Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Pages 15-16

Reader's Forum

Rethinking Education

Editor: In response to our issue: "Youth-What's On Their Minds" (AI 11.4, Winter 2003); many young people wrote to share their concerns. As might be expected, issues related to education topped their lists. We share some of their ideas here.

There are so many problems in our society that relate to education. Of course, many of them exist because of lack of finances, lack of access to modern resources and ideas. But there are other problems, as well, that deeply concern me-especially issues related to the attitude of true learning.

When I was admitted to my specific university program, only students who had achieved very high scores on the university entrance exams were admitted. Traditionally, my faculty is one of the most prestigious university programs and to be eligible to study in this field, one's scores have to be very high. The following year, more students joined our class, transferring in from private universities. Unfortunately, their scores were much lower than those from the original class. Note that in Azerbaijan, state universities are generally considered to be stronger than private universities.

But the great disparity in test scores between these two groups created enormous difficulties for all of us. The students who had been admitted that second year had neither the desire, nor the ability, to study seriously.

Furthermore, they knew that at the end of the semester, they could bribe most of their teachers. For them, "the rates" were not so prohibitive as they were for us since their parents were relatively wealthy.

More troublesome was the impact this situation had upon the original group of students. As time passed, students who had studied and tried so hard during the first year became demoralized and lost their enthusiasm, especially when they realized that many of their teachers gave the highest grades only to those students who paid.

Of course, one can't entirely fault the teachers for this situation, as their salaries are far too low. Many of them feel they have to bribe just to survive. But students must also bear some of the responsibility. Regardless of where the blame is placed, the result is devastating and demoralizing for all of us.

Choice of Courses
Another problem is that we don't get a chance to test and apply our learning in practical ways. During the course of four years of undergraduate study and two years of graduate school, we are basically pumped with theory. We have very little chance for "hands-on" courses where we can get practical experience to understand and test what we learn.

Many students apply for the Master's program as soon as they complete their undergraduate degrees. They rarely work during the interm between the two degrees, as an education without a Master's degree is viewed as inadequate and incomplete. Many of us fear that without an advanced degree we will have difficulty landing a job, though for many of us an advanced degree is a waste of time, since we just fill our heads with more theoretical, untested knowledge.

Students at the Medical University, where one of my friends is studying, do internships beginning in their sixth year (of seven years of study). But recently I was shocked to learn that some of the doctors are refusing to provide instruction during internships, fearing that the young people will "take their jobs".

Admittance to Grad Programs
Who gets chosen to continue graduate studies? That's another problem for many of us. Invariably, it's the students who have the strongest networks and connections. If 20 or 25 positions are available, perhaps only five or six truly qualified students will be chosen.

These days teachers complain that students are lazy, but, perhaps, this passivity is best explained by the fact that students are so skeptical that they won't find satisfying work upon graduation despite their efforts. We look around us and realize that often even the most outstanding students in the best programs of the country can't find good jobs. Upon graduation so few of us are able to find work related to our field of study. In many cases, the only way to get a job is to have very strong networks, especially in government offices. Unfortunately, it seems that "who you know" is much more important than "what you know".

Another serious problem relates to scholarships since they are still based on the same standard of living of the Soviet period more than a decade ago. Students with exceptionally high grades and scores receive additional stipends of about 2,000 manats more per month (about 40 cents)-a ridiculously low sum. The most highly qualified undergraduate students receive scholarships of only 18,500 manats (about $3.70) per month. This sum doesn't even cover transportation costs to attend school, much less provide money for purchasing books or food.

As a consequence, students must rely upon their parents. This, in turn, inhibits their freedom of activities. Recently by State Decree, scholarships have been raised. Now the rates range between 70,000 and 90,000 manats monthly [$14-$18] depending upon the performance and degree of the student, but still it is incredibly low and far from adequate to cover even basic needs.

No Elective courses
Unfortunately, students have no chance to choose the courses they would like to study. Absolutely every course is determined by the department. All courses are obligatory. Unlike students in many other countries, Azerbaijani students have no choice whatsoever to pursue the courses that interest them throughout all their years of study. There is no such thing as elective courses-none whatsoever. Nor can students skip classes that they deem unnecessary, boring or irrelevant. They are obliged to attend all lectures, apractice that, in itself, contradicts the aim of study. Students attend classes, not because of their interest, but primarily because they don't want to deal with the problem of "absence marks" at the end of the semester. In many cases, absences become the crucial factor in determining a student's grade.

Outmoded libraries
Libraries are one of the most important institutions of learning. But here, the process of checking out books is still so cumbersome and difficult. There's no use even to discuss online catalogs for our libraries. Students spend so much time searching for titles only to discover that the books are not on the shelves or that the relevant pages have been torn out. Lack of funds makes it impossible for libraries to purchase new books. Modern texts are too expensive and most universities, with the exception of private institutions, cannot afford to buy them.

Unfortunately, most of the books in our libraries still date back to the Soviet period and, consequently they reflect the ideology and mentality of that period. Even scientific books express such tendencies. Most of these books really have not been updated or replaced. It's so difficult for us students to determine if the material is correct or not, since most of us have not yet been exposed to alternative ideas.

Further complicating our situation is the fact that Azerbaijan officially adopted a new alphabet in late 1991 immediately after we gained our independence from the Soviet Union. Parliament opted for a modified Latin script, which was very similar to what we had been using prior to when Cyrillic was imposed on our country in the 1920s. This new legislation to rid ourselves of Cyrillic was one of the first laws that was passed by our National Parliament a few weeks after we gained our independence-December 25, 1991. Many young people, born after about 1990, have not been formally taught to read the old Cyrillic alphabet. However, so few books are available in Latin (either for the lower grades or for higher advanced education) as it takes an enormous amount of time and money to republish the books in the new alphabet. Nearly 13 years later, there's still a huge black hole when it comes to finding relevant, well-written texts available in the Azeri Latin script.

Student-Teacher Gap
There's also an enormous gap between students and their teachers because students don't feel free to express their opinions. They are not convinced that most teachers are open to listen to them. During the course of 70 years, the Soviet system totally stifled the ability of our people to think for themselves and to be independent and think critically. Even today, young people still hesitate to express their views in the classroom situation.

Of course, students themselves must bear some of the responsibility for these difficulties. They still have not learned to build relationships with their teachers as persons who are eager to help them solve their education problems. Of course, most teachers really don't satisfy the requirements and expectations of the new generation, as their heads are full of Soviet ideology. The teachers still haven't learned to present fresh, contemporary ideas, which we can find in modern books. This can be explained by their inability to access modern books and the Internet. Only a few teachers have access to computers, and then rarely do they invite students to dialog with them.

No matter how difficult the times are for Azerbaijani students, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of us still have great hopes that some of our fellow students who are studying at universities abroad will come back to our country to help create a strong and modern educational system-one which we can all be proud of and which will empower our youth and make our country strong.

Shams Asgarova
A recent graduate from one of Baku's leading educational institutions

From Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

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