The Contours of the Postponed Higher Education Reform

Sandro Tarkhan-Mouravi

No paper outlining a reform project for Georgia has ever resonated as much as that created by the so-called Dvali commission. Physicist Gia Dvali, along with biologist Zaza Kokaia, physicist Vazha Berezhiani and paleontologist Davit Lortkipanidze, who together comprise the State Commission on Education and Science Reforms that was established shortly after the Georgian Dream came to power in October 2012, drew up a concept for the reform of higher education and science. One can hardly recall any other reform concept being published, discussed, criticized and advocated on the pages of so many editions over so many months.

The active discussion over the paper, however, failed to transform into a speedy and accurate implementation of the concept. The frequently seen headlines of January 2013, such as "Why I Support the Reform of Gia Dvali," gradually, towards spring last year, gave way to passive worries about "communication" between the Dvali team and the Ministry of Education.

The government has never officially refused to implement the reform. Three months before becoming President of Georgia, the then Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili declared that the ministry was "in the preparations stage" of the Dvali concept. Various other government representatives also repeatedly underlined the absolute "acceptability" of the concept. Davit Zurabishvili of the Republican Party, which falls within the Georgian Dream coalition, openly expressed partial criticism of the concept, but he was sacked from his position of deputy education minister.

It is difficult to determine whether the ground for the implementation of the concept is currently being diligently prepared or whether the government is merely trying to diplomatically avoid excess headaches by adopting a strategy of intentionally dragging it out, thereby allowing the concept to be gradually forgotten by society. Nonetheless, the sword of Dvali's concept, albeit with a somewhat obscure contour, still hangs over the heads of Georgian academic circles. Along with that, unanswered questions and criticisms also remain hanging in the air.

One thing obscurity does is complicate analysis: it creates the need to discuss not only one specific scenario, but all scenarios that seem more or less realistic. However, as we cannot cover everything in one article, the most available material for discussion remains the text drawn up by the Dvali team. Regardless of whether the concept will be closely implemented following "the original text" or whether the education ministry will, from time to time, offer variations on the theme of the concept, it is still important to gain an insight into it. If nothing else, we must be able to distinguish between those elements of the concept we would be happy to see implemented and those which we would welcome becoming lost due to "the problem of communication."

Previous attempts to analyze the Dvali concept can be divided into two categories. The first includes those written in unconditional support of the concept that actively advocate its implementation (for example, Irakli Kakabadze's letter published in Liberali magazine). The other category is focused on discussing what elements the concept should have included, but did not (for example, Gigi Tevzadze's interview with Georgian newspaper 24 Hours and Salome Ugulava's article in Tabula English Issue # 29, May 2013). Here we will discuss the ideas that the Dvali concept contains.

The full title of the document is "A Concept for the Reform of Higher Education and Science." A promise to draw up an additional independent paper for the reform of school education is provided right at the beginning of the text, but this has not been produced to date. The concept thus refers to two types of entities: state universities, along with the scientific research institutes existing under them, and research institutes that exist independently of universities.

Whenever the Dvali concept is discussed, one often hears the word "tenure." To put it simply, tenure means giving a permanent position to a distinguished scholar. This idea is central within the proposed reforms. Out of the nine chapters of the document, four describe the notion of tenure, the strengths of this institution and ways of introducing it. Out of the remaining five chapters, four are largely built on this notion. The concept views this practice as the main tool for tackling numerous issues – ranging from academic self-governance to the development of science. However, when trying to adapt this idea to the Georgian reality, we come to face several apparent obstacles.

Tenure and less developed academic fields

A key principle for awarding a tenured professorship, according to the Dvali concept, is the evaluation of a candidate by questioning those scientists or academics "working and being successful in a relevant field, who are selected worldwide." This approach means that any such candidate must have a number of serious publications in international journals. Here, the authors of the concept note, absolutely fairly, that standards must not be lowered: in the event that none of the contenders meet this criterion, the awarding of tenure must be put off.

The first obstacle that emerges here is that in many fields Georgia does not physically have any scientists who would meet such criteria. This can be proven by undertaking the simplest analysis of data concerning the publication of scientific works. For example, the largest international database of scientific journals, Elsevier, registers, on average, two scientific papers in economics and finance from Georgia each year (in some years no papers are registered). A similar situation is seen in the case of computer sciences and the humanities. Insignificant progress has been observed over the past few years and the number of works published remains extremely small by the standards of the developed world.

