Gunay Hasanova – MA in International Affairs and Diplomacy
«Situational Analysis of Higher Education in Azerbaijan after the 1992 Reform »
The main purpose of this paper is to shed light on the educational system of Azerbaijan after the reforms done in 1992 by Ministry of Education and State Student Admission Commission.
Firstly, the analysis will give an overview about the educational system of Azerbaijan after he collapse of the Soviet Union. The paper will mainly focus on higher education, more specifically on
entrance exams to universities and colleges. Secondly, the analysis provides information broadly on pros and cons of the educational reform done after independence. Several interviews were
conducted with students in order to get their opinions on problematic sides of State Student Admission Exam’s system. The next stage of this paper investigates a comparative analysis of
Azerbaijani Educational system and educational systems of other post-soviet and western countries. The purpose of referring to post-soviet space is identifying the advantages and disadvantages of the structure of entrance exams. At the end, I will refer to some public sector reforms that have been implemented in the sphere of education in different countries. After a deep analysis of both
advantages and disadvantages of educational reform regarding student admission, the last step will be to examine new possibilities and new systematic approach for better policy implementation and provide information on new policy recommendations that can be beneficial to improve educational system in Azerbaijan.
Glossary of terms: higher education, standardized exams, multiple-choice testing, post-soviet space, entrance examinations, interviews, student admission, abiturents
Summary of reform
In 1992 the National Testing Center and State Students Admission Commission was established under the president. The head of the NTC is appointed by the president, which means that the NTC is independent from the Ministry of Education and the ministry does not play any role in admission process. Minister’s cut off participation was considered as a positive step since it stopped illegal earnings over admission processes.1(Mustafayev, 2010). According to the new rules, all oral and written exams were abolished and a new multiple-choice system was introduced.
In a current world of globalization education plays a crucial role in the breaking down previous stereotypes by abolishing borders and boundaries among different institutions, economies and individuals. Consequently, the education systems are expected to meet the demands of world standards. In general, various reforms and innovations undertaken by government is a process based on multiple and comprehensive approaches to elementary, secondary and higher education systems.2
Azerbaijan is a relatively small republic. However, in spite of how small we are, approximately one-third of the population is engaged in education. During the Soviet Union era, Azerbaijan was known for its well-educated people. Azerbaijan was enjoying a 99 percent high literacy among its population, which was more than in most Western countries3. Due to the collapse of the USSR, Azerbaijan’s education system faced major challenges. Following the significant decline in GDP, the government spending on education dramatically fell during the 90’s. Another fact that negatively influenced education was the political instability related to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Due to the conflict situation with border country Armenia, government of Azerbaijan Republic failed to maintain relevant extensive reforms in the sphere of education. Consequently, Azerbaijan’s education system wasn’t able to provide students with the necessary in a modern
knowledge-based society skills and knowledge. Moreover, some feature inherited from the Soviet Union, such as teaching and examining students on methods based on memory still exist in our education. 4 In addition, being strongly centralized is one of the main weaknesses of education system, which suffers from corruption and influence of kinship5. Following these facts, this policy
paper will focus specifically on State Student Admission Exams and there impact on students’ future success in higher institutions. We can observe progress in Azerbaijan’s education system. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in Azerbaijan had declined from 50 percent in 2001 to 7.6 percent in 2011, which gives the country a unique opportunity to enter the higher middle-income countries’ category. One of the keys to overcome poverty is improvement in education area. Consequently, the urgency for extensive long-term reforms has increased. The World Bank in its turn supports education reforms through investment operations and policy recommendations6. While there were significant attempts by the government to modernize education system, such as applying Europe’s testing system during entrance exams, effective performance of students was lacking. Hence, there is a strong necessity to strengthen the capacity of management in education system and make relevant changes in examination procedures.
Short Overview of Higher Education System Before the Reform
During the Soviet Period (1920- 1991) there were two main types of higher institutions:
• Universities offering 5-year programs, resulting in something in-between bachelor and master degree.
• Specialized higher learning institutions, such as institutes of economics, technical, pedagogy, engineering and so on.
The language of instruction primarily was Azerbaijani, with Russian ranking second. Students had to pass written and oral exams on such subjects as Literature, Russian/Azerbaijani Grammar,
History, Chemistry and so on. One of the main disadvantages of the exams was that they were not confidential. However, exams on different subjects were taking place on different days, which I actually consider good. It lessens psychological pressure and gives opportunity to have more time in preparing for each exam.
