School admissions tests can make students break a metaphorical sweat. But that sweat has become literal in Georgia, as students were hit this month by a double whammy of nationwide university entry exams and a heatwave with temperatures reaching 40 C (about 105 F).
Amid the swelter, the Georgian government has taken heat from the public for cutting corners on air conditioning during what is the most important exam in many Georgians' lives.
When the annual exam season began – general tests are held in July every year – Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, speaking from a comfortably air-conditioned office, wished students best of luck with gaining access to higher education. The students would certainly need some luck, with no air conditioning at any of the test facilities – except one.
Going out on a limb, education authorities decided to invest this year in air conditioning at one test venue in the post-industrial city of Rustavi, now the hottest urban area in the country. “Conditions were very harsh in the test center in Rustavi, as the building faces the sun for the greater part of the day,” said Maia Miminoshvili, director of the National Assessment and Examination Center, by way of explanation. “So we decided, as a pilot project, to put up an AC in only that particular test center.”
The announcement of this bold experiment left much of the fairly widely air-conditioned country erupt in government criticism and derision. “Also, in September three public schools in Tbilisi will be equipped with modern […] bathrooms, featuring soap and paper towels,” quipped one blogger and mordant wit, Salome Barker, on her Facebook page. “If the pilot project proves successful, it will be gradually expanded to the rest of the city by 2030.”
Adding insult to injury, Miminoshvili said that she was not entirely sold on the idea of having air conditioning in Rustavi as it would be unfair to students taking tests elsewhere, but she had to comply with the education ministry’s wishes. Installing air conditioning in other centers also would be too rich for the Georgian government’s blood, she said.
To be sure, air conditioning is hardly a luxury in Georgia. Water drips from external AC units all over city sidewalks on hot summer days. In Tbilisi, home-improvement stores these days can’t keep up with orders on air conditioners and report backlogs on deliveries.
All this left many wondering just how expensive it would be to equip exam facilities with ACs. It also hardly helped matters that the talk of the supposedly exorbitant cost of air conditioning came from one of the best paid public officials in Georgia. With an annual salary of almost $50,000, Miminoshvili's remuneration is in the league of the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament. The average salary in Georgia is just over $5,250 a year.
Some miffed netizens began calculating how many AC units Miminoshvili’s salary would buy. The cost of an AC unit for a space of 40 square meters (430 square feet) runs around $330 in Georgia. After crunching the numbers, some social media users said that “an equivalent of her [Miminoshvili] salary will buy 150 air conditioners and that will cover most of the test centers in Georgia.” Others suggested that the government instead economize on perks – Georgian officials are often criticized for their appetite for questionable bonus payments.
At the same time doctors and health officials issued heat warnings and asked citizens to stay cool. “You can’t expect kids to have their wits about themselves in such heat,” one doctor told Edu.aris.ge, a news site. “Heat affects the flow of oxygen to the brain and that significantly slows down mental work.”
A study by the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research found that a 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature correlates to an approximately 1 percent decrease in learning, and that students tend to score higher on tests when temperature is lower. Perhaps that can partly explain the poor overall performance in the national exams about which Miminoshvili recently complained.
Faced with widespread criticism, the education authorities decided to meet the public halfway and began equipping some of the test venues with AC and fans, finding the means for it after all. But the online shaming has not died down entirely. “How is that batch of woodstoves and firewood coming along for the universities for the winter?” ironized one online commentator, tagging the education ministry in the post.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.