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Georgia: Clock Is Ticking As Higher Education Eaten Away By Corruption

Corruption is compromising the quality of Georgia's higher-education system and, more importantly, threatens to debase moral standards in the former Soviet republic. Those are the conclusions of legal experts who two years ago were asked to draw up a national program to help state and society stem the spread of corruption. Yet, despite President Eduard Shevardnadze's apparent willingness to tackle the problem, nothing has changed and corruption continues to cripple Georgia's universities.

Tbilisi, 7 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this year, Georgian media reported that two students of the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) set a precedent by demanding that procedures to enter the prestigious establishment be changed amid allegations they are a breeding ground for corruption.

Several other students soon followed suit, filing lawsuits to protest admission rules they say represent a threat to Georgia's higher-education system.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Georgia is said to have lost a large number of its intellectual elite, who have fled economic hardship in order to try their luck abroad.

But paradoxically, this South Caucasus country of some 4 million has more doctorate holders now than 10 years ago. That's because writing dissertations for untalented students or civil servants eager for promotion has become an important source of income for professors who generally earn between $20 and $50 a month.

Another Georgian paradox is that despite the proliferation of both state and private universities that followed the demise of the Soviet regime, the overall level of higher education is said to have dramatically decreased in the past decade.

Giorgi Kandelaki is a political-science major in his last year at TSU and a member of a recently established student committee that denounces the decline in Georgia's education standards. Kandelaki says the education offered at Georgia's universities in general, and at TSU in particular, does not come close to meeting the demands of the current job market: "[Due] to a number of reasons -- in particular, corruption -- the effectiveness of our university has dramatically [decreased.] Practically, graduates [from] Tbilisi State University, which is basically the most important university in this country, cannot compete even on the regional market. [Only] 3 percent -- 3 percent -- of [our] graduates get employed in the first year [after] graduation."

Some analysts argue that, in Georgia, personal loyalty plays a greater role on the job market than professional skills. Accordingly, they say, a company's director generally prefers hiring family members or relatives of close friends rather than unknown applicants, however qualified they may be.

Yet, other experts agree with Kandelaki that corruption is one of the main reasons why Georgian university graduates cannot compete on the local job market.

"Corruption [in Georgia] threatens to strangle efforts to improve opportunities, standards, and training in higher education," reads a brief posted on the website of the European Training Foundation, a European Union agency specializing in education assistance to developing countries.

Georgia's prospective students generally come up against corruption even before crossing the threshold of their future alma mater.

Under the Georgian university system, the government pays for the education of students who pass admission exams with the highest grades. Applicants admitted with lower grades, however, do not qualify for free tuition and have to pay for their education.

Unofficial estimates say a student may be asked to pay a bribe of anywhere between $200 to $20,000 in order to pass admission exams to TSU. The price is determined by the grade he or she asks for.

Gigi Tevzadze is a legal expert at the Tbilisi-based Open Society-Georgia Foundation nongovernmental organization. He is also a member of the coordination council that President Eduard Shevardnadze set up two years ago to monitor the implementation of a national anticorruption program.

Tevzadze says however absurd it may seem, there is a reason why parents pay thousands of dollars in bribes for their children to receive a sub-standard education at TSU while admission fees in a more efficient private establishment would cost them much less: "First, it is a question of the prestige [of TSU itself]. Secondly, there is a legacy from Soviet times according to which people who pay -- I mean openly pay -- to receive education are not thought well of. Unfortunately, in Georgia and all the former Soviet countries there is this widespread idea that if a person pays to receive an education he or she is necessarily less talented than a person who does not pay."

Tevzadze says corruption in higher education is not a new phenomenon. But, unlike under Soviet times, it has become almost the norm, and parents who can afford the bribes no longer hide the fact that they are ready to pay to assure their children get free tuition at a respected university.

Bribes also vary depending on the department an applicant wishes to enter. Admission to TSU's prestigious international-relations department, for example, is said to require the highest sums.

