Winter 1996 (4.4)
Pages 16-18, 84
Education in Azerbaijan
The Challenges of Transition
By Ahmad Abdinov
Deputy Minister of Education
One of the greatest legacies that Azerbaijan has inherited from the past is a strong educational system. Formal education began at the turn of the last century and coincided with Azerbaijan's oil boom. It became even more widespread and prominent during the Soviet period.
Now with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, education is facing a severe crisis as the economic basis and organizational structure for education has had to be assumed by each of the individual republics.
Azerbaijan's First Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Abdinov, shares his views on some of the complexities that educationalists are facing these days.
Azerbaijan is a relatively small republic; in fact, eight countries the size of Azerbaijan could fit inside of Texas. Nevertheless, despite how small we are, approximately one-third of our population is engaged in education. That means nearly 2.2 million people out of a population of slightly more than 7 million are either teachers or students. During the Soviet period, Azerbaijan had an extremely high literacy rate of 99 percent and was known for its well-educated population. In fact, our literacy rate was higher than those in most Western nations.
People usually are surprised to learn that Azerbaijan's national budget allocates more to education than to defense. Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev once observed, "I need an army of teachers much more than I need an army of soldiers. If we incur serious damages in education, it will be difficult to recover."
Therefore, 18 percent of the national budget is designated for education, which is nearly the same percentage that some of the most advanced Western countries allocate. Parliament has just passed their 1997 budget and allocated 648 billion manats ($151.4 million) to education while only spending 357 billion manats ($83.4 million) for defense. In fact, some Parliament members are complaining about what they see as the relatively low level of military spending at a time when the country is still in conflict with neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Our teachers receive the highest salary among government workers-on average approximately $15 to $30 per month depending upon the level and courses they teach. Even doctors working in government institutions officially make less.
Of course, because of the inflation that has occurred since 1991 during the transition from a centralized economy to a free market enterprise, such a salary is far from adequate and must be supplemented. Most teachers and professors tutor in their specialties to support their families.
We're trying to find ways to supplement education from non-governmental sources. We're allowing private schools to open. We're actively participating in international programs which render financial help, and we're trying to attract sponsors and investors to collaborate with us on special projects.
Let me comment on a few of the difficulties that Azerbaijan has been facing in education since we gained our independence in 1991.
Russian Language Link is Disappearing
In the past, it was the Russian language that gave us access to the latest achievements in scientific thought. But the links have been broken these days. We used to have access to a tremendous number of major international academic journals or, at least, Russian translations of them. But now Azerbaijan alone has the responsibility of funding all educational projects, and we do not have the resources to subscribe directly to all these publications. It has been an enormous setback and reversal for us. It's nearly six years that our scientists and scholars have not been able to keep current with literature in their respective fields.
In addition, since so many of our mature scholars have concentrated single-mindedly on mastering Russian, many don't know English or other European languages, and now they find themselves cut off from the international academic community.
To this end, I hope we'll be able to take advantage of the newest techniques and methods of pedagogy in language acquisition to make learning more efficient. We used to concentrate on tedious grammar rules and drills and employ old-fashioned, direct translation methods. It was rare for us to support language learning with audio and visual materials such as cassette tapes and videos. As a result, many of us lack the practical oral language skills that facilitate communication.
Lack of Computer Literacy
Another problem relates to our lack of computer knowledge and know-how. In the former Soviet Union, we wrote mostly by hand. But times have changed. Now everywhere in the world, people are communicating via computers.
We still don't have many computers in our republic. Even in our large universities, there are very few. We're just in the initial stages of setting up computer centers, evaluating software programs, buying equipment and inviting experts from other countries to come and help us train. I'm personally awaiting the day when Azerbaijan will finally be connected to the Internet so we can stay abreast of the latest developments in science, medicine, arts, and humanities. We need to make computers accessible in all schools and classes even at the primary level. Presently, none of our major libraries or universities, including the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, even has its book collection computerized. The old card catalog system is still in use.
New Educational System Adopted
Despite the complexity of this period, we felt it was appropriate to introduce a new model for education. In the past, we had a "one-tiered" educational system, which meant that all students received the same degree when they graduated from the university. But now we've modeled our system on a new "three-tiered" or "three-degree" system (Bachelor's, Master's and Doctorate) similar to that used in the United States and Europe.
Despite our resolve, we still don't have the material basis to support this approach. At Baku State University Library, for example, there are 3 million books, but all of them have been developed for a one-level educational system. Today, we need 6,500 syllabi for 270 fields of study as they relate to this new system, but because independence descended upon us so suddenly, we haven't been able to prepare all of them yet.
Importing Paper and Pencils
Despite the fact that so many people are involved in education in Azerbaijan, there is still no single enterprise in the entire country that produces supplies and equipment related to education. For example, there are no factories to produce simple, fundamental items such as paper, pencils, pens, notebooks, erasers, desks, and chalkboards. In the past, they came from the enormous web of interrelationships within the Soviet Union. But these links have been broken, and we have no choice but to import such items. Consequently, they are quite expensive.