Higher Education After the 1991 Reform
After the break up of USSR, some major changes had been made in the education system. In 1992, due to the reforms done by Ministry of Education and State Student Admission Commission, some major changes in the structure of state examination were done. The main change was transition to TESTING system-applying multiple- choice examination. Examinations were divided into 5 admission groups. 1st group- technical subjects, 2nd group- economics based subjects, 3rd group-humanitarian subjects, 4th group- Medical subjects, 5th group- Teaching. Students were able to apply for one these programs and take exam fixed for each group date. Currently there are 32 public universities with Soviet-mode structures and 15 private universities7. Public Universities are mostly funded by State budget. On the contrary, there is no finance allocated by state budget for private universities.
Pros and Cons of multiple-choice examination
The most beneficial fact about implementing multiple choice testing is the creation of corruption-free system, as the examinations take place confidentially and all exam papers are coded.
After this reform the number of students who have entered institutions and universities have increased. Due to the prepared beforehand questions (test books), students can be well prepared for
the exams, which was the reason for significant increase in number of students who got admitted to universities. However, this had its negative effects as well. Such things, as students’ analytical
skills, ability to write, logical reasoning were not checked during the testing examination. For instance, if a student is going to apply for Law faculty, his or her set of analytical skills should be
tested. Hence, it requires a very distinct way of testing examination. The same is applicable for the ones who apply for the Faculty of Medicine.
Even though the probability is very low, still multiple-choice examination gives some students an opportunity to randomly answer some questions and get admitted to university. Another
negative thing about these exams is that by solving lots of sample questions already prepared by SSAC, students can simply memorize all the answers. Since the context of examination is very
7 State Statistics Committee, http://www.stat.gov.az/source/education/indexen.php similar to those questions, students can easily score high in the admission exam. Consequently,
scoring high does not directly imply student’s high-level knowledge.
In addition, into consideration socio-economic factors, this system does not allow all students equality of opportunities, even though it gives the right of equal access to education to everyone. For students who live in Baku, it is easier to get prepared for the exams with the assistance of teachers who cooperate with SSAC. So called “bunkers teachers” are familiar with the
questions beforehand. Hence, they direct their students in a more specific direction, which can be helpful during examination. However, for the students, who live in the regions, it is more difficult
to get access to bunker-teachers due to some reasons, such as lack of enough finances or accommodation problems.
A very common problem in countries facing rapid social and economic change is that different perspectives of education reform can be moving at different pace, which in turn leads to
not well enough coordinated and contradicting policies. 8 It was the case with the reform implemented in 1992. It was a good step towards westernization and breaking down the old roots of
Soviet Union. However, the side effects were not taken into consideration.
Higher Education in Other Post-Soviet Countries
In order to recommend new policies, this paper will take a look at Higher education system in post-soviet countries and compare it to Azerbaijan. After the collapse of Soviet Union, following
neoliberal reforms, after 1990 some reforms started in education area. Neoliberal reforms for higher education mean introducing market into the sector, decreasing state funding, demand for
accountability for effective performance and underlying Higher education’s role in the economy.9 On one hand, all these reforms in post-soviet space are the consequences of pressures of powerful
international organizations like the World Bank and globalization. On the other hand, it can be explained by similar requirements for excellence in higher education.10 Basically, the set of higher
education reforms in the region was similar, such as creation of non-state sector, lower fees in public sector, graduation exams were replaced with tests at schools and admission exams to higher
schools as well and loans for education. In some post-soviet countries, the educational attainment of the population was higher in comparison to other countries, which suffered from outbound
migration of population after the turmoil of the Soviet Union. As an example, we can show Central Asian countries. One of the most fundamental transformations in higher education in post-soviet countries was the privatization of costs of higher education and providing loans.
