The Roots Were Bitter, But the Fruit Was Sweet: An Overview of Georgian Higher Education Reforms Co-Authored by Alexander Kvitashvili and Jeffrey Marshall Universities in Georgia have faced numerous reforms and adjustments sincetheir infancy. Many of these reforms have manifested significant improvements inhigher education, while others have left something to be desired. In the past eightyears, however, Georgian Higher Education Institutions have made great progress. Theyare becoming more and more competitive, and are now on track to join the EuropeanHigher Education Area. All of these improvements have not come without hard workand effort, though. And this is precisely what I wish to present to all of you – anoverview of the challenges faced and progress made in Georgian Higher Education thathave led to where things are today. In the not so distant past, higher education in Georgia was in a troublesomeplace. During the 1980s and early 90s, there was little cohesion between universityentrance exams and school curriculums. Year after year, the bar of the exams was raisedand secondary schools simply could not keep up with the strenuous pace of the Sovietgovernment. To make matters worse, each university had its own additional entrancerequirements. Consequently, students needed to deal with standards that changedaccording to each university that were being frequently modified as per therequirements of the government. Not only did students have to take these complicatedexams, but they also needed to gather information about each university’srequirements to improve their chances of being accepted. To say the least, these factorsmade it incredibly difficult for minority and rural students to access higher education. Another unfortunate aspect of higher education at the time was that itpopularized using private tutors to effectively “buy” one’s way into college. Due to theever-increasing difficulty of the exams, “tutors”, who were often instructors atuniversities or had some sort of inside information on the exams, set up shop and didquite well for themselves. “Students” of said tutors would include signal phrases in theirexams to let the graders know who was a “student” and who wasn’t. Not only was thisan obvious form of corruption, but it also widened the disparity of access to educationbetween wealthier students and everyone else who could not afford a tutor’s expensivecourse, which once again, severely impacted aspiring minority and rural students. In many cases, students were able to bypass exams entirely through bribery.Bribes ranged from 8 to 30,000 dollars, depending on the type of educational program.Medicine and Law were typically the most expensive.
Shortly thereafter in 1991, the face of Georgian higher education changed again.Westernization became a popular notion in Georgia after the country separated fromthe Soviet Union. With these changes and new ideology, several new universitiesopened. The allure of these universities was that they made higher education veryaccessible to students; however, they were oftentimes run by unqualified individualsand there was no regulated curriculum or required qualifications for the staff. Towardsthe end of the 90s and early 2000s, the phenomenon of the “street corner” universityappeared – several universities opened wherein whoever could pay his or her tuitioncould get a degree. By the end of 2002, there were 214 private and 26 public highereducation institutions in Georgia – the quality of many, unfortunately, was dubious. Around this time, the government of Georgia recognized that there was aconsiderable issue in need of resolution within the higher education system.Improvements were a must. The country needed standards and regulations. It envisagedindependence, competiveness, accountability and transparency, and equality as its mostimportant goals. With those key values in mind, the government issued the MainDirections of Higher Education Development in Georgia in March of 2002. This documentidentified the areas of higher education that were suffering, as well as established anoutline for what needed to be accomplished in order for Georgia to reach its goals.Within the Main Directions, the document noted the problems of elitism within theGeorgian education system. It also addressed the need for creating standards foruniversities and their staff. Overall, the document recognized that the state of highereducation in Georgia, at the time, was in a tough place and drastic changes werenecessary. In 2003, Georgia went through the “Rose Revolution” – the outcome of whichreformed higher education and the Georgian government at large in pretty drastic ways.Positions were redefined, ministries were restructured – the government was headed ina completely new and exciting direction. In 2005, the Ministry of Education and Scienceintroduced the “Unified National Entrance Examinations” (UNEEs). Just like the titleimplies, the UNEEs created a unified exam procedure that all universities needed toadhere to. Unlike the esoteric university-specific exams of years past, the UNEE is astandardized and transparent exam – all secondary schools can integrate it into theircurriculums seamlessly. Additionally, the exam works to examine all aspects of a student- not only their acquired knowledge, but also their skills, abilities, as well as theirpotential. It is not a purely knowledge-based test. The benefit of this approach is that itworks to the advantage of students in areas that are unable to provide as high of aquality of education as found in larger cities. The test works to reveal their talents andpotential as students outside of their ability to rote-memorize of historical events andnumbers. Although the number of enrolled students decreased in total, as compared to1999-2004, more regions in Georgia are represented in the total number of enrolledstudents.