Bribe taking is also common practice during exams and punctuates the lives of students up until their graduation. Critics say corruption also manifests itself in hidden ways, such as professors forcing students to buy their own books or to take private lessons.

Political-science major Kandelaki claims the number of students who enter TSU without paying bribes is no higher than 15 to 20 percent. Such claims might prove difficult to confirm, but they are corroborated by a number of independent experts.

Davit Usupashvili is a legal expert at the Tbilisi branch of the U.S. Center for Institutional Reform and the Informal Sector, or IRIS. He is also one of the seven independent experts whom Shevardnadze mandated two years ago to draw up his anticorruption program.

Usupashvili tells our correspondent students who have recourse to corruption have been exerting a deleterious influence on the general atmosphere at TSU: "Some 1,000 students are admitted to TSU's law department each year. But 80 percent of them are there not because they want to receive an education. Those are the students who set the tone, who show how youths should behave. Those who enter university because they really want to receive an education and who, logically, are there in all legitimacy are somehow put on the sideline. The same applies to teachers and lecturers. Of course, among them there are honest, highly qualified specialists. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. A professor who would not give a positive review to a student who is ready to bribe him, or a student who has had [some high-ranking official] intercede on his behalf is not considered a normal professor."

Usupashvili believes that by failing to help students "understand such notions as 'state,' 'citizens,' or 'civic obligations,'" the corrupt relations that prevail in Georgia's higher education are hurting society as a whole.

Authors of the national anticorruption program have singled out six areas that should be given priority in combating the problem: liberalization of the economy, management of state institutions, budget management, reform of law-enforcement agencies, political corruption, and reform of higher education.

In Usupashvili's opinion, the dedication of an entire section of the program to higher education does not necessarily mean that corruption is more widespread in universities than elsewhere. He says that corruption in universities is simply "more important because it somehow legitimizes corruption in other areas."

"Proportionally, the amount of corruption in higher education is less important than, say, in the customs department. But, in terms of influence, it is much worse because it directly impacts on the mentality or the ethic values of those students who every single day witness the situation that prevails in the education system. If the situation [in universities] does not change, I am convinced we will never be able to combat corruption elsewhere, because corruption will become part of our culture."

Yet, Usupashvili says there has not been any improvement in higher education since the national anticorruption program was made public.

TSU's administration has promised to address the problem of corruption, yet opponents say nothing has changed.

Kandelaki says that last spring, he and members of the newly elected TSU student council attempted to expose corrupt faculty members, but to no avail: "The most [important] measure taken by [our council] was to hold a survey [among] students [in order] to name the most corrupt administration and faculty members. A list of 200 people was published. However, nothing [has] changed since then."

Revaz Bakhtadze is a correspondent for "Civil Georgia," an online information magazine affiliated with a nongovernmental organization known as the United Nations Association of Georgia. He says the main problem facing those fighting corruption in higher education is that only a few Georgians are willing to change the rules of the game: "I think the major problem is not corruption [at TSU] itself, but the fact that students and [other] insiders support this system. They [can] study at [Tbilisi] State University [precisely] because this corrupt system exists. Without this system, they would have to leave the university. Almost everyone supports the system. Not only insiders, but also [people] who are outside [the university] -- I mean both representatives of civil society and government officials. Some support [this system] actively, some passively, because they benefit from [it]."

Anticorruption-council member Tevzadze also believes the inertia of civil society -- which he says considers the existing system a "necessary evil," despite secretly disapproving of it -- contributes to the spread of corruption and proves a major obstacle to the reform of higher education.

Tevzadze says the government has promised to consider demands made by student councils to amend existing admission procedures to universities and replace them with national, transparent exams. He also believes the emergence of student councils such as the one that now exists at TSU will make life more and more difficult for corrupt university bureaucrats and faculty members.

Yet, he warns that the clock is ticking for Georgia's higher education system. "If we let things develop naturally, everything will be all right within a decade or so," Tevzadze says. But, he adds, "The problem is that we cannot afford to wait so long."