Since the new government was installed, several changes have been initiated in the educational system. Tabula interviewed the new Minister of Education, Giorgi Margvelashvili, to discuss those changes, including models for the 2012 and 2013 school graduation exams, as well as the role of schools, the financial independence of universities, the pre-election promises of the Georgian Dream coalition and the general vision for the educational system going forward.
Let’s start with the issue of exams: The “8+1” system requiring students to pass eight high school graduation exams in order to be eligible to take one requisite higher-education entry exam, which was planned to start in 2013, will no longer be implemented. School graduation and unified entry examinations still remain in force. The former government had its arguments supporting the “8+1” model, among them narrowing the gap between the education obtained at school and that required for university entry exams and reducing the importance of private tutors by cutting down the number of entry exams. Why do you see the preservation of the old exam model as more advantageous than the “8+1” system?
Exams are a very complicated topic and are linked to many things. One such thing to which that topic is strongly linked is confidence toward it, which is being created in the society. That trust has been clearly developed toward that system, which so far has been implemented by the National Examination Center. Perhaps it is better to talk about those topics with [Director of National Examination Center] Ms. Maia Miminoshvili. I, as a person being rather aware of those specifics from a distance, will say that the exams which are conducted for a high-school graduation certificate represent students’ attitude toward some national standard. The unified entry exams that are conducted by the National Examination Center are based on competition, which reveals by how much one student is better than another student. That is the format of exams by which the system of national examination operates. These are two examination processes with different goals.
In your opinion, what is the need for high-school graduation exams when those exams and their results have no actual impact, for example, on the admission of a student to a university?
They do not have impact yet. The mere fact that you sent your child to school – moreover, you made the payment for the education of your child and handed over that obligation to the state, which observed and ensured it constitutionally – means that we, state structures, must somehow describe that activity which we have performed toward you as a citizen. Consequently, when I took an obligation from you and also took money from you, I must report to you whether or not I have performed that obligation to your child. Then, I must evaluate the qualification by that scale which exists. That does not play a role now in terms of higher education, but there may emerge some other spheres apart from higher education in which a school graduation certificate will be important.
School graduation exams will not be conducted in a centralized way as an exception only this academic year. Giving the prerogative of conducting exams to the schools may enhance the role of schools in the educational process. In one of your recent interviews, you said that exams would not be attributed a higher importance than they have in reality. If you think that, why then will centralized school exams remain in force starting from the next academic year?
Because centralized high-school graduation exams are the correct thing. This year we are doing it differently because we do not have the possibility of conducting them in the way we will conduct them in the future. Why is it that a centralized form of graduation exams is better? Not because we do not trust teachers, but because that ensures a uniform standard. When people send their children to school, we, the Ministry of Education, tell them that we ensure some sort of uniform standard for all.
Does it not diminish the role of schools, which increases this year only as an exception? It appears that enhancing the role of schools is only an anomalous instance and not part of the education policy.
I do not understand your logic. What is the role of exams – be they centralized or non-centralized – is a separate topic. In my opinion, an exam itself is the summing-up of the educational process. It is way more secondary than the learning process. Whether this secondary is conducted in a centralized or a non-centralized manner is not related to the value of that exam.
If the point is that previous scores are not weighted to the final score of exam, we can think and discuss separately how that might be integrated. Those are different theories and debates among them are interesting.
High-school graduation exams are divided into two stages with some of them to be taken at the end of the eleventh grade and the remaining at the end of the final, twelfth grade. Does that not increase the motivation to hire private tutors to prepare for them? Having four tutors a year looks more realistic than, say, twelve.
I do not see a logical link. Do you want me to say where the need for private tutors arises? When it comes to competition. A school may sharply improve a standard, but at the national entry examination, which is a competition in which we must beat out one another, the need for private tutorship emerges naturally. When there is a natural competition, one is unable to eradicate additional factors in that competition.
The Ministry of Education voiced support for an initiative introducing a ten-year school educational model. Is that already decided? When will it be implemented?
No, it is not decided. I think we will gradually establish such a form of public relations where the society will not perceive everything said by the Ministry as promoting an already made decision. For instance, we said that, in our opinion, expelling students in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades from school is an incorrect pedagogical step, and we appealed to the society to provide their views whether they share that position or not. We did not say that “We have already decided something” – we only said that it is how we view it. As regards the “10+2 “model [ten years of high-school education plus two years of preparation for university], it was said that we will debate on that. Our aim is to establish – and especially with your help – an active interaction with the society through which we will ask very many questions to [the citizens] and they will answer in a very qualified manner.
