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Georgia: Education Minister Determined To Proceed With Controversial Reforms

Like other CIS countries, Georgia inherited a well-developed education system from the Soviet Union. Since 1991, however, economic hardship and corruption have progressively eroded the quality of its education sector. According to the European Training Foundation, a European Union agency specializing in education assistance to developing countries, the skills and knowledge being offered to Georgian students have become obsolete on the labor market. Earlier this year, the Georgian government said it would remedy the situation by reforming the entire education system.

Prague, 17 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When the Georgian opposition toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, Kakha (Aleksandre) Lomaia was executive director of the Open Society-Georgia Foundation, a nongovernmental group funded by the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros.

Three months later, Lomaia was appointed education and science minister. Soon after, he proceeded to draft an ambitious education reform bill that has made him one of Georgia's most controversial public figures.

Lomaia's plans envisage revamping the entire education system -- from secondary-school programs to the funding and management of universities.

Despite fierce resistance from some lawmakers, the legislature has approved the reform bill on first and second readings. A third and final reading should take place in the coming days.

Anti-Lomaia demonstrations have taken place in several Georgian cities, and the New Rightists-Industrialists parliamentary opposition has launched a nationwide petition campaign to demand his resignation. Also this week, a group of students announced the creation of a new movement aimed at combating the planned reforms.

In a telephone interview from Tbilisi, Lomaia said these critics are "politically motivated" and orchestrated by Shevardnadze's supporters to discredit President Mikheil Saakashvili's team. He said he has no intention of giving up and vows to carry his project to its end.

"Our position is very clear, and we will not compromise," Lomaia said. "We believe our system must rely on liberal and democratic values and that our schoolchildren, university students, our doctorate students must be competitive in [today's] global world. While maintaining our identity, we must be open to integration both at a regional -- Southern Caucasus -- and global level."

Lomaia said one of his objectives is to reform the higher education sector so that Georgia can join the Council of Europe-sponsored Bologna Process by the end of the decade.

The Bologna Process was launched five years ago with a view to harmonizing the higher education systems of its 29 members and enhancing the free movement of students and university professors across Europe by 2010.

Lomaia said that a key provision of his plan is to reduce the scale of corruption in Georgia's universities by standardizing admission exams under the supervision of a single national body. He has also proposed that the state progressively switch to a system under which the state will focus on funding individual students rather than universities.

Of particular concern to Lomaia's critics are his proposals to modify the curriculum of secondary schools. Under the changes, which would likely take effect in 2006, new topics such as sex education and comparative religion would be introduced, while the number of hours devoted to the study of Georgian medieval literature and language, or the history of the Orthodox Church would be reduced.

According to Lomaia, beyond its seemingly cosmetic character, the new curriculum aims at breaking with Soviet tradition by changing the behavior of students and developing their critical skills.

"In fact, we are abandoning a system that emphasizes the volume of knowledge students are getting," Lomaia said. "We are instead concentrating our efforts on the students' profile, on the 'final product' -- forgive me the expression -- we want to obtain. Do we want people who mechanically learn dozens of mathematical formulas and poems and who repeat what their teachers are telling them about such-and-such literary character? Or do we want people provided with the basics of knowledge in science, mathematics, linguistics, literature, etc., who are able to analyze, make decisions, sort out and put to the best possible use the large amount of information offered by [today's] world?"

Those opposed to the planned overhaul call it "anti-national" and say it threatens to produce a "generation of ignorance." They also blame Lomaia for failing to consult with teachers, professors, students and representatives of civil society.

New Rightists-Industrialists lawmaker Mamuka Katsitadze said the proposed reform is "incompatible with Georgia's historical and cultural tradition":

"We do not say that we are against the introduction of new technologies or new methods," Katsitadze said. "What we say is: Is it worth saying no to the teaching of Georgian history? Is it worth saying no to the study of medieval literature, such as [Shota Rustaveli's] 12th-century poem, 'The Knight in the Panther's Skin'? Is it worth rejecting all that just for the sake of new, doubtful [matters] that fit the criteria and values of a next generation state?"

Lomaia's plans to reduce the place devoted to the history of the Orthodox Church in school programs have sparked concerns even among Georgian villagers, who express fear the government may consider abolishing religion classes as a whole.

Reports that Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Russian schools may now be compelled to teach most subjects in Georgian -- a language many non-ethnic Georgians do not speak -- have also sparked concerns among ethnic minority groups.

Lomaia dismissed these concerns as unfounded:

"With regard to the teaching in national minority languages, our plan sees n-o reduction," Lomaia said. "On the contrary, everything that will help minority ethnic groups prop up their national identity -- both cultural and historical -- will be reinforced. Upon the request of these groups, we want to give them all the opportunity to learn the state language in parallel with their own. Our aim is to give representatives of these minority groups the possibility to develop their cultural and ethnic identity, while offering them more and more opportunities to integrate into society with a view to becoming part of Georgia's political, cultural and economic elite."

Opposition to Lomaia's plans took a new twist on 13 December, when students, lecturers, and professors rallied in Tbilisi to protest against Saakashvili's preferred candidate to succeed Tbilisi State University (TSU) rector Roin Metreveli.

Rusudan Lortkipanidze was eventually elected to the job, adding fuel to opposition claims that the government is seeking to establish total control over the country's universities.

As TSU's new rector, Lortkipanidze will be in charge of implementing Lomaia's reforms once they are approved by Parliament.

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