Under the aegis of granting universities "real autonomy," the Georgian government has in fact taken yet another step towards restricting their autonomy. It has submitted a fast-tracked draft amendment to the Law on Higher Education to parliament, which is now rapidly debating its adoption.
The bill envisages granting higher educational institutions autonomy via the state's "temporary intervention" in their affairs. This temporary intervention involves tougher restrictions being placed on universities in a number of significant areas. Among those areas is the top-level management of higher educational institutions – the amendment provides for the increased role of the state in appointing acting rectors of universities, with the prime minister taking over this task from the academic councils of universities. This provision is the most controversial part of the bill.
It is no secret that a number of steps taken in the final years of the former government placed significant impediments on the initial idea of freedom and decentralization for the education system, including the higher education sector. An example of that is the Regents' Council – a body established during Dimitri Shashkin's tenure as education minister. The currently initiated legislative changes cast higher education institutions further adrift of the principle of autonomy: during the rule of any former government, the appointment of rectors was the prerogative of the president, whilst since 2006, the law granted the rights of early dismissal and the appointment of acting rectors to academic councils. Consequently, the claim that the proposed amendment is aimed at "creating" real autonomy for universities does not counterbalance the fact that the appointment of acting rectors by the state, even as a temporary measure, is actually a form of diminished autonomy as compared to the election of acting rectors by university academic councils.
Another provision in the new amendment restricts universities' decisions in selecting academic personnel. The draft amendment establishes qualification requirements for rectors, namely that the head of a higher education institution must hold a doctoral degree. Deans also face toughened qualification requirements.
Qualification requirements are set for assistant professors too. According to the current law, this position can be held by a person who either holds a doctorate or is a candidate for a doctoral degree. The draft amendment requires that an assistant professor be a person who has a doctorate or equivalent academic degree. This means that doctoral candidates are no longer allowed to take up jobs as assistant professors.
Currently, out of a total of 232 assistant professors at Tbilisi State University (TSU), only 56 have doctorates. Ilia State University has 52 assistant professors in total, including 29 without PhDs. Those not holding these academic qualifications cannot teach at higher education institutions. For such people, the amendment envisages the introduction of a new "assistant" academic position, which will become a bureaucratic impediment towards career development.
Those assistant professors who do not currently have the academic degrees required by the new amendment say that the changes will put them in an unfavorable position, both financially and in terms of status. They also claim that the subjects and fields they teach may be abolished altogether. If their conditions deteriorate, this young cadre of academics will most likely either leave the universities or will undertake parallel jobs, leaving them with less time and motivation for their academic and professional development.
According to the Ministry of Education, such people will be allowed to continue their work until the end of their current employment contracts, but no longer. It remains unclear who will replace former assistant professors or what will happen to the courses and subjects which they taught. In a number of spheres it will be impossible to find replacements for a simple reason – it may not be possible to find a suitable person holding a doctorate in, for example, such areas as advanced information technologies, computer engineering, law or business administration. Eventually, the abolition of certain academic subjects and courses will pose problems for universities receiving accreditation and authorization.
Of 29 European countries, only nine (Cyprus, Finland, Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Poland, Sweden and Turkey) require that university rectors hold doctoral degrees. In 16 countries, the law does not specify any qualification requirements for rectors.
The new amendment also restricts the freedom of state universities to set salaries for their personnel by establishing limits on the salaries of academic and administrative staff. This will reduce the competitiveness of the state universities against private universities, the latter of which will enjoy more freedom to offer better conditions to their employees.
The authors and proponents of this amendment now under debate invoke the European experience, but that justification is controversial. For example, a study conducted by the European University Association measures the autonomy of higher education systems in 29 countries. Of those 29 countries, only nine (Cyprus, Finland, Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Poland, Sweden and Turkey) require that university rectors hold doctoral degrees. In 16 countries, the law does not specify any qualification requirements for rectors. Furthermore, in the majority of those countries, a university's appointment of a rector does not require any endorsement from an external authority.
When these draft amendments were made public, it soon became clear that they are specifically targeting Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University – educational institutions which, according to representatives of the Georgian Dream, harbor "rectors and academic councils implanted by the former government" and therefore, require "surgical interference." By doing so, according to the proponents of the bill, the political process of the "reinstatement of justice" will be put into full swing in the sphere of higher education. The current government is, in a manner similar to the governments of the past, trying to gain influence over the state universities. Representatives of academic circles which feel resentment towards the former government are especially active in the process of seeking the "reinstatement of justice." The current government, as often happens, wants to award those people who helped it come to power in one way or another.
According to its critics, the government's desire to gain control over higher education institutions is apparent not only from the draft amendments, but from its more general tendencies. Within a short span of time, the Education Ministry has already managed to get involved in a number of scandals on the premise of ensuring autonomy and high quality.
Uproar was first caused when the National Center for Education Quality Enhancement stripped the Agrarian University of its authorization in March 2013. Many believed that the violations detected in the university, which subsequently became the grounds for such a drastic measure, were insignificant and the real motive behind that move was retaliation against a political opponent.
Yet another step taken towards restricting autonomy was the amendment of the Civil Code of Georgia adopted in April this year. This allowed the transformation of a non-commercial legal person into a legal person in public law. When debating that bill, both the ruling party and the opposition declared that the targets of those changes were universities.
Universities were first granted the change of status to non-commercial legal persons last year; it was a move that gave them a higher degree of liberty in conducting state procurements. Moreover, it enabled them to establish development foundations and gave them broader freedom in deciding their own internal structure. This positive change, directed towards broader autonomy was, however, overshadowed by the establishment of the Regents' Council, which was charged with controlling the financial and property affairs of universities.
The abolition of the Regents' Council was one of the pre-election promises of the current government. Nevertheless, this body is still up and running. Even more, the parliamentary committee on education did not uphold a draft amendment initiated by the opposition that envisaged the abolition of the Regent's Council. Moreover, the legal status of universities will soon revert to its initial form following April's amendment to the Civil Code. Universities once again holding the status of a legal person in public law will enable a greater amount of state interference in their affairs – permitting the state to reorganize them at their discretion and to more easily take over the property of universities if the state desires to do so.
It is worth noting that the rectors of these universities reconverted into legal persons in public law will be appointed by the prime minister as acting rectors, following the submission of candidates from the education minister, and can, thereafter, be elected again. Against this background, it is even more unclear what stands behind the fast-tracked consideration and adoption of these amendments to the law.
In conclusion, it can be said that restricting the freedom of higher education institutions to decide upon their own organizational structure, to select their academic personnel and to spend their finances as they deem necessary, will not provide the academic freedoms that were so pompously described by the Education Ministry in its recently published declaration. Exposing and then removing people "implanted" by the former government and replacing them with those brought in from the outside will not only harm the education process, but will also set a dangerous precedent so that in the future, after the next change of power, the cadres "correctly" selected by this government will themselves simply become viewed as having been "implanted."