In most post-soviet countries, standardized testing replaced oral entrance examinations due to perception that it is more objective. One of the reasons for that was to go in parallel with the
West, however, due to contextual and cultural differences; such policy reforms in Eurasian context differ from those that are under discussion in the West. Most of the former soviet countries share in terms of admission reforms common characteristics. State plays a central role in higher education in Eurasia, consequently, the power of particular individuals, such as university rectors or other authorities have been reduced.11
Each country interpreted differently applying standardized testing system in post-soviet space. The most obvious case is Russia. Admission tests in Russia are called “Edinyi gosudarsvennyi ekzamen” (Unified State Examination). This program was introduced in 2001. As the statistical data indicates, if in 2001 five regions participated in the exam with only 30,000 students, by 2007 this number was more than seventy-nine regions with more than 840,000 students.12 In 2009 multiple-choice system was implemented in Russia as well. It faced a lot of criticism from the public. Some people were claiming that admission reforms are representing the “Americanization” of Russian education system.13The EGE was introduced exactly at the time when Russia’s education system was facing high corruption rates, which is still the case. The first two years (2009 and 2010) the EGE was mandatory for all abiturents. However, in 2011 it was detected in Russia high rates of cheating by students in the exam, and in many cases it was done by the help of test administrators (teachers). Respectively, we can come to a conclusion that reforms, which show good results in the West in some cases, are not applicable to post-soviet countries due to a corrupt system. In contrast, in the case of Azerbaijan-the first country among former Soviet countries, where multiple-choice system was introduced, the process went on more quietly and was marked by little public discussion. 14
According to the data provided by CIS Statistical Committee (2010), in Russian Federation public higher education inducts 55% of tuition paying students. Available data involves only public
institutions under the authority of Ministry of Education and Science. And for this group of institutions (universities) more than a half of full-time students (61%) pay for education.
Another post-soviet country that moved toward mostly non-free educational model is Uzbekistan. The admission plan for 2012 in Uzbekistan assigned 65% slots for tuition-paying
students out of 56 thousand enrollment at bachelor level, and approximately 75% out of 6300 places at graduate level.15 It implies, that number of students admitted to higher education has increased.
On of the key points of transition reforms in post-soviet countries were admission reforms-unified national testing system. This was a good step to overcome corruption while entrance exams.
Azerbaijan (1992), Kazakhstan (1999), later Georgia (2005), Armenia (2007), Russia (2009) introduced new national examination- standardized subject tests. Later on, many countries of the
region joined Bologna declaration. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine are among them.16
In 2004 Russia started to apply unified state exams during student admission as well (not multiple-choice testing though). Currently Russia is a signatory of the Bologna Convention. Bologna Declaration was signed on June 19, 1999 between the ministers of education of twentynine European countries, which aimed to create a unified system of higher education and recognition of each other’s diplomas within ten years. Even though standardized subject tests were applied, it was not based on multiple-choice testing.17
Higher Education in Western Countries & Comparative Analysis
In a globalized world, and internationalization of higher education systems since the 1990’s, the European Union has increasingly seen universities and colleges as a part of its soft power and
solution to various economic and social problems. In this part of the policy paper I will talk about the entry requirements to higher education in Europe and how different countries use admission
systems to overcome different challenges that occur in the sphere of education.
Entrance exams are organized through admission systems, the main purpose of which is to ensure students have the necessary level of education, knowledge and skills in order to be successful in their future chosen career paths. Different European countries have different entry requirements. In such countries as France, Germany, Slovenia, Italy and Sweden the main requirements for higher education are secondary school leaving exam and competitive entrance exams, which are conducted directly by the institutions. In addition, universities set additional exams based on interview or for instance, standardized aptitude tests (SAT) for medical and law degrees. Moreover, except requiring a certain score during the entrance examinations, some universities ask for GPA (grade point average), interviews, application essays, references or reports on extra-curricular activities. In case of Azerbaijan, during entrance exams GPA is taken into account only if students have the same score.18
Standardized aptitude tests mostly measure cognitive abilities of the applicants to successfully accomplish their chosen course. Such kind of admission testing is widespread in Japan (NCT), Turkey (The Higher Education Exam and Undergraduate Placement Examination), in USSAT (Standardized Admission Test). In Europe, these tests are used in Sweden (the SweSAT). In
addition to this, the institution of higher education may use other means to measure students’ abilities in certain subjects. For example, in Australia medical institutions set additional tests called
Undergraduate Medical Admissions Test), the TMS or Bio-Medical Admissions Test in Germany, UK Clinical Aptitude Test in the UK.19 In contrast to these countries, in Azerbaijan there are no
additional examination requirements for any admission group, including Medicine and Law faculties. According to the case study report conducted by European Parliament, the most effective
