Russian Phased Out From Georgian Education System

Government wants more ethnic minority students in higher education, but won't allow them to use Russian.

Russian Phased Out From Georgian Education System

Government wants more ethnic minority students in higher education, but won't allow them to use Russian.

Georgia’s education ministry is highlighting the success of efforts to attract more students from ethnic minorities to university, but the reforms have been overshadowed by a row over the disappearance of Russian as a teaching medium in schools.

Changes to the university admissions system mean students from the two major minorities had to sit one general knowledge exam, conducted in either Azerbaijani or Armenian, this year. They used to have to sit multiple admissions tests in Georgian, a formidable task for anyone less than fluent.

Under a programme called 4+1, they will now spend one year studying Georgian and then start on a four-year degree course alongside native speakers. No entrance exam is being offered in a third major language – Russian.

“The number of people from ethnic minorities in Georgian universities has risen a hundredfold,” Manana Manjgaladze, spokeswoman for President Mikheil Saakashvili, said.

Deputy Education Minister Dmitry Shashkin put a more precise figure to it, saying 424 non-Georgian students entered university this autumn as a result of the reform, up from 200 in the last academic year.

To show minority applicants how serious it was, Saakashvili’s office promised to cover the full tuition fees for 100 Armenian and 100 Azerbaijani students.

Despite this year’s improvement, the two minorities remain seriously underrepresented in higher education. Azerbaijanis account for around 6.5 per cent of the population and Armenians about 3.5 per cent, according to the most recent census figures. Of the 4,000 children who leave schools where the teaching medium is not Georgian, those going on to university will generally head to Azerbaijan or Armenia.

“The majority prefer to do what their family members and neighbours have done, and to follow the well-trodden path to education in Armenia or Azerbaijan,” Naira Nazarova of Georgia’s teaching union said.

The positive move to encourage local Azerbaijanis and Armenians to opt for a university in Georgia has been somewhat undermined by the government’s determination to eliminate the use of Russian as a teaching medium from the schools. Many parents from ethnic minorities used to opt for a Russian-language education, because it remains such a useful lingua franca.

The education ministry has presented the elimination of Russian as part of an overall general plan to change they way foreign languages are taught. The implication is that these days, Russian is considered no more or less important than, say, Chinese.

“The study of English has become compulsory from the first year [of school], and the study of a second foreign language begins in year seven. Schools can choose any language – Russian, Chinese, French or another one,” deputy education minister Irina Kurdadze said.

After announcing that it wanted the 40 schools that still taught mainly in Russian to shift to bilingual instruction using Georgian as well, the ministry forced them to shift to Georgian, with Russian relegated to the same status as any other foreign language.

Armenian children attending the Tetritskaro school in Kvemo Kartli region, for example, only discovered they would be studying in Georgian rather than Russian when the school year started in September. They were also given the option of learning via Armenian, but their shocked parents said that since these children had always been in a Russian teaching environment, they did not have a good enough knowledge of either Armenian or Georgian.

“The education ministry works in secret and doesn’t want to talk to organisations like ours,” Artur Stepanyan, an ethnic Armenian from the Multiethnic Georgia organisation, said. “We ourselves have asked for reforms to launch bilingual education – but not like this. This isn’t a reform, it’s a PR-stunt that harms the children. I think it’s a consequence of the [poor] relationship between Georgia and Russia. With elections are coming up, the government wants to show that it’s supporting the Georgian language.”

The same happened in many other formerly Russian-language schools, including those in Akhalkalaki, where Avik Akopyan, an ethnic Armenian, said his daughter Seda would be disadvantaged.

“I would certainly like my daughter to speak Armenian and Georgian well, but when we sent her to the Russian school, things were different – there weren’t any Georgian or Armenian textbooks,” he said. “So what should we do now? She won’t understand the lessons and she’ll end up not getting an education.”

Teaching union representative Nazarova said, “The government is definitely making an effort not to lose the non-Georgian-speaking contingent, but its policies are inconsistent. Changes to university education need to be rooted in and follow on from changes to school education, but that isn’t happening. The education ministry’s inconsistency can be seen in its recent decision on education in Russian, the language in which ethnic minorities talk to Georgians and to each other.”

Nazarova said using Azerbaijani and Armenian as a teaching medium in the schools was hampered by the fact that teachers in those languages were not trained to the same standard as others, that there were very few who knew one of those languages plus Georgian well enough, and that translations of textbooks were poor.

The education ministry insists the changes it has made are solely designed to ensure everyone knows Georgian.

“Knowledge of the state language is very important for any citizen,” deputy minister Shashkin said

Akopyan remains more concerned with his daughter’s immediate prospects.

“Maybe the minister has benevolent intentions, but this has done my child no good,” he said. “The 4+1 programme has lost all meaning for us, since Seda won’t be able to do the exam in Armenian, and it isn’t being conducted in Russian. Now they’ve even abolished [school] teaching in Russian, so Seda isn’t going to understand a thing.”

Natia Kuprashvili is executive director of the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters.

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