Education reforms

University Utopia

Salome Ugulava
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Gia Dvali’s Concept Becomes a Subject of Harsh Criticism

The State Commission on Education and Science Reforms, made up of physicist Gia Dvali, biologist Zaza Kokaia, physicist Vazha Berezhiani and paleontologist Davit Lortkipanidze, has drawn up a concept for the reform of higher education and science. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili first announced the establishment of the commission in October and this group of scholars has been working on the concept for several months. According to the authors, the cornerstone of the concept is the principle of academic freedom, which will be implemented through the establishment of a tenure model.

Critics of the initiative believe that the concept is totally out of touch with the existing reality in Georgia. They argue that it looks like it was written in a vacuum, without either taking into account the country's model of development, its strategic vision and labor market, or seeking any potential regional advantages.

According to the critics, the concept of the new reform offers solutions to such problems which either do not exist or are of marginal importance. Conversely, the concept does not meet the key challenges that the Georgian educational system currently faces. Nor does it consider the revolutionary changes caused by globalization and new technologies that are increasingly influencing education worldwide.

The critics contend that the concept is based on excessive trust in the institution of tenure, viewing the prospects of its establishment through rose-colored glasses without having conducted an analysis of the potential costs and benefits of implementing the reform. What's more important is that it is tailored to incorrectly understood interests of academic staff and does not actually consider the needs of students.

Along with conducting academic research, the main function of universities, as an association of students and professors, is to equip students with the knowledge and skills they, as both specialists and citizens, will need for their independent existence and achievements.

Critics believe that one of the most serious flaws of the concept is that it says nothing about what requirements the market and society impose on a person. The concept of university reform must contain a clear vision about what kind of a labor market and society the young people will have to work in after graduating from a full course of higher education. Furthermore, it should be considered that Georgia may not even be the country where our graduates end up working; given that international mobility, under the conditions of globalization, has become an increasingly integral aspect in many people's lives. The correct consideration of these factors must serve as the basis for determining the mission of reformed Georgian universities.

The concept also fails to take into account that, in the epoch of globalization and new technologies, Georgian universities will have to perform their activities under increased competition. The authors of the concept should have thus considered what clear competitive advantages Georgian universities might have and what niche our higher education institutions might fill.

Yet another aspect which any modern education concept must envisage, but which is missing in this Georgian concept, is the shift taking place in the sphere of higher education. Today, higher education institutions are undergoing the most significant changes of their centuries-long histories. One such challenge facing more traditional education systems is online learning.

Apart from online courses and traditional methods of teaching offered by universities, online platforms such as Coursera or edX are increasingly gaining popularity and can be accessed anywhere in the world. Coursera offers online courses from such prominent universities as Berkeley, Brown, Columbia, Princeton and Duke, whilst edX provides courses from the likes of Harvard, Berkeley and Massachusetts universities in such fields as computer science, health care, education, economics, engineering, mathematics and business.

It is noteworthy that more than 40 percent of US students undertake part of their studies online. It is estimated that by 2014 the number of such students will exceed 80 percent. These trends also affect business strategies, which need to be adjusted accordingly. One of the ambitious endeavors in terms of online learning is the Minerva Project, which will come into operation in 2014. This project is for an online university aimed at attracting international students. The architect of the project, Ben Nelson, has declared that this is the first elite American university to be launched in a century. It is expected that it will compete with leading, so-called Ivy League, American universities – it will be financially more affordable, but will retain strict admission standards.

With new educational programs mushrooming, discussion on whether or not online learning will replace traditional universities has intensified. Complete replacement is unlikely in the near future, but online learning will definitely cause traditional universities to make modifications. For example, students might undertake theoretical courses online whilst performing more practical activities in the university. It is also assumed that undertaking relevant online courses will increasingly become a requirement for even more traditional university courses.

This is exactly what Ben Nelson is talking about. According to him, in future, universities will tell students to, for instance, undertake online courses over the summer so when they have returned to their campuses after summer a new phase can start. As David Brooks, a conservative commentator of the New York Times, writes, in future, universities will spend less time on the delivery of technical knowledge and will become more oriented on practice. This means not teaching what to do, but how to do. This does not imply memorizing things, but mastering skills for the application of those things: research, experimentation, et cetera.

Critics believe that the authors of the new concept should have thought about integrating such innovations in Georgia. University reforms must enable Georgian students to directly obtain knowledge from world-class professors via new programs. New technologies significantly decrease the cost of education. The law should be amended so that online learning is legally acknowledged. Online learning can provide much more knowledge than those courses currently available at Georgian universities. Moreover, the number of online courses available worldwide is constantly increasing.

