MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 266: Georgia Split by New Education Law

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Fri Dec 24 09:19:13 2004


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 266, December 16, 2004

.......................

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.

By Dali Kuprava in Tbilisi

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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CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 266