Azerbaijan funds students abroad to stymie brain drain

Journalist: Chichak Mammadova,

Illustrator: Aydan Hasanova

Topic: Youth Future

The Azerbaijani government has launched a new program to encourage young people to study in-demand professions abroad and develop the sectors at home. Education Minister Emin Amrullayev has expressed hope the program will develop a competitive workforce and advance the Azerbaijani economy. Education and migration specialists, however, warn that the initiative falls short of addressing the myriad reasons driving workers abroad.

There are few official statistics about emigration from Azerbaijan, although international studies show there has been a steady increase over the past few years, following a period of declining numbers. 

The UN Migrant Stocks reports that by mid- 2020 Azerbaijan had an emigration rate of 10.6 percent of its entire population, and more than half of those emigrated to the Russian Federation, followed by Kazakhstan, Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. 

Economist Farid Mehralizadeh says that brain drain is a problem in all developing countries; skilled people of those countries choose developed countries as their destinations due to higher living standards. 

“Considering that the number of specialists in developing countries is less than that of developed countries, we observe that people flee from Azerbaijan,” he said. “This negatively affects the economy, because skilled people are supposed to create valued goods, but if they flee the country, it is no longer possible.”

Ceyhun Mahmudlu, the founder and president of the Caspian Research Institute, agrees it is very hard to get any statistical data in Azerbaijan. “But with the naked eyes, yes, we can observe that there are dozens of people leaving the country,” he said.

 “There’s a brain drain in Azerbaijan, highly-skilled people do leave their country even though they have had a high salary in Azerbaijan... In the 1990s, because of the lack of jobs and unemployment issues, Azerbaijanis migrated to Russia and other CIS countries, but since 2010, there has been a new trend. This is because a lot of Azerbaijanis got a chance to study abroad.”

The Azerbaijan government’s new program would build on this trend by funding the education of up to 400 students who have been accepted to select bachelors and masters programs abroad. To date, out of 673 applicants, only 80 were selected for a bachelor’s degree program, and 149 for a master’s degree. The plan is to select 400 students a year. Once they have graduated, the students should return to Azerbaijan to work for five years. 

It is expected that approximately 2000 students will benefit from this fully-funded program until 2026—20 percent of which will be bachelor’s students and the rest master’s students. 

The head of the Ministry of Education's education abroad and work with foreign students sector, Mujdat Hasanov, told Akinchi Project  that it would be easier for scholarship alumnus to find a job in Azerbaijan.

One of the selected students, Javad Aliyev, 22, is in the master’s program for finance at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. 

While he worried about the challenges of living abroad, Javad said the opportunity to study at a stronger program was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“Improving my skills, learning finance better and getting an experience of studying and living abroad. And, of course, a matter of prestige. For example, UNEC (Azerbaijan State University of Economics) accepts around 4,000 students each year; there’s no difference in the market. But being a student of Warwick Business School gives you an advantage at Baku market. This was my main incentive, so I could apply to higher positions in Baku and get a better job.”

Education expert Elchin Efendi told Chai Khana that since the government allocates the state budget for those students, it is expected that they will return and help their country. 

“Students [who study in] prioritized fields will get an opportunity to work in those spheres in Azerbaijan. There will be many opportunities for them, of course,” he said. In particular, the new program prioritizes students who study IT and technology, finance, aviation, engineering, astronomy, and physics, as well as other key fields.

“There’s a demand for specialists in these fields on the global market, and in Azerbaijan too. In terms of space and aviation, recently the Space Technologies Agency, AzerCosmos, was established… for this, we need more specialists.”

Azerbaijan Internet Forum’s President Osman Gündüz notes that in recent years, technoparks, industrial parks are opening and new infrastructure related to green energy and alternative energy is being built. “And professionals are needed to work in this infrastructure. Therefore, I think that in the next 3-5 years, when those students return to Azerbaijan, they will be able to work both in the private sector and in the public sector.”

While the aim is to encourage people to return to Azerbaijan, not all students are eager to return home to start their careers, however.

Ulkar Mammadzada, 29, received a government scholarship under the previous iteration of the program, which ran from 2007-2015. She is now working in Dubai as a revenue growth manager at Hilton Worldwide. 

Even though the government takes good care of students attending this program, Ulkar said she never worked in Azerbaijan and moved to Dubai for a job offer right after graduating. “I remember there was an interview with the president [Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev]. He said “we don’t mind if our graduates stay abroad because they are also representing the country abroad. There aren't too many Azerbaijanis abroad, so it is a good representation”. So I kind of hung on to those words,” she said.

“I would love to work in Azerbaijan if I could actually make a difference…one of the reasons I wanted to leave Azerbaijan in the first place was because there was so much injustice and unfairness when it comes to so many things. It is so demotivating, and I don’t want that [injustice] to happen to me… I don’t want to be stuck there looking for a job.”

To view similar stories from Armenia and Georgia, please see:

“To take one’s head and leave:” Brain drain in Armenia

In Georgia, students look abroad to build a future

This article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer/Autumn 2022

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

The networking event and the mentorship of the fellows was supported by the Federal Foreign Office and the Civil Society Cooperation program, implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft e. V.  

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