The ongoing controversy surrounding plans to introduce national tests for university admission in Georgia could prove to be a litmus test for the Saakashvili government's reform capabilities.
The exams stand at the core of a law on higher education adopted in December 2004 that aims to establish national admission and curriculum standards for universities.
This March, students from Tbilisi State Medical College launched hunger strikes and street protests to overturn the law. The school, effectually a junior college, had traded guaranteed placement as university juniors in exchange for fees. The government says that under the new system, money alone will not ensure admission.
It would be fairly easy for the government to compromise on this point; however this is no standard campus protest. The fight to reform higher education in Georgia is part of the larger fight against corruption. Lose on this front, and you stand to lose the next generation of leaders on which democratic Georgia will depend.
Corruption has long dogged education in Georgia. A recent report from the government statistics department indicated that bribes paid in Georgia's state universities total as much as 20 million lari or $10.9 million per year. Estimates recently compiled by Tbilisi State University's student government projected that at most 20 percent of the university's students managed to pass the school's entrance exams without paying bribes.
For many, higher education has proven a booming business. Georgia now has more university diploma and doctorate holders than a decade ago, thanks to a dramatic increase in the size and number of private and state-run institutions. But government data states that only three to four percent of graduates from state universities can find jobs within a year of graduation. "Primarily, this is because these young people have nothing to sell on the market," said former Kmara activist Tea Tuberidze.
Experts and reform activists outline four key reasons for the near-collapse of Georgia's higher education system:
Outdated Curricula and Methodology of Instruction
Throughout most of Georgia's universities, teaching methods do not promote independent thinking and competent problem-solving skills. Instead, course content favors simple memorization of numerous overlapping topics. In an increasingly fast-changing world, such static curricula run the risk becoming quickly outdated.
"Students do not learn what they should learn. This means that nobody acquires the knowledge that is required to make a democracy and market economy work," commented Dr. Hans Gutbrod, a Tbilisi-based lecturer specializing in Georgian higher education issues. "The lecturers and staff typically are bitter. Some young lecturers may start with enthusiasm, but they are soon exhausted. Even Aristotle or Plato would fail to be good teachers under these circumstances."Limited Flexibility in Career Choices
Highly-specialized degree programs at the undergraduate level require students to commit to a specific department. This commitment can only be broken with an outlay of additional fees, should a student wish to change. Under the old admissions systema holdover from the Soviet-era planned economy the ministries of economy, finance and education each would come up with the number of university students the state would finance in different fields of study each year. No connection with job-market demands existed. As a result, the number of such positions became subject to lobbying by the rectors of influential state universities. According to various estimates, a student could be asked to pay bribes of anywhere from between $200 and $20,000 to secure a state-funded slot, depending on the prestige of the university department.
Corruption in all state universities is found in three forms: protectionism, bribery and, in some instances, blackmail. For decades, all three forms of corruption could most frequently be found in the admission system, which is set to vanish under the education law passed in December 2004.
For example, members of university admission committees would routinely accept bribes to assist applicants during entrance examinations names of committee members willing to provide such services were included on a so-called "rector's list." Students have reported many cases of such assisted cheating.
The devastating effects of corruption on admissions exams and the mismanagement of existing state funding is exacerbated by chronic underfunding of higher education.
Higher education accounts for only a marginal share of Georgia's national budget. Until now, Georgia's educational expenses constituted roughly a third of what developed countries spend, and half of what developing countries spend.
Furthermore, education spending has fallen. From 1997-2001, higher education expenses went from 3 to 2.1 percent of the national budget. The same figure with respect to Gross Domestic Product has gone from 0.5 to 0.3 percent. As of 2001, the government spent just $129 per university student.
The funding shortage has also had a negative impact on the quality of teaching and learning. The situation is so critical that some fear Georgia is wasting a whole generation of human capital.
At the same time, though, despite the urgent need for reforms, many continue to cling to the old system. University of Copenhagen social anthropologist Jette Nielsen, who has researched the changing relationship between state and society in Georgia, says that the hunger strikes and demonstrations launched by Tbilisi State Medical College students against the national admission exams reflect the sense of insecurity that has dominated Georgia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"When these students and their parents and others demonstrate, it is not necessarily because they were born to be corrupt or because they are too stupid to understand that it is bad to have outdated curricula or too limited choices," Nielsen said, "but because . . . they do not trust the government since until now they have only learnt not to do so."
The question is whether the government can secure that trust. Giving young Georgians a stake in the future through an effective higher education system is one key step in doing so.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a journalist in Tbilisi and a former member of the youth movement Kmara.