Reflections: Azerbaijan

bakuA few weeks ago, we participated in the second workshop of a joint project between the countries of the Caucasus region. This time it was held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with the participation of the Georgian side.

During our two-day meeting, we got acquainted with the work of the centre, our Azerbaijani colleagues presented to us their recently launched website for online registration of applications and spoke about the current situation in the country’s higher education sector. In our opinion, the meeting was very friendly and productive. Colleagues from three countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and the United Kingdom) had a chance to share their experiences, to ask questions, and to establish closer contacts for successful cooperation in the future. The meeting was conducted in Russian rather than English.

It should be noted that the main aim of this project is “to increase transparency and consistency in recognition practices across ENIC/NARIC network”. During this project, which is financed by European Commission together with UK NARIC, our intention is to promote better understanding of the structure of qualifications in the various countries of the world, to improve online data handling and storage systems, and to place more focus on learning outcomes while evaluating documents. Another important aspect is the development of cooperation between centres in general.

The process of recognition of foreign educational documents started in Azerbaijan in 2004, when the country began the process of integration with the European education system. Azerbaijan joined the Bologna process in 2005. Up until now, the main focus of the centre is still given to higher education. However, our colleagues have a strong desire to apply to the government for permission to deal with secondary and vocational education documents. As the centre is a structural unit of the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan and its decisions are legally binding, it somewhat limits the ability and desire of employees to further develop their centre.

The majority of applications to the centre are from Azerbaijanis citizens, who received an education internationally. On their return to Azerbaijan everyone must go through the procedure of recognition in order to be eligible to get a job. Among the countries where students from Azerbaijan are studying the first place is taken by Russia, while the UK is in sixth place. Students are taught in 55 countries. The government also funds the training of its citizens abroad, with the sole condition that after training the graduate should sign employment contract with the state at least for three years. Fields of study are determined by the need of the market. The main ones are tourism (the most popular place for training in this area – Switzerland); humanities and management – the UK; medicine and technical professions – Germany; technology – Japan and Malaysia.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Transcaucasian region and is considered to be the first democratic republic in the Muslim world. After gaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has endured a difficult period through the ethnic conflicts that affected the migration of various peoples.

It is interesting that in the country there are 9 out of 11 climate zones. Unfortunately we were not able to visit these other areas, spending all the time in Baku.

Baku is being actively developed and built. Certainly, the presence of natural resources (oil and gas) in the region contributes to the dynamic development of the city. Baku also hosted Eurovision song contest last year. For this purpose a new concert hall was built. On the road between the airport and the city you can see the huge construction site – this is preparation for the upcoming first European Olympic Games in 2015. In the city many of the old houses are being demolished, others are being renovated; many modern complexes are being built. The National Flag Place flagpole is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. The most prominent building is a newly built three flame-shaped towers, a symbol of modern Baku. They were built by specially invited Japanese architects, as Baku is in a seismic zone. During night time illuminated towers simulate one hundred and ninety meter flames and gigantic national flag.

We came just before the national holiday Nowruz (Persian New Year), which is celebrated on the 21st of March. During this period, the population creates bonfires on the streets of the capital and kids and teenagers jump over fire. Also traditionally a lot of pastry and bakery is prepared. It is pleasant to see that the younger generation is being brought up following traditions and the spirit of the nation. In the old town a celebration was organised with folk music, singing and dancing in national dress. Two traditional characters entertained the audience and children. There were many school kids, and when one of the clowns invited a boy to dance, the latter without preparation but with great agility, began joining in the folk dance.

As always in this region you are struck by driving style. Each time you cross a road, you cannot be sure whether you will get to the opposite side in good health. Cars are driven in such way, so that it seems one big accident is about to happen in the whole city at once. Although it has to be said that during our whole stay we did not see one accident. Particularly impatient drivers just use the opposite lane.

An interesting point is that in 2011 the Ministry of Transport of Azerbaijan signed a contract with Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC for a total amount of $ 27 million. As a result, Baku taxi station was upgraded by London Taxi TX4 cars of purple colour. Availability of taxi meters takes away traditional bargaining and reduces disputes between passenger and driver. It was very unusual to see London cabs as far as 3,000 miles away from England.

It is amazing to see a large number of posters around city showing the current president and his father, who ran the country for ten years until 2003. Often on the streets you can also see the sayings of both leaders.

In the old city there are many souvenir shops, selling national products from daggers and scarves to dowry chests and handmade carpets of amazing quality.

It will be interesting to see what will become of Baku and the country in the next few years. Will the capital benefit further from the export of natural resources? Will the difficult relationship with neighbours be resolved, and what will be the future of ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan? And how will international higher education providers use the opportunities that the country has to offer?

Arseny Kruglov, March 2013