Against such a backdrop, two scenarios seem possible. If, despite the Dvali commission's requirements, standards are lowered, we will receive mere caricatures of what the reform envisaged and a host of new false authority figures. If, on the other hand, we decide to wait until suitably qualified candidates appear, then the question is: how will the Dvali concept contribute to the development of fields lacking tenured professors? It is doubtful that the prospect of getting permanent positions will prove sufficient or the best mechanism for that.

The Dvali paper does not provide any quantitative data, despite the fact that each of its four authors are representatives of the natural sciences (physics, biology and paleontology). This raises doubts as to whether they took into account the existing situation in other academic fields at all.

Quantitative differences often translate into qualitative ones. An approach suitable to physics may prove absolutely ineffective if applied, for example, to economics; Georgia publishes several hundreds of scientific articles (in international journals) in the former field while just two or three in the latter.

Tenure and less developed universities

While candidates meeting the criterion for tenured professorship may still be found in several fields at the two or three largest universities, the situation in this regard will be graver in other universities. Detailed analysis of the data reveals that universities outside Tbilisi do not have a cadre of academics who are anywhere near of the criteria for tenure according to their qualifications. Bearing in mind that the Dvali concept is entirely built upon the administration of universities by tenured faculty, the fate of regional higher educational institutions is absolutely unclear. True, the concept allows professors to be invited from outside an institution, but a concrete mechanism for doing so is not specified. It is, however, unlikely that the authors of the concept ever envisaged a scenario in which each and every professor of a university would have to be invited from the outside. Had they considered this, it would have been outlined in the concept.

Concept, democracy and efficiency

The key internal conflict of the concept is that, on the one hand, it underlines the necessity for autonomous governance and democracy in universities, but, on the other hand, does not leave universities with a choice in the model of governance. The authors also speak about the inviolability of existent academic cadres. Thus, the assumption that the tenure model will not cause any "democratic" opposition is treated as an axiom: all of the existing cadre will be awarded tenure as a vital necessity.

The righteousness of a uniform approach raises doubts in other ways too: no matter how effective a model might prove to be in a specific time and place, the lack of any alternative enhances the threat of degradation and makes any adjustment to changes more difficult.

Independent institutes

The document pays quite a lot of attention to the idea that research institutes must exist not only within universities, but outside them too, i.e. independently. At the same time, these must also be staffed with highly qualified "tenured" professionals. The paper cites the German network of the Max Planck institutes as an example of that.

Here, doubts about the authors not having considered the corresponding quantitative data are heightened. Given the severe shortage of qualified academics in Georgia, in many fields it would be impossible to create even a single independent research institute without adversely affecting the universities. The presence of qualified academics within a university has a direct effect on both the quality of education and the ratings of the universities. These ratings, in turn, are important for the development of a university – for attracting both high level professors and good students.

The issue of separating universities and research institutes is yet another clear example of quantitative differences translating into qualitative ones. For such a large, highly developed and rich country as Germany, the existence of a network of independent research institutes is something that is absolutely feasible and relatively painless. Countries like Georgia, however, cannot afford that. Due to the situation created by its Soviet past, Georgia may have an excess of scientists in one or two fields, but building an entire system on these exceptions is fundamentally wrong. Even more: the need to maintain this excess is doubtful and this cannot be done without "oppressing" other fields.

It is not clear what extraordinary research objectives Georgian science faces today that cannot be implemented within the frames of university-based research institutes. Nor does the argument that certain research institutes must not be merged with universities because of their "international brand" seem convincing. Affiliation with a university does not interfere with the brand of the institute, whereas the research potential of the institute contributes to the university and vice versa.

When reading the concept it soon becomes clear that the authors are familiar with the criteria of success as acknowledged by the international scientific community. This is not surprising because each of the four authors are productive researchers in their respective fields.

Rules for scientific competition need to be introduced in one form or another in Georgia. However, organizing the system of education and science is a multifaceted and far more difficult prospect. Just making two or three ideas "into a law" is not enough for this to happen. To this end, one first needs to consider the reality of the situation in a specific country and then to work with the corresponding quantitative data to hypothesize what will happen in practice.


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