countries in applying standardized tests are Turkey and the US. Basically, in these countries in order to enroll in higher education, students need to pass subject-specific and cognitive testing. In
Turkey admission to universities depend on secondary school achievement scores and the performance on YGS (Higher Education Transition Examination) and the LYS (Undergraduate Placement Examination)20. The YGS includes native language testing, Basic Mathematics and Social Sciences testing. The LYS includes Literature, Geography, Social Sciences and Foreign
Language Testing. In Azerbaijan, depending on admission groups, students do not have to pass any exams on Math, Literature and Foreign Language, which later on creates certain challenges. Such as, students who apply for humanitarian admission groups after admission are required to take Micro and Macro Economics classes, but due to lack of sufficient knowledge in Mathematics
Related Subjects cannot perform successfully in universities, which lowers their average point.21
In the USA, SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and ACT (American College Testing) play an important role in student admission process. It covers skills in critical reading, writing and mathematics- basic knowledge which is needed after admission in order to succeed. After successfully passing SAT examination, students can also choose from twenty subject specific tests,
which are divided around five areas: Literature, Languages, History, Mathematics and Science. Another positive thing about examination is that students are having opportunity to run it six times
a year. The process lasts an hour. The structure of testing is divided into two parts: multiple-choice part and an optional writing part. Writing, analytical thinking and logical reasoning are tested in the exams. In one sitting, student can take exam on three subjects.22 However, in Azerbaijan students can take Entrance Exams only once a year, which puts them under a hard psychological pressure. Especially, in case of boys, since the students take this exam at the age of 17-18, and if they cannot use their chance from the first try, they have to go to the army for 2 years. It lessens the chances to get admitted to university afterwards, as within two years they are not able to practice for exams in the army.
Such countries as Italy, France and Germany gave more autonomy to the universities themselves. This fact is justified by the view that universities can improve the quality of admission
by devising certain criteria themselves based on the factors and skills they need in order to succeed in a particular degree.23 In case of Azerbaijan, the Student Admission Process is centralized by
SSAC and Ministry of Education. Institutions themselves, excluding ADA University cannot set any additional requirements for admission. Only ADA University requires one year longer foundation study, which aims for the students to pass Language Proficiency Testing.
Applying multiple criteria admissions in Azerbaijan is a controversial issue. It can have both positive and negative effects. Overall, multiple criteria admissions make the admission process
better informed. On one hand, it ensures that only students who have high capacity will be enrolled in higher education. On the other hand, the number of admitted students tend to decrease, which can lead to demotivation among applicants. One solution to this can be organizing pre-entry orientation programs, as in France, which is aiming to help applicants with their choices.(Palmer, 2011). However, it’s hard to be sure whether giving more autonomy to the universities or institutions to create their own requirement will be as effective as in European countries due to corruption in education sector. In some cases this can even worsen the situation due to the universities biased selection among students.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The purpose of doing situational analysis of higher education both in post-soviet and western countries after implementing standardized testing was to identify key problematic issues and give
useful policy recommendations to improve the overall admission process in Azerbaijan. Key lessons were drawn from secondary data analysis- articles of different scholars and reports, as well
as, interviews with students. Overall, this admission system brought with itself a very important outcome- avoidance of bias and corruption, which was very wide spread during the USSR.
However, certain negative aspects should be taken into consideration:
1) Lack of the appropriate structure of multiple-choice exams creates difficulties for students after admission to higher education, since the type of examination in the universities differs from the admission exams.
I think that multiple-choice examination should be just one part of entrance examinations, just like in some European countries. Since, it is impossible to judge student’s knowledge with such
kind of exam, it would be rational to conduct certain interviews and written exams in order to check student’s writing and speaking skills. In order to avoid selective bias, this kind of exams can be
conducted in a way TOEFL exams are conducted- student gives speaking exam directly to the computer.
2) The fact that the admission examinations are organized only once a year puts students under high-pressure, which its turn influences their performance.
I think organizing entrance exams more than just once a year, like in the United States of America, can be a very motivating factor for the students, which is very important for a good
performance. Government can increase application fee for each time if student is willing to retake the exam and use this money for payment to special teachers, who prepare admission questions.
3) Open-ended questions were included to the exams in 2012. However, they lack appropriate content in order to examine students’ analytical skills.
I think, in this section of the examination, student’s writing and critical thinking ability should be checked. Students, who are applying for Law faculty, should answer a case study question. The ones who are applying for Medical Faculty should answer special questions related to their future career, which examine their critical thinking. In addition, there should be certain type of essay questions for Azerbaijani or Russian languages, where a student can demonstrate his or her good essay writing skills.
