Caspian Energy CEO: What is the philosophy of SABAH Group project?
Eltchin Agakishiyev, Head of Executive Committee of SABAH Project: The philosophy of the SABAH Group project is to create long-term and sustainable conditions, which are instrumental to secure high-quality transformation of higher education in general. With these goals in mind, SABAH Group project is not an exclusive project, which brings together people that meet very high and specially picked up criteria. It brings together people, who can of are willing to learn. And most importantly, the SABAH Group project is not a separately taken university, because in that case the whole effect would have been concentrated in a separate university. By contrast, we have decided to do the project in a way to have its effect extended to the greatest possible number of students and teachers of higher educational institutions. This is the reason why we have few students in eleven universities, who on a regular basis keep in touch, speak and communicate with other students, teachers from SABAH Group and non SABAH Group teachers. This produces the never-ending effect of extension and effect of distribution.
CEO: Could you please tell about achievements of SABAH Group for year 2015? What are plans and projects for the next year?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: Let me talk a little about the project. With regard to this project, and actually any other project related to higher education, it is too early to speak about success after the first year of operation. Usually, it takes about 8-12 years to get a certain result in higher education. In the education system, there are cases of accelerated mode, when results can be seen in 5-6 years, but on any given site. We are not talking about education in general. It is important to understand that our ambition under the SABAH Group project is to create, first of all, a new environment, different from the one that exists and existed in schools. A difference lies in three main aspects.
The first aspect is academic, which is as follows. Under a good university we mean a university that equips with knowledge. We in SABAH Group argue that it is not enough and further steps are needed. That is, knowledge is the basis, the very first step, it is factual knowledge. But a specialist with expertise in a particular area is not a good specialist, because the next stage is the ability to understand, to apply this knowledge, and think critically and creatively. And the top of this all is a process of synthesis - when a specialist, who has received not only knowledge, but also the ability to apply this knowledge, can do synthesis and in any situation can develop himself, work on himself, apply his knowledge so as to approach each issue outside the box and think critically. But this is more to come, because we wonder what is next? Emotional intelligence comes next. Emotional intelligence is when, for example, we have a specialist, who has the skills listed above, but emotionally is not in the context of the environment in which he will work. In this case, he will fail. Thus, we teach our students to learn emotional intelligence. And the most important is, of course, the ability to build relationships, because without the ability to build relationships, you will not be in demand, no matter how professional you are.
The second aspect is management. Take note of how the management structure of the SABAH Group is organized, unlike many universities. Currently, an Academic Council headed by a rector is the highest governing body in our universities. Firstly, there are no independent units - administrative and academic units. Secondly, there is no the so-called control and operation management, which, for example, does exist at banks. It is a common knowledge that banks have both supervisory and management boards. The SABAH Group project features the similar structure. We have a Supervisory Board, which is chaired by Minister of Education Mikayil Jabbarov, which includes experts, senior executives, and people with the high experience in management and higher education. And besides, we have an Executive Committee chaired by me. But I am in a report to the Supervisory Committee. And it is very important division of functions. Moreover, we treat teachers in a different way. Firstly, we select teachers themselves. We choose people with due experience in their area of expertise. We hold meetings of special commissions to consider candidates according to the approved criteria, worldview and familiarity with the literature. For example, it is absolutely inacceptable if a person is going to teach the subject “Computer Systems Security” and at the same time uses a textbook of the 1970s. So for us it is important that a teacher is aware of modern textbooks, knows their authors and follows updates in this area. And this can be done only when teachers have two directions - publications and patents, i.e. research work. We pay special attention to all this. Of course, to find such teachers is hard, but we are trying to do such a focus, because when a person knows modern literature, a foreign language, he is at the forefront of his area of expertise, and he is always aware of all innovations. In fact, do not believe when you hear that nothing new happens in physics or mathematics. This is not true, because in fact there are some very interesting directions and areas in which something new obviously happen. And we want our students to learn those areas.
