Vol. 1, No. 20 (November 15, 2008)
Integrating Azerbaijan’s higher educational system into European higher education area: Accomplishments, challenges and future prospects
The European Union has launched a process to create a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) by 2010. This is to be achieved through international cooperation and academic exchange in the context of the so-called Bologna Declaration. The EHEA entails, among other key changes, the establishment of a three-level degree system - bachelor, master and doctorate, the introduction of standard quality assurance mechanisms, and the definition of a common system of qualifications and academic credits. The Bologna Declaration was signed by the ministers of education from 29 European countries in that Italian city in June 1999. Currently, 46 countries are signatories to the EHEA, Montenegro being the last state to join the process in May 2007 in London.
Azerbaijan committed itself to the goals of this process in May 2005 in Bergen, Norway, and is now hard at work bringing its higher educational institutions into line with Bologna requirements. After Azerbaijan signed on to the Bologna process, the country’s education ministry developed a comprehensive action plan, calling for the modernizing of the higher education system, a transfer to the credit system, the elaboration of new diploma supplements in compliance with the UNESCO recommendations, and the recognition of international documents on higher education in Azerbaijan. Under the action plan, a number of working groups composed of vice-rectors, deans and other qualified teaching staff have been set up in the pilot institutions where various components of the Bologna process such as transition to the credit system are carried out. The Ministry of Education has also helped organize various awareness training programs and national seminars to ensure that the Bologna principles are adopted and adapted to local conditions.
At the present time, there are 49 higher education institutions in Azerbaijan, 34 of which are public and 15 private. Twenty-one of the public universities have adopted the new credit system, while several of the private ones such as Khazar and Qafqaz universities have also followed suit. The Ministry aims at a complete transfer to the credit system by all universities over the next two years. And Bologna’s call for international cooperation has already had a major impact in Azerbaijan. The State Oil Academy now has a joint MBA program with Georgia State University and is involved in an international collaboration project with Germany’s University of Siegen. Azerbaijan Technical University is cooperating with Cologne Technical University on a joint program. And several other institutions, among which are Azerbaijan University of Architecture and Construction, Azerbaijan University of Languages, Azerbaijan State Economic University, Baku State University, have joint programs with tertiary institutions in France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, and other countries. All this is promoting the exchange of students internationally, again a major goal of the Bologna process.
Student mobility is one of the priority areas of higher education policy in Azerbaijan. At present, around one thousand students supported through various joint programs with foreign governments study abroad. Most of them study in Turkey and Russia. In addition, nearly 2,000 students study in different countries on the basis of scholarships or independently. The President approved a State Program on Study Abroad in April of 2007, which envisages sending some 5,000 students to foreign universities by 2015. The government has recently approved the list of foreign universities that candidate students can apply for, and the priority areas that will be given preference to during the selection process. Under the study abroad program, 80 students received scholarships last year, and the Ministry plans to send around 200 scholars this year.
In 2007, the Bologna Follow-up Group prepared a report for the London Ministerial meeting about the progress made by signatory countries. It noted that Azerbaijan has made progress in many areas but has not yet begun work on developing a national qualifications framework even though the bodies awarding bachelor and masters degree programs are operating. The report added that Azerbaijan has not yet involved international experts and organizations to the extent that the Bologna process requires. According to the report, Azerbaijan needs to increase its efforts to modernize the tertiary educational system; give additional financial support to improve learning and teaching and renovate the existing curricula; develop democratic principles in institutional management while ensuring quality control; expand the introduction of the new credit system; upgrade the recognition of degrees awarded outside Azerbaijan; and increase staff and student mobility.
To meet these challenges, President Ilham Aliyev signed in early 2008 a decree directing the education ministry to come up with a four-year state program to reform higher education. That program is set to promote the creation of an economically and socially effective higher education system as well as to integrate the country to the global education system. As drafted by the Ministry, this program details more than 100 different activities which fall under the following eight rubrics: upgrading standards and the legal framework of higher education; upgrading teaching; modernizing the structure and the management of higher education institutions; promoting quality assurance; developing staff; fostering scientific research in higher education institutions; creating the infrastructure and technical foundation of higher education; and instituting new funding mechanisms.
Azerbaijan has therefore made a major commitment to integrating its higher educational institutions into the international community, but if it is to be successful, it must make an even greater effort over the next few years. It must both significantly increase the size of the student population and dramatically modify the shape of the tertiary education system. And it must do so with a viable financial plan that will support not only the expansion but also the diversification of higher education.
In addition, Azerbaijan needs to adopt a new strategy to improve the quality and relevance of its education programs. One way to do that is to introduce a nation-wide system of quality assurance by means of an independent national agency for accreditation and quality assurance. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan is one of the very few EHEA signatories which have not developed a National Qualifications Framework yet.
Azerbaijan has increased the funds available to higher education in recent years, but it needs to develop more effective resource allocation mechanisms for distributing public funds. One option is the development of an output-based funding formula while continuing to increase funds for public higher education to ease student access and to promote research and teaching.
At the same time, Azerbaijan needs to increase the autonomy of universities by means of the creation of a buffer institution between the state and tertiary educational institutions. Among other policies that the government might consider adopting in order to improve governance and management are the setting up of Governing Boards with strong external representation in all higher education institutions; the granting of the right to all universities to fix their pay levels and working conditions and manage their own budgets; and the rationalization of higher education through improving quality assurance.
All these are enormous tasks, but Azerbaijan has achieved a lot so far and has the incentive of confidently looking into a future of full integration and convergence with the European higher education community.
* The views expressed in this article reflect the personal views of the author and in no way represent the views or policies of the World Bank.
Azerbaijan National Country Report (2007), submitted for the London Conference, May.
Bologna Process Stocktaking (2007). Report from a working group appointed by the Bologna Follow-up Group, London.
The official Bologna Process website, http://www.ond.vlaanderen.be/hogeronderwijs/bologna/.
World Bank (2008). A Strategic Vision for the Future of Tertiary Education in Azerbaijan, WB Education team, February.