The UNEE was not the only significant change implemented – quality assurancemeasures were also imposed. This process required introducing new offices, positionsand structures within the university, as well as changes within curriculum design. Thishad severe implications for universities all across Georgia - many students atunaccredited universities transferred to accredited institutions, and in some cases,universities were denied the ability to accept new students until they met accreditationrequirements. In 2004, Georgia enacted the Law of Georgia on Higher Education, a lawspecifically designed to help align Georgia’s higher education system with that of itswestern peers. The law seeks to promote democracy, transparency, equal opportunityand autonomy among all Higher Education Institutions in Georgia. Additionally, theMinistry of Education and Science, in alignment with the Bologna Process, has requiredall Georgian institutions to adopt quality assurance measures, such as the ECTS creditsystem, developing diploma supplements and methods of recognizing foreign credits. Georgia became a member of the Bologna Process in 2005. This has also had adirect and visible impact on the structure of Georgian HEIs. Now, all universities haveadopted the “three cycle system” comprised of BA, MA, and PhD programs. Some of thepreviously mentioned changes are also a part of the tandem work of the Law of Georgiaon Higher Education and the Bologna Process. The National Qualifications Framework (NQF for short) for Higher Education wasapproved in 2010, which designates the qualifications for all levels of higher educationthat exist within Georgia. This framework works to “translate”, so to speak, thequalifications of higher education institutions in Georgia into terms understandable tothe European Higher Education Area. Consequently, NQF increases the transparency ofGeorgian qualifications on the international level, which is beneficial to both Georgianuniversities and their students. Quality Assurance is a priority of current higher education reforms. The NationalEducation Accreditation Center (NEAC) was established in 2006. NEAC provided anexternal quality assurance system for Georgian HEIs through a multi-stage accreditationprocess. Additionally, every HEI must also have an internal Quality Assurance office thatcommunicates regularly with the NEAC’s successor – the National Center for EducationQuality Enhancement (EQE). EQE works to ensure the reliability of credentials, promotethe movement of all students and academic personnel through mobility opportunitiesand participation in learning, teaching, and research activities, to name a few. Since 2006, TSU has established 160 partnerships with universities across theworld, with its most active partnerships being in Germany and the Netherlands. Wehave several joint degree programs in Business Administration, Public Administration,and Law. We can attribute much of this development to the recent reforms that the
Georgian higher education system has embraced. Focusing on Quality Assurance andInternationalization has proven to be incredibly effective in improving the opportunitiesavailable at TSU. Another one of the outcomes of focusing on Quality Assurance at TSU was astudy that was done on improving the quality of research performed within theuniversity. What would it take? What areas were strong already, and what othersneeded some help? The result of this endeavor was to centralize 15 previously separateresearch institutions. Since this event, the amount of sponsored research proposals atTSU has increased drastically – from 129 sponsored proposals in 2009 to 312 in 2011. Coming back to my opening statement – Georgia’s higher education system hasseen and partaken in several changes – from the “street corner universities” of the pastto becoming home to world-class, competitive, and innovative institutions. In his poem,“Advice to Scholars”, Davit Guramishvili, a famous 18th century Georgian poet, said that“bitter roots yield *the+ sweetest fruit*s+”. I feel that this statement perfectly parallelsthe challenges that the Georgian higher education system has faced – the drasticreforms required to create high-quality institutions are difficult to meet, but the endresults are what make it worth the effort. Thank you very much for your time.