Azerbaijan: Come Back, Kids

come back kidsBAKU, Azerbaijan | Fariz Ismayilzade frequently says “no.” The chairman of the American Alumni Association, a Baku-based group of past participants in U.S. educational programs, said the roughly 900 members of AAA are in high demand – so high that he can’t accommodate all of the requests for their work.

“Every single day, I receive phone calls from various government institutions – the National Bank, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labor, and so on,” Ismayilzade said. “They ask me to recommend specialists in many areas educated abroad, so they can hire them. But I have no people to offer – most of our members are already working.”

Azeris educated abroad are hot commodities on the domestic labor market for their skills and expertise acquired overseas. Because the education system in Azerbaijan is viewed widely as corrupt and out of step with international standards, such students are strong job prospects when they return. Now, a new initiative to increase the number of foreign-educated Azeris may ease some of the pressure Ismayilzade faces as the country’s demand for skilled specialists grows.

Between 2007 and 2015, up to 15,000 Azeri students will be educated at schools across the globe on the government’s dime. For the current academic year alone, President Ilham Aliev recently allocated 1.8 million euros – acquired from the government’s recent boom in oil revenues – to send the students abroad. The program has received both public support and the backing of some youth organizations.

The initiative will allow thousands of young people to call the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and other countries home for a few years, but the government will require participants to sign agreements that they will return to Azerbaijan when they graduate. Some Azeris are concerned the program could cause a “brain drain” if despite their agreements students refuse to return home. Still others are worried the program will cater only to a select cohort.

Elnura Gurbanova, an activist in the Alumni Network, a Baku-based group that spearheaded the campaign to send more students abroad, said the success of the state program will depend on how it is implemented. “Many people in Azerbaijan do not trust any government initiatives because of a lack of transparency in the ruling elite,” Gurbanova said. “Many people now are concerned that only children of high-ranking officials and rich people will finally get the chance to have a government scholarship. The major task of the government is to dispel such concerns.”

Making the Cut

According to the Education Ministry, about 3,000 Azeri students are studying abroad. There are more than 10,000 alumni of foreign universities and schools in Azerbaijan. About 2,000 of them graduated from U.S. schools, 2,000 from European institutions, and the rest from schools in Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere. For the most part, these alumni paid their own tuition and other expenses or received funds from educational exchange programs sponsored by foreign governments.

For many young Azeris, the government’s financial silence when it came to studying abroad was unacceptable. So in 2005, the Alumni Network launched its “The future will not come on its own” drive, mobilizing hundreds of youth to lobby the government to allocate oil money to study-abroad programs. The network hoped a presidential decree would allow 5,000 Azeris per year to get degrees from some of the best universities in the world.

Gurbanova said the network was thrilled by Aliev’s recent decree – a victory for the grassroots youth movement. “It is always better to spend oil revenues for youth education,” she said. Still, Gurbanova and others are eyeing the government closely to see how it will select the students it sponsors abroad.

Education Minister Misir Mardanov said at a meeting in June that candidates for the government funding will pass through uniform selection procedures. Preference will be given to those planning to study specialties most needed in the country. “We are going to give preference to business administration, current economic fields, and IT and communications technologies,” Mardanov said.

But some Azeris say the process lacks transparency, both in the application and selection phases. “Young people call me and ask how they can apply for these funds, but I don’t know what to tell them,” Ismayilzade said.

He said the ministry should promote the campaign heavily and launch resource centers in Baku and the provinces that would facilitate participation in the program. “Very few people in Azerbaijan are aware of how to prepare an application to a Western university, how to write an essay, and so on,” Ismayilzade said. “If the government will not fill this gap, the program may turn into an opportunity for a small group of elite young people.”

He also said that the government’s current selection procedure should be less centralized. “We [at AAA] proposed to the government a system where young people themselves would apply and get admission to foreign universities, and then the respective government council would make the decision to give a scholarship to the student or not,” Ismayilzade said.

A source in the presidential administration, who did not want to be named, said debates among officials about what to do with the program are ongoing. The source said some people support the system proposed by AAA, while others say the government should not only choose the students but also the universities they attend and specialties they study.

“There is also a difference of opinion about who will be responsible for the selection process – the Ministry of Education, State Students Admission Commission, or a new separate body,” the source said.

Meanwhile, some activists and students have concerns about the government running the program appropriately and possibly basing participant selection on students’ political leanings in light of the case of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, a student who began graduate study at Harvard University in August. Hajiyev has claimed the state deprived him of the funding it promised him for his studies for “political reasons.” He launched the website, the name of which means “Let’s not remain silent,” in January in order to collect signatures protesting government decisions to increase the prices of energy and utilities. The government subsequently blocked the site, arrested Hajiyev, and jailed him for two days.

Hajiyev said he met with several government representatives in July to discuss funding for his study abroad. “Despite verbal assurances … that I would receive funding, no written confirmation was provided. Nevertheless, I left for the United States for study through support from a businessman,” Hajiyev told the Turan news agency.

To continue his education, Hajiyev said he needs a bank loan worth $25,000 but cannot get the loan for lack of written confirmation from the Education Ministry that it is providing a scholarship. He also said that the government gave no reply to an inquiry from Harvard.

A source at the Education Ministry said in late September that Hajiyev is not listed among students studying abroad on the presidential program and that he cannot receive a scholarship.

Home Sweet Home

Gurbanova admits a “brain drain” problem exists in Azerbaijan; many students educated abroad have not returned home. She said almost half of the Azeri students she studied with in Germany never came back to Azerbaijan and many of those who did stayed only a short time. “Students prefer to live and work in more developed countries like the U.S.A. and Europe,” she said.

Under the new government program, students who accept state funding for their foreign studies will agree to return home and work for at least three years. If they do not come back, they will have to reimburse the government for the money spent on their education.

As an added incentive to return to Azerbaijan, Education Minister Mardanov said in September that the government will guarantee employment to students who study abroad between 2007 and 2015. “They will get an opportunity to work in the state institutions with high salaries,” Mardanov said.

Some students currently studying at foreign schools say they plan to come home, not only because they care about Azerbaijan but also because they know jobs for those educated abroad are plentiful. Emin Babayev, 22, a graduate student at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said he has decided to return to Baku after graduation. “The government needs and encourages young, well-educated specialists,” Babayev said. “I think people like me have prospects for careers in Azerbaijan. Therefore, I see my future in Azerbaijan, and I will return.”

Still, whether students who will use government funds to study in distant countries return to Azerbaijan en masse remains to be seen. Ismayilzade and Gurbanova said that even with a potential “brain drain” problem, the government is right to promote studying abroad as much as possible for the sake of its youth. To keep students coming back to their home country, the two alumni of foreign universities say, the state must take other domestic considerations into account.

“The government should analyze the reasons why young people do not want to return and change the situation,” Gurbanova said.


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