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Georgia: Minorities Tested to the Limit

Changes to university entrance exam system are driving talented students abroad, complain ethnic minorities.
By Fati Mamiashvili

Thousands of Georgian school-leavers are in the middle of university entrance exams, but some are finding it a sterner test than others.

As part of new education reforms, all school leavers wishing to go to university in Georgia are being forced to take the same four examinations. But one of the exams, Georgian language and literature, is being seen as a stumbling block to many from the country’s ethnic minorities getting a place in higher education. Around a third of the population of Georgia is ethnically non-Georgian.

The innovation is the first manifestation of a comprehensive education reform programme, which is being implemented throughout Georgia this year.

The root-and-branch reform has been discussed for three years but intensive work began only this year. Children will start to have a 12-year school education instead of the current 11 years. There will be three terms a year instead of two. And instead of the current five-point marking system there will now be a ten-point one.

By far the most controversial aspect of the reforms is the new compulsory Georgian language examination.

The entrance examinations began on July 11 and will last until July 22. Thirty-two thousand school leavers are taking the tests and there are places for 17,400 of them in Georgia’s 110 registered institutes of higher education.

There are now four compulsory subjects: Georgian language and literature, a foreign language, general knowledge and mathematics. When he or she receives a mark, the student can then apply to any faculty in any college or university which will then decide whether the score is high enough for the student to be accepted.

“We have brought in a rule of the same exams for all mainly to rid the system of corruption,” Deputy Education Minister Bella Tsipuria told IWPR. “The university entrants will take their maths and general knowledge exams in either Georgian or Russian, depending on what their future language of tuition will be.

“As for the compulsory Georgian language exam, that requirement stems from the fact that Georgian is the state language and knowledge of it is compulsory for all residents of the country. Georgian language and literature is also taught in non-Georgian schools.”

The minister added, “But we take into account the real situation and so non-Georgian school leavers will take Georgian language and literature exams according to an easier programme which corresponds to their school course.”

This assurance is not enough to pacify worried ethnic minorities, especially the approximately 100,000 Armenians who live in Samtskhe-Javakheti in south-western Georgia and the 300,000 or so Azerbaijanis in Kvemo Kartli in the south of the country.

They say that most of the population here does not speak Georgian and the new rules effectively close the doors of higher education to thousands of pupils.

Gulnaz, an Azerbaijani who works as a trader in Tbilisi, said she was worried for her own family. “None of us speaks Georgian,” she said. “I learned Georgian because I often have to come to Tbilisi. My son is going to study in Baku this year. Even the teachers in his school do not know Georgian so how can the pupils take an exam in that language?”

Sofia Ohanesian, headmistress of an Armenian-Russian school, said, “I don’t think there are any problems with knowledge of Georgian in Tbilisi. But in the regions, where practically no one speaks Georgian the level of knowledge is very low.”

Many ethnic Georgians share these concerns.

“I support education reform, but it worries me that it is being brought in at unjustifiable speed,” said Tsitso Nutsubidze, a teacher. “Maybe in the education ministry they’ve forgotten that the objects of the reforms are children, they are just entering adulthood. It’s true, Georgian language and literature are taught in non-Georgian schools, but the level of the teaching is very low.

“The school-leavers had very little time to prepare – the model tests were published only in October last year. Parents were forced to hire tutors for their children and that is of course very expensive. Many talented and promising school-leavers from the non-Georgian population will not go to university this year or will go and study in Russia. And we don’t know if they will come home again.”

The education ministry says the reforms have been approved by international experts and that free courses were offered to prepare pupils in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli for the Georgian language exams.

However, the ministry conceded that the courses began only on May 16 – less than two months before the exam season – and that it had spent just 1778 lari (976 US dollars) on preparing the teachers for them.

Mikheil Kurdiani, a well-known Georgian literary scholar, said that the reforms were hasty and ill-prepared and they should be urgently corrected.

“The state could not guarantee equal conditions of education, it was in a hurry, so it demanded that everyone should take the same exam under the same conditions,” he said. “It’s very good when citizens of your country get educated abroad but very bad when it happens en masse. That is not in the interests of our country.”

Fati Mamiashvili is a correspondent with the magazine Sakartvelos Ekonomika in Tbilisi.

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