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Top-level sackings at education ministry as Georgia unveils reforms

14 September 2018
Education Minister Mikheil Batiashvili (Facebook)

Six senior figures at Georgia’s Ministry of Education were dismissed on Monday just 10 days before the start of the new term. On Friday, Minister Mikheil Batiashvili was joined by Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze to unveil the government’s education shake-up.

Temur Murghulia and Lia Gigauri, the deputy ministers for youth and vocational education, were among those fired, with their positions being completely abolished.

Batiashvili also fired Maia Miminoshvili, the long-time director of the National Assessment and Examinations Centre, and Tamar Sanikidze, head of the National Centre for Educational Quality Enhancement, who also served as Education Minister in 2013–2016.

The heads of the National Science Foundation and National Centre for Teachers’ Professional Development were also sacked. With the firings, the Minister announced the start of new reforms and promised more ‘changes in personnel’ to come.

‘Tripled salaries’

On Friday, Batiashvili and PM Mamuka Bakhtadze unveiled the planned reforms at the Ikalto Monastery Complex in Kakheti Region, eastern Georgia.

Batiashvili stated that the government intended to ‘revisit’ the system of common national university entrance exams with Georgia’s ‘international partners’, and to introduce ‘a new model’ by 2020.

The Minister, who was appointed in July’s cabinet reshuffle, said the reforms would focus on ‘five directions’: pre-shcool, general, higher, and vocational education, as well as ‘science and innovation’. The announced reforms also included plans to create ‘independent and international agencies of accreditation’.

PM Bakhtadze announced that in Autumn, his government would introduce a draft law to secure financing for education of ‘at least 10%–11% of GDP’. He and the minister also vowed to ‘triple the salaries’ of 10,000 teachers in 2018–2019, and to raise the average salary of school teachers to ₾1,500 ($570) and of higher education teachers to ₾2,000 ($770) ‘and more’ by 2022.

‘On day one of my appointment I made a statement about the problems in the system, be it the approval process [for textbooks], technical and other violations in schools, and other problems’, Batiashvili said while announcing the dismissals.

He underlined problems he said existed in the ministry’s textbooks approval system, and complained that the ministry was behind schedule in their plans, blaming a lack of coordination between different education agencies. While formally thanking the former officials for their work, Batiashvili also said that they would await the results of an audit which would reveal any ‘violations’.

Some of the former officials have recently been struck by scandal for alleged mismanagement and corruption. Last summer, the Examinations Centre failed to provide air conditioning during national exams, despite the usual summer heat. Among those dismissed, Miminoshvili served the longest in her position, supervising the reformed national entry exams since 2002 almost without interruption.

In July, Diogene Publishing Ltd accused the ministry of violating confidentiality terms during the contest for approval of school textbooks; the scandal involved Deputy Minister Lali Gigauri's sister Lali.

The dismissals came on the background of protests by the Tbilisi-based Black Sea University and its students after the Education Ministry revoked the university’s accreditation in August — effectively banning it from taking on new students for one year.

It was the latest in a series of controversial authorisation cancellations by the agency headed by the dismissed Tamar Sanikidze. Other cases included revoking the teaching rights of a Turkish Demirel Collage in Tbilisi and shutting down the Şahin Friendship School in Batumi last year.

All three have been linked to Turkish opposition figure Fethullah Gülen. Turkey has made efforts to shut down a number of schools associated with Gülen globally.

Batiashvili is a former Rector of the Tbilisi-based Academy of Business and Technologies and the founder of Silicon Valley Tbilisi’s technological centre, and is a newcomer in Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze's 'small government' cabinet. After several ministries were abolished during the latest reshuffle, Batiashvili took over additional government functions, making him the first Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport of Georgia.

‘Not a team’

Giorgi Chanturia, Head of the Georgian Coalition Education for All, told OC Media that they expected the changes and hoped that the dismissals might be a sign that reforms would now move faster. ‘The problem was not in long-term occupation in high positions but rather a failure to undertake reforms all along’, Chanturia told OC Media. He declined to address allegations of corruption in the ministry without more evidence but said there was a lack of ‘transparency’ and ‘inclusivity’ in the textbook approval process.

According to education expert Simon Janashia, given society’s discontent with the ministry’s work ‘on all levels of the education system’, the decision to fire senior officials may be the government’s attempt to show they are ‘responsive’ to the general sentiment.

‘More coordination would be better’, Janashia told OC Media, recalling disagreements between the Teachers’ Professional Development Center and the Education Quality Enhancement Centre, or among those working on curricula at the ministry and National Assessment and Examinations Centre, causing ‘parallel’ systems.

Janashia also referred to the stripping of authorisations by the Education Quality Enhancement Center under Sanikidze. However, he doubted the ruling Georgian Dream Party were unhappy with Director Sanikidze for this, as ‘it looked like she was following the Party’s instructions’.

‘Probably, the Minister thought it would be difficult to implement reforms he had planned with several strong leaders charing centres like standalone principalities’, Sandro Asatiani, the Head of innovation and technology center GeoLab and an invited expert at Education Ministry, told OC Media. ‘It was not a team’, he added.

In a recent policy document, Transparency International — Georgia claimed that a gradual rise in funding in Georgia’s education system had not improved the quality of education over recent years. The group urged the government to ‘outline specific objectives and outcomes’ for general education, which they said should be measurable.

Girchi’s ‘Alternative education system’

Non-parliamentary opposition party Girchi was quick to condemn the government’s proposals, suggesting their own ‘alternative curriculum’.

‘Today we have heard a lot of standard blah-blah-blah about how they plan to reform the education system […]. We spend literally billions in the education system and these billions are spent on ruining our children’s lives’, Girchi’s leader, Zura Japaridze, said at a press conference immediately after the government’s presentation.

Japaridze called the current state of the education system as ‘harmful’ and announced his party’s ‘free education’ initiative, which he said would employ ‘young teachers’ and ‘not obey any government regulation’.

Japaridze said Georgian school teachers had failed to succeed in other careers and were in general ‘unsuccessful in their lives’, and hence were ‘unable to prepare children for future life’. Girchi’s leader promised to outline more details about his party’s initiative, which he called ‘the biggest project in Girchi’s history’, on 16 October.

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