Azerbaijan: Everybody Gets a Piece

everybody gets a pieceBaku | Azerbaijani education officials certainly had cause to celebrate this summer.  After nearly 15 years of stalled efforts and heated debates, parliament passed a long-awaited new law on education, finally replacing the 1992 acting law that had regulated education since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.  President Ilham Aliyev signed the law into effect on 7 September.

Lauding the initiative of his ministry, Education Minister Misir Mardanov promised that the new law would be effective because “…it meets all modern requirements and corresponds with [Azerbaijan’s larger] reforms.”

But education experts are not so convinced.  Some analysts and teachers have even called the new law a step backward, arguing that it adds to the existing lack of transparency in Azerbaijan’s education system.

“This new law smells of authoritarianism,” argued Etibar Aliyev, the head of the non-governmental organization Education Center XXI Century.  “It has no liberal values, no democratic principles. We signed the Bologna declaration in 2005, which aims for a more European style of education and, much to my regret, the new law is in contradiction with it.”

“We cannot leave behind socialism, and we cannot join developed countries either,” lamented Siyavush Novruzov, a deputy of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party during the first reading of the bill. “See the document and you will understand everybody is trying to take a piece for himself.”

Dwindling Transparency

The State Commission on Students Admission (TQDK) has taken issue with still granting winners of academic Olympiads admission to universities without having them undergo compulsory standardized exams, despite widespread objections after the first reading of the bill.

All students are supposed to take standardized tests administered by the TQDK, an independent body separate from the Ministry of Education.  Introduced in 1992 and based on the American standardized admission test model, these written exams were designed to judge students’ aptitude for higher education.  According to the new education law, students must continue to take the exams, but a vaguely defined “appropriate executive office” is now charged with deciding where they will be admitted.  Exams to obtain masters’ degrees are now evaluated by the same “appropriate executive office” instead of the TQDK.

These anonymous addresses, or vaguely defined offices, are a matter of great concern to education experts because no one knows exactly who will handle these responsibilities.  “Appropriate executive office” is repeated more than 40 times in the new law.

Education expert Rovshan Agayev of the Centre for Economic Initiative Support says that these vague terms will cause big problems, “because executive offices make decisions behind closed doors and those decisions are at a higher level than the rule of law.” For example, many now fear that state university tuition hikes are on their way.  Education expert Etibar Aliyev thinks that, “the heads of schools will do whatever they want, because there’s no rule [in the new law] about the fees for universities.”

Such fears are not unwarranted.  Tuition in state universities has increased three times over the last six years, and remains extremely burdensome for many Azerbaijanis. According to the Centre for Economic Initiative Support, it costs $600-$2,100 per year to attend Baku State University depending on the program, while the average cost of study at the State Economic University is $1,600.  At the same time, the average monthly salary in Azerbaijan is around $370.

Where Has the Money Gone?

“In spite of the recession, the Azerbaijani government spent $297.5 USD million more on education this year,” Minister Mardanov stated during the nation-wide Republic Conference of Teachers on 5 September.  Government allocations last year for education were the equivalent of $1.3 billion.  And the World Bank has made a contribution of 25 million dollars toward the strengthening of the Azerbaijani education system over the period 2008-2013. The World Bank’s donation was earmarked for technical improvements, mainly to purchase computers for schools, while the state allocations went toward building new facilities, renovations, textbooks and other resources.

According to the education ministry, in recent years, the government has built hundreds of new schools and renovated much of its existing stock, as well as boosted the number of computers in Azerbaijani schools from one per 1,032 students in secondary schools to one per 29.  The education ministry plans to give 400 laptops to its best teachers and students, as determined by Olympiads and academic competitions organized by the ministry this year.  They also plan to build new physics and chemistry laboratories in 100 schools.

“That’s a boom,” said Bayram Huseynzade, a spokesman for the education ministry.  “Using these millions, we will try to change not only schools but the content of education at the same time.”

But many teachers say this rosy picture doesn’t reflect the real situation in Azerbaijan’s schools.

“Nothing has changed for me… You are not talking about reality,” complained Terane Kandalova, a mathematics teacher at a secondary school in Baku, in response to the government’s self-professed achievements. “Pupils come to school just to get their certificates.  They don’t even want to answer our questions; good pupils go to tutors.  Nobody is interested in teaching them at school. You have to pay tutors if you want your child to be taught.”

Kandalova was referring to the common practice of employing external tutors to help students prepare for standardized exams and admission to higher education.  While she receives a monthly salary of $80, private tutors can make anywhere from $100-200 per month, per pupil.  The average monthly salary of a public school teacher is $200 according to the government, but education experts say it’s more like $100 per month.

According to Kandalova, students hardly value the role of teachers in their own education or in society.  “Everybody can get a certificate by paying off the director of their school.  Teachers are nobodies.  And we have to pay the director to pick up more lessons, so we can make higher salaries.”

“I’m so tired, as both a parent and a teacher.  I feel so terrible, so useless,” Kandalova added.

Another teacher at a secondary school in Baku, who asked that her name not be used, was similarly depressed about the current system. “How do you fight it, using the law?” she asked.  “Don’t raise my blood pressure, please.  Our director has his own rules and laws…  I go to school just because I don’t want to stay at home.”

She was also angry because the school that her three-year-old grandson attends recently asked their family to pay a compulsory fee.  According to the education ministry, all kindergartens in Azerbaijan are provided free of charge.  Furthermore, the new law stipulates that every child should go to kindergarten before elementary school, despite the fact that the number of kindergartens has been severely reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many parents say it is hard to secure a place without paying a “fee”.

Malahat Murshudlu, the head of the Free Teachers Union, thinks increased budget allocations for education are not nearly enough to reverse corruption: “The attitude to education must be changed. There are good and honest teachers, but there are people who see the school or the university as a ‘money pit’… and their attitude to education affects the pupils and students around them. There are decrees and orders, but no control or monitoring, and that’s the cause of corruption.” Murshudlu added that the new law does not address the issue of corruption at all.

The efficacy of increased education expenses was further questioned by the recent results of middle school examinees: Scores from this year’s graduates were the worst in the past five years.  Half of the students obtained less than 140 points out of a maximum of 700 and only 6.5 percent received 500-700 points, according to the SCSA.  The chairwoman of the SCSA, Maleyka Abbaszade, says her commission will investigate why many graduates who received high marks upon leaving middle school couldn’t reach even 100 points during admission exams to high school.

As of this year, every middle school pupil must take an exam upon leaving school.  Students who fail the exam do not receive their certificates and are kept back for another year.  This policy was applied for the first time in Baku last year, and went into effect nationwide this year. “One of the most successful reforms of the education ministry this year was middle school leaving exams.  We will not give certificates to pupils who do not have the knowledge,” said Bayram Huseynzade, the education ministry spokesperson.

Even Education Minister Mardanov acknowledges that the ministry still has a great deal of work left to do.  In spite of the recent reforms and budget increases, he admits there is still a shortage of 7,000 teachers in the rural areas of the country; no foreign languages are being taught in 10 percent of the country’s schools; more than 80 percent of schools and universities do not have adequate heating in the winter; and 600 sub-standard buildings are still in use as schools.


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