by Nina Nelan, KF12 Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s schools started the fall term on September 15th.  Kids are now smartly dressed in their white shirts and navy slacks and skirts.  And Baku traffic suddenly seems twice as bad as usual.  Universities also started back up, and the campuses buzz with the unmistakable energy of thousands of young adults concentrated in a small geographical area.

Primary and secondary education is publicly funded in Azerbaijan and government officials make much of high literacy rates and the amount of money spent on education.  However, the results of  a recent survey conducted by the Economic Research Center show that Azerbaijan spends only 3.1% of GDP on education, while the European Union spends 5% and the US 5.7%.  On education spending, this ranks Azerbaijan with some of the poorest countries in the world.  For context on spending priorities in Azerbaijan, this is the country that recently spent millions of dollars to construct and claim the world’s tallest flagpole.

Baku - tallest flagpole in the wold

The lack of funding results in poor access to education, especially for Azerbaijanis living in the rural regions, as well as decreased quality and effectiveness.  The same survey concluded that 23% of Azerbaijani secondary school students could not pass their high school graduation exams, and 60% could not pass the general university admissions test.

These figures should be looked upon skeptically, however.  A significant factor contributing to poor performance of Azerbaijan’s youth is the problem of pervasive corruption in the education system.

Teaching and school administration are highly coveted jobs in Azerbaijan, which means that many of these positions are secured with some rüşvət to school directors and Ministry of Education officials.  The jobs go to those who can pay the most for them, and not necessarily to those who can teach.  Once someone becomes a teacher or student aide, they can demand rüşvət from parents to secure certain grades or attention for their children.  All children in Azerbaijan have the right to a free education, but the bribes (pre-) determine how well a child will perform.

The system cannot be escaped.  Proctors for high school graduation and state university admissions exams also expect payment to ensure that a student receives a certain score.  The right score means you gain entrance into the right university (also publicly funded) and choose your preferred field of study. And corruption does not stop with the admissions exam.  Recently, a student failed out of the State Oil Academy because he published an article about the bribes demanded by his professors for exam grades.  Despite protests and flash mobs, his case has been mostly ignored by the government.   He is currently appealing the decision.

As Kiva wraps up back-to-school month, I feel compelled to provide this perspective on a country that should, and could, do better in the education of its youth.  It’s not hard to imagine that Azerbaijan, so resplendent with and dependent on its rich petrodollar economy, is setting itself up for failure when it pays so little attention to the quality and effectiveness of its educational programs.  I hear stories of students who skip the majority of their classes, but secure passing grades with payments to their professors.  These are Azerbaijan’s future doctors and lawyers and scientists and economists.  (Or school directors and exam proctors.)  The future looks very bleak indeed.

And what of the children of Azerbaijan’s poor, who live in the rural regions outside of Baku?  Without any money for bribes, they are less able to build a better future for themselves through education.  These children must study and work extra hard to receive the scores necessary to graduate from high school and attend university.  Some days, life in the regions doesn’t allow for the luxury of this time.

Ayyub, the chairman of my host microfinance institution, has been searching for a financial accountant for some time and he laments the dearth of qualified candidates for the job.  The corrupt educational system may be largely to blame.

So Ayyub has offered me the job, promising an apartment, a car and…a good Azeri husband.

Nina Nelan is a Kiva Fellow working with Aqroinvest Credit Union in Azerbaijan.  She will not be taking Ayyub up on his offer, even if it includes a Lada Niva 4×4.

The Niva


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