Education

A Test of Wills

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The 28 May firing of National Examination Center Director Maia Miminoshvili by Georgian Minister of Education and Science Dimitri Shashkin has sparked a national debate about policies and politics in the education system.

Miminoshvili claimed her dismissal was politically motivated because it came just one day after her son had participated in an anti-government protest rally staged by the political coalition Georgian Dream. Speculation that political motives were behind the firing only intensified when Miminoshvili soon thereafter met with Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Education Minister Shashkin dismissed as “nonsense” any political motivation in removing Miminoshvili and replacing her with Khatia Dekanoidze, who had until then been serving as the Rector of the Police Academy.

The Ministry of Education instead cited ongoing disagreements on principled grounds as the reason for the dismissal. Miminoshvili did not deny that she and her boss often conflicted over the Minister’s educational policies, but she insisted that their disagreements never disrupted the normal course of work.

Despite continuous educational policy disagreements between the Minister and Miminoshvili, representatives of the ruling party said the government did not want to lose a professional of Miminoshvili’s caliber. In the past, Miminoshvili had received praise from the President several times. As she confirmed herself, she also had been offered and turned down high level positions as ambassador to Switzerland and deputy health care minister.

According to the Education Ministry, one of the main issues of contention was reformation of the admission examination process. Under Miminoshvili’s directorship, the National Examination Center required four specialized tests for university admission whereas the higher educational institutions felt that only one test in general skills and abilities was necessary. The universities argued that the battery of specialized exams ran counter to what they have been striving to introduce – a model Liberal Arts education giving students flexibility from the very beginning in choosing their future profession. Moreover, the admission exams supported by Miminoshvili were criticized as being elitist and favoring students who could afford to hire private tutors.

In that controversy, the Ministry sided with the universities. Miminoshvili herself believed that specialized exams that check the knowledge of school graduates are necessary to proceed with studies at universities. She later said that she nevertheless intended to obey the Minister’s order as she had done before in the past.

Another issue of contention concerned mandatory teacher certification exams. The Ministry preferred “creating comfort for teachers” and accordingly set a more lenient exam regimen as its priority. The Ministry feared that, if too high a hurdle were set, the vast majority of teachers would fail to clear it again and it would be impossible to find replacements within a short time span. In 2010, eighty-two percent of teachers who voluntarily took the teacher qualification exams failed. Miminoshvili was against simplifying the teacher exam but was not against lowering the hurdle.

Yet another disagreement erupted over the issue of ethnic minorities. The Ministry last year had issued special certificates to those students of non-Georgian ethnicity who had failed to pass school graduation exams. Although students holding such certificates cannot enter higher educational universities in Georgia, they can continue studies abroad. As the head of the National Examination Center, Miminoshvili categorically opposed that policy, claiming that it reflected a discriminatory attitude toward Georgian students. After her dismissal, she accused Minister Shashkin of issuing “fake graduation certificates.”

Human rights watchdogs have often criticized Georgia for not ensuring sufficient educational opportunities for citizens of Georgia who are of non-Georgian ethnicity. That has been an especially acute problem in Georgia’s bordering regions, where poor infrastructure until recently alienated those regions from the rest of Georgia and students there were taught from the curricula of Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was not until three years ago that the first graduate from any such regional school qualified for admission to a Georgian higher educational institution.

The Minister developed the affirmative action program in direct response to the lack of access to higher education for disadvantaged students in those regions. That pedagogical approach, however, may produce yet another problem: As Ilia State University Professor Simon Janashia hypothesizes, a student who receives a special certificate of graduation and continues studies at even, say, Cambridge University, will not have the right to return to a Georgian university, thereby undermining the fundamental principle of the Bologna process of uniform European academic degree standards.

It is noteworthy that in, a display of solidarity with Miminoshvili, as many as seventy employees of the National Examination Centre tendered their resignations. The mass walkout urges close examination of the management of the Ministry. The real question here is why the Ministry failed to avert such a crisis of confidence at the very time school graduation exams are being conducted.

 

This article first appeared in

Tabula Georgian Issue # 103,

published 4 June 2012.

 

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