T he plans and decisions that have been made concerning education policy since the Georgian Dream political coalition came to power can be classified into three categories: 1) clearly positive changes; 2) those which have a positive intention but which are problematic to plan and implement; and 3) clearly negative decisions. In general, the rhetoric of public officials is often more correct than the decisions they have taken.
The clearly positive changes follow two main directions – freedom and transparency. Schools have been given more liberty and autonomy to choose those services that they need. For example, public or private schools can decide for themselves whether or not to hire resource officers. Schools are no longer prohibited from freely interacting with media, research or non-governmental organizations as well as institutions providing training. This allows broader societal involvement in the process of assisting schools and makes it easier for schools to solve their problems with fewer impediments.
The government’s decision to renew Georgia’s participation in international educational studies is also positive. Some of these studies (the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, TIMSS; the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, PIRLS; and the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA) provide information about the educational achievements of Georgian schoolchildren and enable a comparison with the situation in other countries. These studies are regularly conducted allowing school students’ progress to be tracked. During the term of the former Education Minister Dimitri Shashkin, the Georgian state decided to withdraw from such studies and, in so doing, the state lost the opportunity to gauge its efficiency by means of well-tested instruments while society lost the possibility of receiving objective information from impartial sources.
The latest available data has confirmed the importance of the objective evaluation and transparency provided by those international studies into education. Early December 2012 saw the publication of the results of the international TIMSS/PIRLS studies that were conducted in 2011. Their publication enabled a comparison with the results of 2006 and 2007. Despite the claims from a segment of society, some politicians and even representatives of the National Examinations Center directly involved in administering these studies in Georgia that school reforms were incorrectly implemented causing a deterioration of the level of education, the studies proved the opposite. In terms of reading, mathematics and natural sciences, Georgian students of the fourth and eighth grades showed an improvement in reasoning skills when compared to the previous results. This improvement was made in a period in which many changes took place: the national curriculum was introduced; schools were given more liberty and responsibility in the management of educational, financial and personnel matters; a series of teacher training programs were conducted; textbooks were replaced; and school infrastructure and teachers’ salaries improved. However, despite the desire of the current government to resume participation in these studies, it has been over a month since the latest results have been published and the government has not said a word about any real progress achieved in Georgian education.
Yet another positive development is the desire of the state to consult wider groups, than occurred over the past three years, when planning innovations in the education sector. In this regard, especially worthy of note is the establishment of a reform commission that is relatively independent from the state and works on developing concepts of both general and higher education. Additional signs of openness have been seen in terms of deeper cooperation between the Ministry of Education and Science and non-governmental organizations. It must be noted, however, that this change has not yet been institutionalized within the system.
The improvement of the education budget is positive too. The budget of the Ministry of Education and Science for 2013 has increased by approximately 60 million GEL. The salaries of teachers have risen as well. But the increase in either the budget or teacher salaries cannot be automatically considered a positive systemic change. The increase is not of a scale that would, for example, change attitudes towards the teaching profession or would enable schools to do much more or perform much better. The allocation of funding for doctoral degrees, on the other hand, can be considered a positive systemic change indeed.
The intention to improve access to education is positive, but will be problematic to implement. If educational materials or the possibility of studying in higher education institutions become available for more Georgian citizens, there will clearly be positive results for both social and economic development. However, incorrect planning can thwart this generous intention. For example, the Minister of Education and Science has declared that his aim is to make school textbooks cheaper. With that very motivation the former minister, Dimitri Shashkin, interfered in the school textbook market, but instead of leading to a price decrease, the result was an increase in the price of several textbooks. It is therefore better to think about other ways of improving the availability of textbooks, such as by assisting socially vulnerable groups or enhancing school libraries, to name but two options.
The government reviewing the cases of academic personnel dismissed in previous years with an eye towards justice is another example of a positive aim which may prove problematic in implementation. Whilst it is true that certain people were unfairly dismissed, for example, school directors who were fired because their students voiced protests against the introduction of high school graduation exams. However, among the ranks of those demanding the “restoration of justice” one can also spot people who for years were engaged in corruption in higher education institutions.
The decision of the state to fully finance bachelor’s degree courses in 14 faculties is also problematic. The full funding of these faculties is neither fair nor effective for improving overall access to education. No explanation has been provided as to why, for example, the faculties of engineering, history, philosophy or philology should be fully financed instead of, for example, those of psychology, sociology or geology.
If these faculties are financed because the number of entrants has decreased, then the source of the problem must be sought. Perhaps the attractiveness of these professions is tarnished by the lack of prospects of further employment or because of the poor standard of education at higher education institutions. If the aim is broader access to education, how can one guarantee that these faculties will not be chosen by those people who are the least concerned about their future employment (for example, those who are financially better off or who are pursuing higher education with the only aim of avoiding compulsory military service)?
Such an attitude may lead to undesirable changes in higher education institutions. The temptation to attract public monies by increasing the enrollment of students for financed faculties is high, regardless of whether the standard of education provided at those faculties or the capacity of universities allows for that. This change may also encourage universities to turn their backs on the principle of liberal education and start specialization from the very first year of undergraduate education.
The decision to again increase the number of exams required to enter higher education institutions is clearly negative. Before the Georgian Dream came to power, the plan was to introduce a new system of eight high school graduation exams and one requisite higher education entry exam and to admit entrants to universities based on the combined scores of those nine exams. Although that system was also flawed, it was a step in the right direction – decreasing unnecessary barriers and diversifying the admittance criteria. Under the new policy, however, applicants to universities will again have to sit four separate exams. High school classes again remain focused on clearing the hurdle of graduation exams and not on receiving a comprehensive education. The rhetoric of the Minister of Education and Science, however, is clearly out of step with that decision. In his public statements he has repeatedly noted, quite correctly, that the high school graduation exams cannot be seen as an instrument for the improvement of the education system. It is, however, also important to ensure that those exams do not become an instrument for worsening the education system either.
Yet another clearly negative decision is that taken to divide the field of education into two spheres – civil and religious. On the initiative of the Georgian Dream, the higher education institutions operated under the Georgian Orthodox Church have become immune from those regulations which require the application of quality control mechanisms. This decision makes the Church independently responsible for setting its own education standards, providing that education and controlling its quality, all without oversight. The state, for its part, is obliged to finance the education offered in such a system and acknowledge any academic degrees issued by that system.
The year 2013 offers a chance for the new government to plan innovations, including, potentially unpopular ones. It is of course difficult to introduce changes into the education system that instantly bring about positive results. The objective of the government for this year should therefore be to establish its core principles and lay the foundations for further developments that will bring about longer term improvements.