There is another aspect that should be taken into account: Georgian universities teach a number of such subjects (predominantly, but not limited to, Georgian studies or Kartvelology) which are not actually taught by any foreign professors. Students specializing in these subjects might not find online courses to be very useful, at least at the initial stage. However, statistics show that such "exotic" courses are undertaken by very few Georgian students. The majority study subjects that are also taught at world-leading universities.

It is difficult to say how the authors of the concept have arrived at the conclusion that the most acute problem faced by Georgian universities today is the issue of academic freedom. The concept does not refer to any survey or research which would prove that, and no indicators are given that point to the existence of such problem at all.

Critics believe that the proposed remedy – a tenure system – has been chosen due to an incorrect diagnosis. The system of tenure is expensive and inflexible. In general terms, under this model a segment of academic personnel obtain the status of being tenured, which guarantees their job stability.

While Western universities have existed for many years, the tenure model has only operated for several decades. This model emerged at one stage of development and is now gradually disappearing. There is nothing tragic in that – universities will continue to exist by adopting strategies corresponding to new realities.

The model of tenure was widely practiced in, for example, the United States. However, it is gradually weakening. The number of tenured professors in the US has significantly decreased compared to the previous century – in 1969, the number of academics either holding or seeking this status stood at 78 percent; in 2009, this figure dropped to 30 percent. More than two-thirds of the academic staff of US colleges and universities now have term contracts instead of tenure, whilst almost half of the academic staff work part-time.

Critics of the system of tenure say that it is quite costly for universities. The maintenance of tenured professors costs universities in the United States millions of dollars. According to the book Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities by Mark C. Taylor, these costs reach between 10-12 million USD per tenured professor throughout their career. According to a 2010 survey of the College Access Center, under the tenure system colleges in the US cannot dismiss professors of one field, for example, medieval history, to instead hire specialists in another, for example, information technology or business. Moreover, the tenure system may become a barrier for young specialists whilst reducing the motivation of those who have guaranteed jobs to work.

Yet another factor weakening the economic model of tenure is globalization. What has happened in other sectors may also happen in the field of higher education. Permanent jobs may disappear in all spheres. If, for example, in the early 20th century, there were guaranteed jobs, the globalization and new technologies have brought about radical changes. Much of what university lecturers do today may, in the future, experience a radical transformation as a result of technological improvements and outsourcing.

In light of all said above, one must ask: how realistic is it to implement the tenure model in Georgia? And, on what criteria should professors be selected for tenure? According to 2012-2013 data from the national statistics service, Georgia's higher educational institutions include up to 6,300 full professors, associate professors, assistant professors and teachers. In addition, there are more than 3,000 doctoral students. Interestingly, according to the Thomson Reuters database, up to 500 Georgian articles were published in 2011 in impact factor journals, whilst 410 articles were published in 2012; these were written by up to 300 different Georgian scholars. The status of tenure cannot be granted to a higher number of scholars than that and not even all of those 300 will be eligible for a tenured professorship unless standards are artificially downgraded.

It is not clear why this idea, which affects only a tiny segment of academics, has been declared the cornerstone of the new university reforms. Some 95 percent of academic personnel working today will not feel any change. If the criteria for gaining tenure are artificially softened, the system will merely become a social assistance system for professors. As a result, the wage costs of universities will increase, which will eventually lead to higher fees for students.

In the foreseeable future, lectures from higher-quality international scholars will be available online, whilst the estimated cost of administering exams and awarding certificates on the completion of a course will be between 100-150 USD per student. How can the tenure model be economically justified under these conditions? Why should a student pay much more to study under a Georgian lecturer when he/she is able to undertake the same course under a Harvard, Stanford or Yale university professor at a much lower price?

Yet another question is why would a world-class scholar stay in Georgia, even if receiving the status of tenure, when the country cannot yet create for him/her comparable conditions to those of Western universities?
It is also worth noting that universities are autonomous, and in many cases private, institutions. Consequently, it must be up to each university to decide whether or not to introduce the tenure system. If universities are not allowed to independently manage their own human resources, the protection of academic freedom can hardly be imagined. Every educational institution must have the right to choose its own strategy (for example, granting long-term employment contracts to professors); this is important even if that strategy is flawed, so that the university can learn from its own mistakes. Without this precedent, no one will be able to guarantee that one day the state will not try to impose a ludicrously inadequate model on universities.

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