Georgia: Steps and Stumbles

steps and stumblesTBILISI, Georgia | As the last millennium drew to a close, Georgia’s once-excellent educational system, which nurtured mathematicians, doctors, philosophers, and historians in the early 20th century, was clearly on the decline. Even with a nearly 100 percent adult literacy rate, Georgia was not producing many professionals. It was instead suffering the effects of Soviet control and subsequent years of war and corruption.

Now, with various reforms under way, the future of Georgian education appears bright.

New institutions and enriched courses are helping Georgian students get their foot in the door of globalizing markets. “You can be sure that after graduation the business world is open to you, not only in the South Caucasus but elsewhere in the world,” said Koba Gogsadze, who plans to apply to the business school at Caucasus University in the capital city of Tbilisi.

Still, improvements haven’t arrived without problems. Ideological divides have grown between earlier generations of academics and their successors. Moreover, the fledgling democratic educational system is hobbled by financial constraints, curriculum debates, finding ways to assist students who cannot attend universities, and a dearth of qualified teachers.

A Clean Slate

The Soviet legacy and later collapse of state institutions in Georgia produced an educational system plagued by corruption, nepotism, centralization, and a lack of qualified teachers and professors. In the 1990s, as the new state scrambled to get on its feet, hundreds of private, low-quality schools with titles like “university” and “institute” sprang up. Many held classes in old public school buildings’ basements. They charged students substantial amounts of money but granted diplomas backed by little meaningful knowledge.

The civil wars of the decade also contributed to the educational backslide, as thousands of unskilled Georgians fled to different parts of the world in search of jobs.

After the 2003 Rose Revolution, however, the situation began to change dramatically. Under the World Bank Education Reform Program, the Georgian government launched far-reaching reforms in 2004 that are ongoing. The effort has four main goals: to accredit institutions of higher education, to change curricula, to establish a new national entrance examination system for higher education, and to license teachers. Funding for the program’s first phase ( 2001-2008 ) amassed to roughly 18.8 million euros.

According to Georgia’s Department of Statistics, 172 private and 26 public universities were assessed for accreditation soon after the World Bank reforms began. Of those, the Ministry of Education and Science listed only 83 private and 16 public institutions (including their affiliated branches in the regions) as accredited in the 2006-2007 academic year.

One of the best among of the newly accredited schools is Caucasus University’s business school. In partnership with Georgia State University in the United States and Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France, the school grants degrees to future business executives. Many of its professors were educated in Europe or the United States, and its curriculum is patterned on those of Western business schools.

Other new schools, such as the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, the Black Sea University, and the Zurab Zhvania School of Public Administration, have gained public respect as well.

Georgian students wishing to enter such colleges and universities are now required to take the United National Entrance Examination. The computerized exam tests applicants on logical and analytical thinking, as well as general academic knowledge. Each test is corrected by two trained, independent graders. A third grader looks at the exam if the two initial scores vary greatly, and students may appeal the results.

The new exam process stands in stark contrast to communist pen-and-paper testing, and the corruption that often accompanied it.

Rather than taking obligatory courses only, students may now choose courses in various subjects, so long as they fulfill graduation requirements. More academic hours in elementary and secondary schools are devoted to foreign languages and computer science. Classes are often taught on a semester basis, instead of a yearly one, and schools have started emphasizing students’ critical thinking skills.

“I see that today’s students are much more motivated and disciplined than the students eight to ten years ago. They know that they are spending money and time for their education, and they want to get something valuable out of it,” said Zviad Abashidze, an assistant professor of political science at Tbilisi State University and a graduate of Krakow University in Poland. “Students now speak English and another foreign language and are much more computer savvy than anybody in the previous Georgian generation. They don’t have vast general knowledge, but they possess very good knowledge in whatever subject they specialize in.”

Schools have also gained more autonomy. The government has introduced a financing system that gives elementary and high schools, based on numbers of students enrolled, vouchers to be used for academic and administrative purposes. Moreover, in July the Ministry of Education stopped appointing school principals. Soon after, some 1,500 public schools across the country elected new principals, by vote of panels consisting of teachers, parents, and students.

“A pupil in a democratic school is no longer a means; he or she is a goal, not an ideologically brainwashed citizen, but a free citizen capable of critical thinking, [who] will be nurtured in a new school,” Education Minister Kakha Lomaia told the online magazine Civil Georgia in July. “Parents, teachers, and pupils have been delegated all the authority necessary to lead and further develop schools; the state will no longer be engaged in everyday, routine management of schools.”

