov in April 2014 and the approval of the new education strategy, the Ministry has initiated a number of reforms that address these issues of educational content, relevance (both on an economic and academic level), quality, management, and equity across the education system. Under new leadership, the prospects for substantial reforms in the education sector are stronger than ever before.

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