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Azeri Colleges Allegedly Missing European Goals

Some students, lecturers and education experts claim low standards, failure to integrate with Europe.
By Durna Safarli
The government is being accused of not doing enough to live up to its international obligations to improve the higher education system.

Azerbaijan is one of the 46 signatories to the Bologna Declaration, which obliges European countries to modernise and open up their university systems. Baku was expected to bring its procedures into line with European practice by this year, but students say it is a long way from achieving its goal.

“The conditions of the Bologna system are left completely unfulfilled. All the students’ rights are being violated,” said Mammad Agayev, a second-year student at the Baku State University.

The Bologna Process aims to standardise Europe’s education systems along the lines of the Anglo-Saxon bachelor’s and master’s degree model, thus enhancing European integration by making qualifications more interchangeable between countries.

Etibar Aliyev, an education expert, said Azerbaijan was not part of the European education space that unites the continent’s best universities, despite its government’s ambitions. He said the country was not even close to fulfilling its obligations under the Bologna Process to improve standards, overhaul qualifications and encourage student exchanges.

“We are already in 2010, and no goals of the Bologna Declaration have been reached in Azerbaijan. Our country’s signing up to this process is just a formality, just like all the other supposedly realised European values,” he said.

“According to the Bologna Declaration, students are the priority, they have the freedom to choose what they want to study, their lecturers, and they are helped in this by appointed tutors. But despite the fact our country signed up to this declaration, all these freedoms have not spread among Azerbaijan’s students.

“The ministry must allow student mobility. Under the conditions of the Bologna Process, our students, like all the others in Europe, have the right to spend some semesters in universities of other countries, and then return again.”

Natiq Ibrahimov, chief adviser on higher education at the education ministry, pleaded for more time, saying the students needed to appreciate the size of the changes Azerbaijan has to make. He denied allegations that the process was not being implemented

“From 2005, the ministry has steadily introduced European values into Azerbaijan’s education system. But you should not forget that this is for us a new system, and at first there may be deficiencies. But every year we are trying to perfect our system,” he said.

It’s not just students like Agayev who have yet to experience the impact of the educational reform they were supposedly living through. Agayev’s lecturer, Akif Rustamov, from the journalism faculty, admitted he knew almost nothing of the Bologna Process.

“I think that most teachers, just like me, aren’t very well informed about these education changes. Probably, only the dean and his deputies know something. It would be good if they printed all the rules and conditions of the Bologna Process for the lecturers and students, so we could acquaint ourselves with them,” he said.

That is not to say Azeri students do not go to European universities. Nijat Qarayev, for example, has studied at a university in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. But he was amazed to hear it was supposedly part of the same educational space as Azerbaijan.

“I studied for two years in Azerbaijan, in the foreign languages faculty, which was connected to the Bologna Process. We agreed that we would choose our courses and lecturers ourselves, but of course no one got a choice, it was all decided by the dean. And [in the Netherlands] there is a completely different relation between students and lecturers. There we have a tutor, which is something I never heard of in Azerbaijan,” he said.

“They say that [in Azerbaijan] apparently the dean is actually a tutor of students. Can one man really tutor 500 students? Here one tutor has just 20 or 30 students.”

Ibrahimov was surprised by the criticism, saying the faculty’s deans were more than capable of giving personal attention to any number of students.

“And where is it written that the dean of the faculty cannot be a tutor? The deans fulfil the tutor’s role very well. And I do not agree that our students do not have the freedom to choose their courses and teachers. It is just that the dean helps them with their choice, and in that he is their tutor,” the education ministry adviser said.

Qarayev said the quality of the Azerbaijan system was so far below that of Europe that it could not be considered part of the same educational space.

“Students who go to study in Europe take three or four exams in their first semesters. The knowledge of even the best Azeri students is a lot lower and Azeri students struggle to adapt to their system,” he said.

Ironically, he said, considering the quality of education abroad, the semesters spent in the Netherlands would probably not count towards an Azeri degree.

“It isn’t clear if a student from Azerbaijan could return to Baku and continue his studies. As far as I know, they would insist you went back and did the semesters again, meaning the student would be kept back,” Qarayev said.

The education ministry’s Ibrahimov admitted there had been problems in students transferring between countries, but said these would be resolved.

“Before 2005, education for Azerbaijan’s students in European countries was not as simple as it now is. But after we moved to the Bologna Process, it ceased to be a problem. But we have only been in this system for five years, and it is natural that our system should still differ from the European one. Therefore, our students who study for a couple of semesters abroad cannot currently return and continue their education here,” he said.

“But this is temporary. When our system becomes identical to the European, this problem will be resolved.”

Aliyev, the educational expert, said the deficiencies were not just evident in the quality of education and administration, but also in purely financial terms. Lecturers, he said, were not being paid well enough – something also alleged by Rustamov.

“In a year my job involves around 500 hours of work. That includes lectures, seminars, exams, leadership of first-years, my own work. I receive for this 470 manats (about 590 US dollars) a month. In order to get this salary, you need 20 years of experience and to be a PhD,” he said.

Ibrahimov said the government had not promised to increase lecturers’ salaries under the Bologna Process. “In the Bologna Declaration there is nothing about the salaries of lecturers,” he said.

Durna Safarli is a journalist with Radio Liberty.

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