Georgia Split by New Education Law

Draft bill aimed at stamping out corruption is denounced as “anti-Georgian” by nationalists and viewed with suspicion by students and minorities.

Georgia Split by New Education Law

Draft bill aimed at stamping out corruption is denounced as “anti-Georgian” by nationalists and viewed with suspicion by students and minorities.

Thursday, 16 December, 2004

Students and teachers at Tbilisi State University have halted their a series of protests against a new draft law on education reforms – but have not ruled out further action if the government does not take their views into account.

The Georgian authorities insist that the proposed reforms will stem corruption as well as giving schools and universities greater control over their own finances.

But both Georgia’s nationalists and ethnic minorities are – for different reasons –unhappy with the proposed reforms, while many students and lecturers see it as an attack on universities’ autonomy.

Protestors rallied at the capital’s university all last week, denouncing the proposed changes as “anti-Georgian” and calling for the resignation of their rector and of the draft bill’s author, education minister Kakha Lomia.

The protests stopped after the university offered to hold an election to choose a new rector, but students warn that the demonstrations may resume if parliament - which is due to finish debating the draft higher education law by the end of the year - does not consider a ten-point list of amendments they have sent in.

The draft law sets out root-and-branch reforms in the education system and would require schools and universities to adopt a compulsory curriculum.

Those wishing to continue into higher education will have to sit a final school exam covering the Georgian language, one foreign language and general knowledge. The paper will be same in every school across the country.

Schools and higher education institutes will become legal entities entitled to receive direct state funding according to their location and the number of pupils catered for, while headmasters will be appointed by a council of trustees including teachers and parents, rather than by the education ministry. A similar system will operate with state university faculties.

The education ministry says that the reforms are necessary to stamp out corruption in the sector, which is notorious for bribe-taking.

Analysts note that the current financial system makes provision for half a million students who don’t actually exist, and many parents and teachers have welcomed any attempt to rectify this situation.

Nino Abramishvili, headmistress of School No. 49 in Tbilisi, said that it would give her school the power to manage its own budget and raise funds.

And one Tbilisi woman whose children attend School No. 30 said, “How many times have we raised money, and yet this four-story building still has only one toilet?

In spite of donations from parents, she said, “it gets so cold in the winter that we prefer not to send [our children] to school at all to preserve their health”.

According to a study by the Tbilisi office of the United States-based Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre, TraCCC, Tbilisi State University alone receives black market revenues of 120 million lari (around 65 million US dollars).

This sum includes payments to tutors, who effectively cover for the shortcomings of regular teachers, bribes to ensure enrolment in the university – believed to be as high as 10,000 dollars for entry to the law faculty - and smaller bribes to ensure students can move up a year.

“If this money were used wisely, Georgia could have the richest university in the entire post-Soviet space,” said philosophy lecturer Lela Piralishvili.

In spite of its apparent benefits, the draft law is being resisted by a wide range of critics.

Mikheil Kurdiani, a literature professor at Tbilisi university, said, “Scholarship will leave the university – the process of receiving an academic degree is being bureaucratised and scholarly substance is being devalued.”

Meanwhile, students claim the government is trying to strip the university of its powers.

“We are demanding the resignation of the minister because he introduced a draft law into parliament restricting the autonomy of the university and envisaging a reduction in the budget,” said Beka Gonashvili, a third-year law student.

“I don’t completely agree with the protestors,” he added. “Above all, I want to understand who is right.”

On the evening of December 10, the students staged a theatrical show outside the university in freezing temperatures, in which the education minister was symbolically put on trial complete with prosecutor, defending lawyer and jury.

The next day they surrounded one of the university buildings, holding placards saying “Save us from agents of Soros!” in reference to Lomaia’s former job as head of the Soros Foundation in Georgia.

On the same day, students and teachers at Georgia’s Medical Academy held a rally in support of the reforms. At an improvised press conference they, called on their university colleagues to support the introduction of “international teaching standards” in Georgia.

Other are criticising the draft bill on the grounds that it does not give a privileged place to Georgian Orthodox religious studies in the curriculum.

“The draft law is anti-national and anti-Georgian, and will only strengthen the position of the university authorities,” complained David Gamkrelidze, who led the Right Opposition faction in parliament before walking out of the chamber.

At the same time. Georgia’s national minorities are also opposing the bill on the grounds that it downgrades the status of their native languages. The bill proposes that in non-Georgian schools teaching will be conducted in the native language until the fourth year and will then switch to Georgian.

The education ministry talks about “a multi-year state programme for the gradual transfer of teaching in all schools to Georgian”.

This has caused particular alarm in the Armenian-majority region of Javakheti in the south of the country, which has rejected the bill as “unacceptable”.

A working group on Javakheti at the European Centre for Minority Issues released a statement which read, “In a country where there is no law on national minorities, on local self-government, on decentralisation, or on administrative-territorial divisions, changes to the status quo on the language issue are very dangerous, especially in education. This… could end in inter-ethnic confrontation.”

Deputy education minister Bella Tsipuria met Armenian community leaders in the town of Alkhalkalaki on December 15 in an attempt to allay the community’s fears.

“The deputy minister explained several controversial points in the draft text and pointed out inaccuracies in the translation,” Samvel Petrosian, a well-known public figure in the region who attended the meeting, told IWPR. “We are hoping for further attentive and constructive attitude by the authorities towards our problems.”

Education minister Lomaia argues that his fundamental aim is to shift the burden of responsibility on to the educational establishments themselves.

“In our post-Soviet society, people are used to others thinking about their future and answering for them,” he said. “We intend to give that responsibility to citizens, parents and teachers themselves.”

Dali Kuprava is a journalist with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

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