And the third aspect, which is also important, is the environment. We believe that a student-professor-university relationship should be on a new higher level. This implies a certain level of interaction, which is very important in the sense that students should also have relevant studentship culture, the desire to work independently and the passion to read as much as possible. All the time we are trying to motivate our students to understand that it is impossible to be a good specialist in the format of one textbook. Students should always have motivation to read and study the second, the third, and the fourth, etc. Students should read fiction, to be able to formulate their speech, to be able to speak independently.
If we talk about the success of the project, I can say that the project pursues some short-term goals, for example, the number of honors, student satisfaction, and satisfaction of teachers. Twice a year we conduct an anonymous survey. But in fact, I am far from being able to speak with fervor that this is the result. In my view, the main result is going to be only upon the first graduation and monitoring of employability of our graduates. That is, when we find out what percentage of our graduates gets jobs in the first three months, average salary of these graduates and percentage of graduates that work according to their specialty, etc. Following this statistics, the market will tell us whether we are successful or not.
CEO: When the first class of graduates is expected?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: It is a common knowledgethat our higher education consists of two degrees: bachelor's degree and master's degree. We in SABAH Group started from the bachelor degree. But we do not accept students, but host them. This is a very significant difference, because in order to become a member of the SABAH Group, a person should obtain a status of a student by passing the exam of the State Student Admission Commission. I mean we conduct additional testing, surveys, e-registration, interviewing among first-year students. And then we select students to become sophomores at SABAH. And our first graduation will be in May 2017. Once they pass the exam, defend their theses and settle down, then we will be able to talk about the success of this project. I believe the percentage will be very high there.
CEO: How notably has the structure of the education system changed over, let us say, the recent 20 years? What namely has changes and what results it has brought?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: It is very difficult for me to talk about education in general, but I can talk about what we have - about the SABAH Group. If you're talking about education in general, it has changed notably. At the time when I studied, there was a five-year education. Now, higher education consists of two stages: bachelor's degree and master's degree. At least it has changed. We have also joined the Bologna process, and our universities are approaching the required international standards, namely student mobility, mobility of teachers, a common system of credits, which as part of the acceding countries define unified standard requirements applied to a particular specialty. Thus, a student studying in some Azerbaijani university upon his wish can take a particular subject or semester somewhere abroad. Of course, when we became independent, more universities came to the international level. A lot of updates is featured in research and teaching areas. But I am a man far from education, I am a manager.
CEO: How do you motivate volunteers? What benefits does volunteering bring to young people, which skills does it develop?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: That is a very interesting question. This year we had enjoyed the very interesting possibility. We carried out the ‘SABAH konulluleri’ project, that is, the volunteers of SABAH Group. There were about 300-400 people. It was a special project aimed to develop volunteer movement under the brand name ‘SABAH konulluleri’. In June Baku hosted the great event, great celebration of the triumph of sport - the first European games, and we unanimously decided that it would be a good idea to involve our volunteers. In fact, volunteering involves the whole set of activities. Volunteering is mutually beneficial, because a student himself enjoys the opportunity to get into the environment, where no professional requirements, such as diplomas, qualifications, etc, are imposed. He enjoys the opportunity to be part of a very important process, where he sees interaction, system, application of certain rules, which he does not see in the academic environment. But volunteering enables a student to dip in this environment. And besides, as I initially highlighted emotional intelligence and the ability to build relationships, I believe that volunteering is also a very important school, which helps students to acquire skills that they will use in the process of job search and directly at work at companies or government agencies. They participated to understand what the environment is like, what work is, what subordination is, what discipline is, what the system is and what interaction is.
This is namely what they learn, the very factor that motivates them. Where else a student can to get such practice and experience? Therefore, it is a strong motivation for them and I'm very happy about it. Because it suggests that all is not lost, we have the right scale of values, we have the younger generation not only focused on hedonism and material side, but also on the spiritual component, self-development, etc. I made sure that actually students are very interested in this, they welcome organisation of a large number of competitions, sports and creative contests. We hosted a contest of video clips and photos under the ‘SABAH konulluleri’ project at Park Bulvar and all visitors had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with works of the SABAH volunteers. This project was very important. We will continue it at other international events. Now volunteers exist as a separate movement, they have their own dialogues and managers.