4) Admission exams are strongly centralized and institutions themselves do NOT play any role in student selection, which has both positive and negative sides.
On one hand, giving directly the authority to the institutions themselves can negatively affect the admission process due to corruption in the education lots of universities. On the other
hand, since universities know better what are their study requirements and which students can succeed, it would be good if they conduct additional interviews after passing the multiple-choice
exams in order to select student. However, for having a transparent selection procedure, government needs to implement certain policies to ensure the avoidance of corruption and bias. One
recommendation can be using best practices from world-class universities.
1 Mustafayev, T. (2010). Case study of the NTC—Framework matrix for Azerbaijan
2 Seyidov, S., (2011), Reforms in Education and International Integration: The Case of Azerbaijan
3 Azerbaijan International, “The Challenges of Transition”, p. 16-18
4 Heyneman, S., (2010), A comment on the changes in Higher Education in the Former Soviet Union, European Education
5 UNESCO Report on Education and Sustainable Development, 2005
6 The World Bank, Azerbaijan Overview,
7 State Statistics Committee, http://www.stat.gov.az/source/education/indexen.php
8 Asian Development Bank, 2003
9 Marginson, S., Rhoades G. (2002). Beyond National States, Markets, and Systems of Higher Education: A Glonacal Agency Heuristic. Higher Education 43: 281–309.
10 Heyneman, S. (2010). A Comment on the Changes in Higher Education in the Former Soviet Union. European Education
11 Gabrscek, S., (2010), Comparative Analysis of National Testing Systems in Azerbaijan, Georgia,
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
12 Federal Institute of Pedagogical Measurement, (2007), http://fipi.ru/ and
13 Kishkovsky, S., (2011), U.S.-Style College Exams Take Hold in Russia. New York Times
14 Garbscek, S., (2010), Comparative Analysis of National Testing Systems in Azerbaijan, Georgia,
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
15 Uzinform, 2012, http://www.uzinform.com/ru/news/20120514/13095.html
17 Eklof, B., Educational Reforms in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, 2004
18 Ministry of Education Republic of Azerbaijan, http://edu.gov.az/az
19 EU Parliament Report on Culture and Education, 2014, Higher Education Entrance
Qualifications in Europe: A Comparison Study
21 Garben, S., 2012, The Future of Higher Education in Europe
23 EU Parliament Report on Culture and Education, Higher Education Entrance Qualifications in Europe: A Comparison Study
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2) Asian Development Bank, Azerbaijan Partnership Strategy, 2003
3) Eklof, B., Educational Reforms in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, 2004
4) EU Parliament Report on Culture and Education, Higher Education Entrance Qualifications in Europe, A Comparison Study, May, 2014
5) Federal Institute of Pedagogical Measurement, Federal’nyi Institut pedagogicheskikh izmerenii, FIPI, 2007, Collection of essays in celebration of five years of the institute. Moscow: Federal Institute of Pedagogical Measurement. Retrieved from: http://fipi.ru/ and http://fipi.ru/view/sections/138/docs/.
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Network of Educational Policy Centers. Open Society Institute. Retrieved from:
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9) Kishkovsky, S., U.S.-Style College Exams Take Hold in Russia. New York Times,
February 6, 2011, Retrieved from: www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/education/07ihteducSide07.html.
10) Marginson, S., Rhoades G., Beyond National States, Markets, and Systems of Higher Education: A Glonacal Agency Heuristic. Higher Education 43: 281–309, 2012
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Retrieved from http://www.uzinform.com/ru/news/20120514/13095.html
17) The World Bank, Azerbaijan Overview, Retrieved from:
1) What was your score in State Student Admission exam?
2) Do you think that multiple-choice examination influences the student’s writing and speaking skills?
3) How does the factor of having only one chance of taking exam in a year influences your attitude towards examination?
Most of the respondents scored over 400-600 (out of 700) in the exam. However, majority believes that notwithstanding to their sufficient score, they had hard times in taking written exams in the universities, or simply in writing exams. The same is applicable for everyday participation in class, since students participate in class orally and are evaluated by the teachers according to their participation. Regarding the third questions, majority supported the claim that it actually puts them under a pressure, by justifying their point of view with cases when failure damaged students psychologically very hard, and even in some cases lead to young students killing themselves due to public perception about them or family pressure. However, some students believe that having one chance in a year, in contrast to some European countries or the United States of America, makes students to do their best in order to get admitted.