Legal Status Changes of Higher Educational Art InstitutionsThe change in legal status of three higher educational institutions – the Vano Sarajishvili Tbilisi State Conservatoire, the Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film Georgian State University and the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts – has triggered mixed reaction in the society. Rumors of an alleged merger of the three universities have been circulating since a governmental decree issued in March changed their legal status from legal entities of public law to non-entrepreneurial (non-commercial) legal entities. Annulment of the recent election of the head of the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts has only added to the speculation.
In comments to Tabula magazine, Georgian Minister of Culture Nikoloz Rurua ruled out any automatic merger of the art universities or sale of buildings housing those institutions. The Minister explained that the change in legal status is part of an overall reform of art universities set as one of the priorities in 2012. The new legal status will enable the three art institutions to function more flexibility in transforming their existing systems, according to Rurua. The Minister further explained that the election at the Academy of Arts was annulled because it was held in violation of established procedures.
The provision changing the status of universities, specified in the Law of Georgia on Higher Education adopted in 2004, was supposed to have been implemented by 2007-2008. That did not actually happen until 2012, however. Just a few months ago, the legal status of Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi Technical University and Tbilisi Medical University was also changed.
The official aim of the legal status change is to grant universities a higher degree of independence from the state. At first blush, the universities’ status change to entrepreneurial (non-commercial) legal entities can indeed be seen as a step toward decentralization of higher education. The Law of Georgia on State Procurement provides some benefits for entrepreneurial (non-commercial) legal entities in the procurement of certain goods, in particular the purchase of literature (in print, electronic and audiovisual formats). For example, the status of legal entities of public law had obliged higher educational institutions to expend considerable time ensuring that specific procedures were met in conducting tenders to procure books. By contrast, their status as entrepreneurial (non-commercial) legal entities now enables universities to avoid those procedures and to save time because they can now buy books from any supplier.
With their new legal status, universities can also establish a development fund and conduct commercial activity. Universities will now be able to sell various services, such as short-term training courses, although profit received from those courses must be spent on the universities themselves.
Tbilisi State University Rector Aleksandre Kvitashvili contends that the new status raises the level of autonomy for the university. As he explained to Tabula, Tbilisi State University previously had to consult with two ministries – the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Economy – on issues concerning university finances and property. Naturally, that required time. According to Kvitashvili, “those state owned buildings and territories that were handed over for management to the University, have now become the property of the University.” Moreover, charters of universities as well as management principles have changed – eachuniversity decides itself now what will be its structure, how to man academic boards and conduct elections.
The issue that casts doubt on the autonomy of universities, however, is state supervision over them in the form of a Council of Regents.
The Council of Regents was established in accordance with the decree of the government of Georgia dated 10 August 2011. The Council is chaired by First Deputy Minister of Education and Science Koka Seperteladze. Members of the Council are: Nodar Surguladze (Deputy Minister of Education and Science, secretary of the Council); Giorgi Chakhnashvili (Deputy Minister of Education and Science), Vakhtang Lezhava (the head of the Advisors' Group of the Prime Minister of Georgia for Management and Economic Affairs and Chief Advisor of the Prime Minister); Dimitri Dzagnidze (Deputy Minister of Justice); Papuna Petriashvili (Deputy Minister of Finance); and Davit Giorgadze (Deputy Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development).
The Council of Regents is responsible for coordinating financial and property matters for higher educational institutions. The Council must approve the universities’ budgets. Decisions on the disposal of university-owned immovable assets – in full or in part – must be agreed with the Council as well. Moreover, a collegial council can appoint to a university development fund a director who is responsible for financial and administrative operations, but only upon approval of the Council of Regents. That director is accountable to the Council.
The appointment of a head of administration of a university, whose functions include reaching financial and economic agreements or making decisions concerning university personnel, also requires Council approval. The head of any university administration remains accountable to the Council of Regents.
With their new legal status, universities have the option of allocating up to fifteen percent of their approvedbudgets as they deem appropriate. Larger financial operations, however, require consent of the Council of Regents. Thus, the Council is given at least the possibility of controlling the entire budgets of universities even though public funds do not exceed twenty-thirty percent of the total budgets.
At the end of the day, the state still maintains levers of control over universities through the Council of Regents. Despite the change in legal status, centralized management of the education sector continues. Irrespective of multiple rights and responsibilities granted to the Council, Culture Minister Rurua believes that the new legal status will help the art universities to develop independently. Until now, the universities had been tied directly to the Ministry, which, as Rurua points out, had to agree to “almost every issue with us.” Minister Rurua also notes that acting rectors will lead the arts universities during the process of reorganization. Acting rectors have already been appointed for the Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film State University (Noshrevan Chkheidze), the Tbilisi State Conservatoire (Rezo Kiknadze) and the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts (Irine Popiashvili).
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 92, published 19 March 2012.