1 Mar 2011
Side effects of conflict: the impact on education system in Azerbaijan
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all fifteen republics that were once part of one of the two superpowers became third-rank developing countries. All the hardships of being a third-world country were at least doubled by being a country in transition, meaning a transition mainly from a central economy to a free-market economy. Obviously, this transition affected all sectors of public life.
Perhaps the region most affected by this new reality was the Caucasus, mainly due to numerous devastating ethnic conflicts. The first years of much rejoiced independence was marred by these conflicts, which did nothing but collapse already shattered states. This collapse started from the economy, but soon covered all other institutions of these newborn states including the moral and belief system. In a very short period, all citizens were told that the once unquestionable communist system was, after all, wrong, and different beliefs started to fill this vacuum. The lion’s share went to nationalism. The much acclaimed “Soviet brotherhood” ended up in most cases with hatred or at least with suspicion. This was more evident in the Caucasus, the region called the “museum of nations” because of its ethnic diversity. The once multiethnic states of the Caucasus became dominant by one ethnic group because of ethnic cleansing.
All these developments had an enormous impact on the educational system and the youth of these countries in general. As the transition for older generations was difficult and in most cases impossible, a big gap was opened between parents and their respective children. There were big communication problems even among different age groups of the young generation itself. The scale of changes was so huge that even a few years of difference in age had an immeasurable impact on people’s behavior.
In the case of Azerbaijan, as the ethnic conflict with Armenia preceded the independence of the country by a couple of years, ethnic nationalism became the dominant power once the country became independent in 1991. Huge popular demonstrations covered the whole country and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict became the agenda of the day, in such a scale that all other problems were totally undermined. All successive governments were too busy with the war, and little or no attention was given to the other numerous social problems.
However, some changes were made in the educational system when a new testing system was introduced for entrance into the universities. This move was a big step as it created a fair opportunity for all students to get into any university and faculty based on their knowledge. The previous system was famous for its high level of corruption, as some privileged students could study in certain faculties, such as law. Unfortunately, during the last five to six years the corruption became evident even in this new system, though far less than the previous one.
Indeed, the relatively high level of education was one of the most important advantages that Azerbaijan and other post-soviet countries inherited from the USSR. Now the literacy level in the country is 98% of the whole population, which is very high especially when compared to other Muslim countries. According to UNICEF (2007), 99% of men and 96% of women are literate (p. 6). But after independence, the quality of education worsened due to various reasons. The first was corruption, as it became an open business between students and teachers as they started “trading” certain marks for certain prices. Some teachers go so far by declaring openly that there is no way to pass the exam except by giving bribes. The amount of the bribe changes according to the importance of the subject and the academic-administrative position of the teacher. This amount also fluctuates from one university to another. For example, it is significantly cheaper to pass an exam at the Azerbaijan State University of Architecture and Construction than at Baku State University (especially when it comes to prestigious faculties such as Law and International Relations).
The content of education was and still is another big problem facing students in most of the former Soviet Republics. During the 1990s, students at Baku State University still had to pass an exam in the history of the USSR and the Communist Party. According to Suleymanov (1996):
All the books were very outdated, most of the heroes had turned traitors and vice versa, but the test was still there and had to be passed. The solution was easy: lecture time was spent chatting, and the grades were based on attendance. Later in 1992, the contrast was even more pronounced with one professor teaching the virtues of a free market economy and another one demanding that students memorize Lenin’s works of collectivization. (pp. 10–11)
Gradually, nationalism filled the major vacuum across all subjects.
Lack of literature and broken system
The availability of books and other educational materials is still a big problem. Because of the language barrier, books in English or other Western languages stay inaccessible for a majority of students, though the trend among students to learn English is very high. A good amount of books can be found in a few book stores in Baku, mainly in Russian. Those books are mainly translated from other languages in different subjects. However, the number of buyers is not big enough to make this an attractable business. The number of book readers declined sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has not yet recovered. It is worth noting that the Soviet Union was among the first states in the world for the numbers of books read. There are two major reasons for this decline. First of all, the whole situation in the republic was so hard that an ordinary citizen had no time or even money to afford to buy and read a book. The fact that the whole belief system collapsed overnight was also an important factor, shattering the belief of the people in anything else. The second factor, as mentioned above, is the lack of materials in the Azerbaijani language. Books in foreign languages, even in Russian, remain inaccessible for the majority of the population.
However, as the trend for learning foreign languages is very high amongst the youth, this generation is often better trained to read from different sources in at least one foreign language (which is mainly English) than older generation, which happens to be their teachers. The majority of teachers, especially at the university level, is of the old generation, trained during the Soviet period and lacking any knowledge other than outdated Soviet literature. It is not surprising to meet teachers who still talk about the “bright future of communism.” Since there is no option to choose or drop a course, as is the case in Western educational systems, students end up sitting and listening to outdated lectures, and then have to pass an irrelevant exam.
Some representatives of the younger generation who studied in Western countries currently teach at university level. However, in most cases they are overwhelmed by workloads and are often marginalized, especially at public universities. The deans are not selected but appointed, and not for their educational credentials, but for their loyalty to the corrupt system of which they themselves are ardent representatives. Even the student unions should be loyal to this system, thus instead of representing the students, they become the representatives of this corrupt system.
Another interesting case is the private universities. Shortly after independence, numerous private universities came into existence. However, most of them were later shut down, mainly because of their lack of infrastructure for giving appropriate education. That problem was and is one of the main reasons for a lack of confidence amongst the public for private universities, though in some cases their level of education is better than in public universities. The other reason is that the employers were reluctant to hire the graduates of private universities, which started to change during the last several years. Among the universities that still operate, some of them are known for a poor level of education and high level of corruption (such as International University of Azerbaijan, which is in the process of being shut down), but others offer a relatively good quality of education and no corruption (such as Qafqaz and Khazar University).