CEO: In which areas have you been engaged so far?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: So far I have been engaged in different areas and worked for different companies. According to my first degree, I am a mechanic engineer. Later I completed full time MBA program at Warwick Business School which is globally ranked at the 23rd position by Financial Times. It is one of the most prestigious schools in Great Britain. As a student I become the first national worker of BP. I have a seal of this company placed in my work book in December 1992. Then, I held the first commercial audit with Price Waterhouse in Azerbaijan in January-February 1995. In 1999 I became the first General Director of the first private equity fund possessing resources amounting to 100 million. I was the first Azerbaijani who became a General Director of the telecommunication company “Azeronline”, operating within TeliaSonera. I worked for 6 years there. I am the first Azerbaijani, General Director of Microsoft, since this position used to be held by foreigners before me. I was an external manager of “Chudo pechka” company. My commercial employment sheet is diversified enough.
CEO: What were the ambitions that moved you while trying yourself in different areas?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: Allow me to answer with a poem written by me and reflecting all my professional life:
It’s all about attitude,
The pressure, risk and pace!
Sometimes there is no gratitude,
Still must we win the race!
The risk is high
And chance is thin,
But don’t you cry
And you will win!
Sometimes it seems so difficult
Behold, yet to believe.
And hard work, not a miracle
Delivers the relief!
It’s all about confidence,
Respect and self-esteem,
And life is good an evidence,
That true can come a dream!
CEO: Is your work being published?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: Yes, I have my own website poetry.az where I have about 500 of my poems published in Russian and English languages. This website has very many visitors from 80 countries of the world. There are several sections there – Baku, Childhood, Path, Lyrics, Throes of Art, Writings, Dedications, Thoughts, etc.
CEO: What has you brought to SABAH Group?
Eltchin Agakishiyev: By chance. I always tell by students from SABAH group that no matter whether you are an English teacher or an engineer today, one never knows where he will find himself tomorrow. Therefore, today you have to work on skills that you will need in future. My experience made it clear to me that as a mechanic-engineer I worked a translator, an auditor, general director of financial, telecommunication and food companies, and partly a manager of the higher education project. It means that one should always aspire toward achieving knowledge in new areas or enriching it. It brings us back to the life long learning issue. You never know where the fate will bring you in, and should be ready for it. It is certanly impossible to be ready for everything. As Socrates used to say “All I know that I know nothing”. The thing is that even without possessing knowledge in all areas, one, who has a set of tools, can determine key factors for success in a certain industry. Then it will be easier switch to learding of things required in certain area, be it the tellecommunication, food industry, heavy industry or the education. I always tell students not to be a captive of a single track tunnel vision and go beyond the frame. Life is very interesting and versatile. It is full of pleasant surpsrises which have to be disclosed. Once you are capable of doing that, there will always and eveywhere demand for you. One should never ignore anything because you never know where you will finds youself tommorow.
It is very important to understand an own system of values. It should make you feel happy and fond of the area you are involved in, no matter what it is. I often give lectures to students and speak about professional orientation. I think we should not stake only on material values when choosing our professional orientation. It is a catastrophe as a lot of interesting things can pass by when it happens. And once again we return to the scale of values – whether we stake on earnings or self-development. When I studied at Warwick Business School, we had a very interesting course concerning the system of values when choosing an occupation. I was 25 years old at that time and was the youngest student of MBA. There were students at the age of 40 and 50, who had been through a very interesting path and decided to study for a new profession. The results of the questioning showed that the salary for me stood the seventh on the list. The salary is not the most important thing since there are 6 more things that are coming first and more important. It is independence in making decisions, decisions that can influence over the fate of people, an interesting staff, self development, etc. The salary comes only the 7th on the list. Only then a man can live a productive life and make a choice not associated with a wish to earn more money. It will make him more dedicated to his job, let him get it done better and enjoy it.
Thank you for the interview