Problems Old and New

But amid the reforms, controversies have arisen.

Many communist-era academic departments at colleges and universities have been closed or merged. Some large public institutions were subsumed within newly accredited universities.

Thousands of academic and administrative positions were abolished. Starting in 2004, all elementary and high school instructors were required to take rigorous academic-professional tests in order to retain their jobs. Many failed and lost their positions.

As of 2008 the Ministry of Education will introduce national compulsory licensing for teachers, setting even higher standards.

Tough job-entrance examinations accompanied the creation of new jobs and the opening of old ones. Many professionals educated in Europe and in the United States filled the vacancies.

The consolidation of institutions and struggle for jobs created rifts between old and young academics. Abashidze noted that there is backlash among many instructors employed during the communist era – or “red professors” – who are unhappy about the reforms.

“Not everything is sunny and rosy at our institutions,” added Katie Chackiani, who worked at Georgia’s Liberty Institute with “Universities Without Corruption,” a now-concluded campaign to fight educational corruption. “The old academia has not changed; they are there and they fight back. They oppose any changes and they are threatening progress and reforms. … It’s very sad.”

Financial hurdles, too, have had to be overcome. In both the communist era and the 1990s, public education was free, but the introduction of reforms included a requirement that students pay tuition.

At Caucasus University’s School of Business, tuition per course in the master’s of business administration program is about 290 euros, and the full cost of the dual MBA program is 10,700 euros. These are large sums by Georgian standards. “But it’s worth the investment,” Gogsadze, the future business student, said.

To help the most qualified students and those who can’t afford their tuition, the government has introduced 8,000 scholarships. According to the Department of Statistics, of the 19,749 students registered in 2006 at Georgian universities, about 42 percent were awarded complete or partial state education grants.

Still, along with some students’ decisions to study abroad, join the armed forces, or go straight to vocational school, the reduced number of colleges, tougher entrance exam, and new tuition fees are contributing to a declining number of higher-education students. The figure dropped from 153,300 in 2004 to 140,800 in 2006. Georgia now faces the dual challenge of helping some students pay their way through school and providing others with alternative job training opportunities.

A benefit of charging tuition and abolishing extraneous jobs, however, has been the availability of money to increase of professors’ salaries at public universities. According to several professors, some monthly salaries gradually rose from about 33 euros to about 163 euros over a three-year period.

“It’s still not much money in Georgia, but at least you can survive doing what you like,” Abashidze said.

But other problems persist. For instance, roughly 90 percent of higher education institutions are concentrated in Tbilisi. These colleges and universities draw youth from the regions to the capital, where many remain after they graduate, thus emptying the provinces of qualified young professionals who are crucial to regional development.

The educational system also has yet to introduce formalized, well-structured Georgian language instruction to children and youth in the Azeri, Ossetian, Armenian, and Abkhaz populated regions of the country. In those areas, many youth are still taught in ethnic languages. At stake is the integration of various minorities into the mainstream life of Georgia.

“We lack intensive study programs for beginning learners of the Georgian language in elementary and high schools,” said Shalva Tabatadze, president of the Tbilisi-based Center for Civil Integration and Inter-Ethnic Relations. “There are too few academic hours for Georgian language. And on top of that, [many] students live in an entirely non-Georgian environment, thus complicating the learning process.”

Others point out that while improvements have been crucial to revitalizing Georgian education, they simply aren’t coming fast enough and could prove unsustainable. “We see that the government is trying hard to reform this once-broken system, and really we have achieved a lot in the last three to four years,” said Manana Shatirishvili, a young high school teacher in the southeastern city of Rustavi. “But there are problems, too. There is a dearth of good teachers. Young people are not very motivated to become teachers, there is not much money in it, and it’s not considered a prestigious job. … Many schools in the villages still don’t have computers and the proper equipment for an academic year. In some provinces of the country the Internet is very slow.”

Indeed, many educational challenges remain. Improving teachers’ image and training, integrating minorities, providing opportunities for students who don’t gain entrance to universities, and mitigating tensions between academic generations are difficult but key steps in the next phase of change.

Nonetheless, Abashidze and others are confident that with more time, resources, and resolve, Georgia’s maturing educational system will be able to grasp its reforms securely and continue on its progressive path.

“This is a fight between the old and new Georgia. The old one did not work, and there is no going back,” Abashidze said.


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