However, there are numerous problems that private universities face. First of all, because of the lack of confidence in these universities, the bright students choose public universities, and thus students with a poor level of knowledge end up going to private universities, in most cases because of lack of choice. Second, there is a huge lack of qualified lecturers. As private universities are the main crusaders of modernization, their main challenge is to hire professionals with Western education. But because of low salary levels, the graduates of Western universities prefer to work in private companies (such as the oil sector) for relatively higher salaries. Those who choose to teach at universities do so only part time only a few hours per month, and in most cases they also lack professionalism, as most of them do not have a PhD or adequate teaching level. The third problem is the struggle to survive in an unfair system. After more and more private universities were shut down, the others were trying to be more compliant with government authorities. Recently, the faculties of law, international relations, international law, medicine, and biology of all private universities were closed, thus depriving them of crucial financial income, as those faculties are more in demand and thus more expensive. The universities had no other choice but to comply.
The students who studied in Western universities are often considered the best hope for Azerbaijan’s future, as they bring the most updated know-how back to their countries. Such a study was even unthinkable before independence. The most prestigious universities were those in Moscow. Though even today a huge number of students study in Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet countries, the first choice is Western universities. However, after independence, only a few people had a chance to study in the West, mostly thanks to scholarships given by international organizations or foreign embassies operating in Baku. The demand was far more than the offer, which made it very difficult to get such scholarships for the majority of students. The scholarships were mainly given by the Turkish, American and French embassies, British Council, German DAAD, and Open Society Institute.
On April 16, 2007, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev issued a decree “On ratification of State program on education of Azerbaijani youth abroad for the years 2007–2015.” According to the document, funding for this program should be realized by the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan. This program envisages the education of more than five thousand Azerbaijani students abroad (UNICEF, p. 12). But from the first year, the implementation of the program was characterized by unprofessionalism and chaos. The students accepted to foreign universities could not get scholarships because of sometimes ridiculous excuses, such as “the person who takes care of distributing scholarships is on vacation.” There were other cases when students did not get scholarships because of their active role in society and even their criticism of the government.
As for the students who got a chance to study in Western universities, they used these opportunities in different ways. Some of them studied hard, learned what they could, and then returned to Azerbaijan and actively joined social life. Others preferred to stay in the countries they went to, which was a loss for Azerbaijan as they were mainly the brightest minds as we mentioned above. There are many reasons why they could choose not to return—economic, political, among others. Some refused to come back because they saw no decent job opportunities, some thought that there was no political and economic freedom for them to act, while others thought it is economically more beneficial to stay and work in Western countries. Thus, some diaspora-based organizations were created by Azerbaijani students or alumni mainly within nationalistic frames (which is characteristic of any diaspora-based organization).
It should also be mentioned that a good part of those students neglected their studies for various reasons. It is difficult to name one, because most of the time there were a combination of reasons. The result was that many students returned home without any diploma. The interesting fact is that even such students were welcomed back home, as the simple truth that they came from a Western country was important enough and in fact, no one checked or asked if they passed their exams and earned their diplomas. Among those students, the ones who went at their own expense (i.e., with their families’ financial support) are most likely to fail, because mainly they used to study (or rather not study, thanks to corruption) back home and were not able to do so abroad. In one recent case, an Azerbaijani student at the University of York in the United Kingdom bribed the former head of European equity derivatives trading at Credit Suisse, in order to help him to cheat his way through his final-year economics exams (Hodgson , 2008).
However, Azerbaijan is not a net exporter of students. In the 2006/2007 academic year, 5,316 student from 50 different countries chose to study in Azerbaijan, an all-time high number. According to UNICEF, “Students from Turkey, Iran, China, India, Bangladesh, as well as students from Arabian states study mainly for profession of ‘oil engineering’, ‘electro mechanics’, ‘geodesy’, ‘construction engineering’, ‘physics’, ‘international relations’, ‘economics’, ‘medicine’ and ‘art’. It should be noted that, 95 % of foreign students study at paid basis” (p. 12). In addition to tuition fees, they also, in most cases, have to pay bribes in order to be successful. It is well known that most of the Turkish students go to Azerbaijan just because it is “easy” to study there.
As the whole education system was left broken after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its official communist ideology, the vacuum was mainly filled by newborn nationalism. The main reason was the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Any professor, even an old communist supporter, could gain popularity by being an ardent nationalist, which was/is equal to being anti-Armenian. Be it a private or public university, be it a student who studied only at home or abroad, be it a professor from ruling party or opposition—they all shared the same narrative: nationalism. This was not unique to Azerbaijan. We could observe this phenomenon all over the world: a good Canadian is anti-American, a good Pakistani is anti-Indian, a good Abkhaz is anti-Georgian, and obviously a patriotic Armenian is anti-Azeri.
Thanks to national media and other forms of mass narratives, whole nations are usually generalized as good or bad, and one is often unwillingly forced to take sides. The educational system is a crucial part of this destructive machine. It is also an old one that old elites in Europe used for state-building purposes following the Great French Revolution. Unfortunately, we are still locked in those narratives, and unless we are willing to liberate our educational and other state institutions we will continue being the slaves of our own imagination, which has often nothing to do with reality.
Hodgson, M. (2008, January 22). City Banker, 34, sat exams for student, 22. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/jan/22/highereducation.students
Suleymanov, E. (1996). Youth in search of the future: Identity changes in post-soviet Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan International, 4(4), 10–11.
UNICEF. (2007). The State of Youth in Azerbaijan: Summary of Analytical Report. Baku: Zulfugarov, Nagiyeva, Efendiyev, Abbasali, & Sadigzade.
 The latest data about the level of education was collected in 1999 after a population census was taken.