It's impossible for us to solve these needs overnight. Our economy must be rebuilt slowly. Despite our economic difficulties, I should mention that there has never been a time when we suspended education, even though there have been times when we have suffered from lack of bread. Russia closed the routes through the North Caucasus this past year because of the war with Chechnya, but it did not stop us from transporting desks from Moldavia to the Caspian Sea by river routes via Astrakhan (a Russian city at the delta of the Caspian).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the underlying ideological basis for humanitarian and social sciences-Marxism - has been rejected. We're in the process of rethinking and reevaluating the ideological basis for our educational system. It's not a simple task. Don't forget that most of our teachers and professors have been educated under the old Soviet system and have spent their entire lifetimes supporting and often propagating Marxist ideology. Obviously, we need to do a tremendous amount of retraining. It's true that many people were ready to dispose of this ideology long before the dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred. Many were actually waiting for the moment when we would rid ourselves of communism.
But now that Marxism has been rejected, a void or vacuum exists which must be replaced with something new. Educators must rethink their own perspectives. To do this, they'll need supportive materials in the classroom-books, newspapers, journals. Admittedly, this is one of the most difficult problems we are facing today. We desperately need new material for a new ideological approach.
One million people have been displaced from their homes and communities because of the war with Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region inside Azerbaijan that Armenians want to claim as their own. The conflict began in 1988, and thousands have died on both sides. Many Azerbaijanis had to flee for their lives on foot, some after only a few moments' notice. Many have been displaced more than once as they tried to stay as close to their communities and towns as possible. Almost none have been able to return home yet as Armenians continue to occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory.
In Azerbaijan, one person out of every seven is a refugee. An estimated 200,000 children of primary school age are refugees. Approximately 15,000 teachers, displaced themselves, have lost their jobs and are scattered all over the country.
The refugee problem has impacted education in at least three major areas. The physical loss is perhaps the easiest to assess. Damage to educational property is estimated at $1.3 billion as nearly 900 educational institutions have been destroyed. Specifically, this includes 616 schools, one university, 11 colleges, approximately 15 technical schools and 120 kindergartens. Many of these buildings have been bombed or burned to the ground. An estimated 10 million books have been destroyed.
Secondly, the impact upon the refugees themselves - students, teachers and their families - is incalculable. Educational communities have been scattered and mentoring relationships broken. Thousands of children, living in "tent cities" or improvised shelters made of reeds or mud bricks alongside highways, have not attended school for the past three to four years, and sometimes longer. An entire generation of children is being deprived of any systematized education during the most formative years of their lives. And children who have been privileged enough to attend classes in improvised classrooms rarely have access to fundamental educational materials. There are never enough textbooks. Often children can't even afford simple copybooks and pencils. Forget access to resource and reference materials.
Thirdly, the refugee problem is not confined to Azerbaijanis who were living in Nagorno-Karabakh or its environs. It has affected every single person in Azerbaijan, and has had a disastrous effect on many children in the non-refugee population, because so many of their schools including university buildings have been converted into dormitories to house refugees. Education has been totally disrupted for many young people who normally attend these schools. Sometimes classes meet in the corners of classrooms or even outside, since the normal classroom space is occupied by living quarters. And sometimes, they don't meet at all. An estimated 58,000 children are not able to attend school on a regular basis.
Another expense that people rarely consider is the additional costs for electricity, gas, and water used by refugees who are residing in these school buildings. Budgets allocated to specific educational institutions are usually not adequate to cover the expenses of the institution itself under normal circumstances. It is one thing to provide electricity and water for 700 pupils during school hours, but quite another matter to assume the expenses for 100 to 150 families who occupy these buildings 24 hours around the clock.
In 1991, one of the first laws that Azerbaijan's Parliament passed to disassociate itself from the Soviet Union was to adopt a modified-Latin alphabet to replace Cyrillic. Such a transition is difficult and costly even under normal conditions. First of all, it requires that we republish textbooks in the new script. But it's not just the alphabet that has officially been changed-our ideological, cultural and historical point of view is being reevaluated at the same time. While we were part of the Soviet Union, very few Azerbaijani scientists, poets, writers and composers were included in the Soviet textbooks, no matter how outstanding they were in their fields. Our students knew more about Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff than their own composers like Hajibeyov, Garayev, Amirov and others. They studied Russian writers more often than their own. They knew Pushkin and Gorky more than our poets Fuzuli, Nizami, Vahid or Sabir. So in the process of introducing a new script, we have to reevaluate and rewrite the content.
Naturally, this consumes incredible resources and time. We've started with the lower grades and are working our way upwards, printing new books for the younger children first.
Adopting a new alphabet has caused many confusing problems. Pupils in the advanced levels who studied Cyrillic in the past now have to familiarize themselves with a new script. At the same time, primary school children who have started with the Latin script are likely to have difficulties reading Cyrillic in the future, which is another great loss as many texts and resources are not likely to be reprinted in Latin. Most books in private collections or libraries have been printed in the Cyrillic script. A great body of knowledge will be lost to future generations unless they learn Cyrillic, along with the Latin script.
This is not the first time we've faced this problem. It happened earlier this century when Arabic was substituted with a modified-Latin script in 1928. Arabic had been our alphabet for more than a thousand years since the 7th century. Our alphabet changed again in 1938 when Cyrillic was imposed by Soviet authorities and the Latin forbidden.
But evidence for alphabet transition manifests itself everywhere. Business entrepreneurs are leading the way. Most small shops prefer to put their signage in Azeri Latin script or in English. Television subtitles are also in Azeri Latin.
We do face enormous problems, it's true. But in the past we have always managed to educate our people to a very high level. This precedent gives us hope and courage that this legacy can be continued for future generations.
From Azerbaijan International (4.4) Winter 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.