As regards finances allocated for the educational system, according to the 2013 draft state budget, the funding of the Ministry will increase by GEL 40 million. Which particular directions are prioritized for increased funding?
No, we managed to restructure more than GEL 30 million inside that amount which was already earmarked for the Education Ministry in the budget drafted by the former government. We changed priorities and managed to channel more funds toward students. But, how much it will increase is a topic of internal trading and negotiation. I may say that I want to increase it by one-thousand percent, but what I will succeed in doing is a different topic.
Teachers’ salaries will be a priority. As regards that timeframe, I will tell you after the budget has been approved.
Will the program of school computerization be continued, providing first grade students with notebooks?
I am not prepared to discuss those programs separately at this stage. It is clear that computerization is our aim. At this stage, I am not ready to discuss which particular program we will enhance, in which program we will invest or which we will optimize.
As regards intensified English language teaching in schools from the very first grade, are there any plans to change that?
I have not heard anyone planning any changes in that area. Such an initiative must, as a rule, come from a group working on curricula. I, within limits of my restricted competencies, do not think that changes are needed in that direction.
The election manifesto of the Georgian Dream contained a point about abolishing the rule for branding of schools. When will that happen?
What does “the rule for branding” mean? I have no information in that regard.
The election manifesto says that the Council of Regents will be abolished. What do you intend to do in that area? Will that body be abolished?
Probably. At a government meeting, we restored the Council of Regents because, under the existing legislation, that body is necessary for the operation of universities until the legislation is amended. As regards the future, there are talks about the development of a new concept of higher education in which the commission [established by the Prime Minister on education and science reform and chaired by] Gia Dvali is actively involved and the issue of academic freedom is underlined. The election manifesto referred to those functions of the Council of Regents which it performed and which caused discontent among universities. Our aim is to eliminate that issue.
The election manifesto also contained a promise about the financial independence of universities which was impeded by the Council of Regents.
Our aim is not the financial independence of universities; our aim is to allocate as much public funding as possible. We have already doubled the financing of students. I think that the management of universities by the Council of Regents, when the latter disposes of budgets, is absurd and incorrect per se. A separate issue is the Council of Regents as a mechanism for protecting state property. That must be done in a very delicate way – when freeing universities from state control, we must be sure that the property which belongs to everyone will be used for the benefit of the university and not any other possible area. I do not think that should be regulated by the Council of Regents; that can be done by the Ministry of Economy.
In general, what is your vision of the role of the state in education? For example, what do you think, should de-privatization of those educational institutions which were privatized years ago take place?
I cannot say anything; I have not studied those issues. As regards the role, it depends what we are talking about. I think the role of the state must enhance in some areas and disappear in others. For example, I think that the role of the state in financing must be high, but nil in academic freedom.
In the case of schools, the role of the state is not managing them, but establishing and sustaining standards. Decentralization must be in the area of management. A totally different thing is higher education, academic freedom – how a lecturer teaches; how a professor wants to deliver a lecture; what ideas are generated. Here, it is naturally crazy for the state to intervene. But financial assistance must become very active.
What are the mechanisms that will be used to de-politicize the system, which is also one of your promises?
In various cases that will be implemented in different ways. Lifting a political pressure is one lever. Politicization of the universities was not exerting pressure on a lecturer by the state, but pressure on a lecturer by the rector. De-politicization will happen by establishing an overall framework concept, which will be ensured by academic freedom. The key subjects in that process are the professors, lecturers. They must be free in their activity from a rector as well as the minister. This is the general framework which is being developed with regard to this system.
Before the elections, one heard calls for free education and promises on the part of the Georgian Dream about affordable education. What do you think about the requirement for free education?
No education can be free. We supplied state universities with GEL 2,250 in the form of a grant and a student received some type of education. Lowering that margin and expecting improvement in the level of education is a market absurdity.
I believe that the state money which a student takes to the university must not be the size it was, but twice, three, four, five times higher in order for that student to receive an effective education, an education that does not end in one year, and rears a future generation of professors. As regards free education, that means that the state must channel larger sums toward that. I think that is possible in certain segments. I take money from your pocket and say that someone must study something. Do you agree that I should take money from your pocket and give it to someone else to study something that you do not consider important or as a priority? The society will say it needs engineers because houses need to be built.
That means that such money will be channeled toward priority professions as it has been done so far?
That concept must be developed with the involvement of experts, society, politicians. Toward which discipline I channel your money is a decision which must not be finally made by the Minister.
The education market is very specific. It does not, directly, merely depend on a demand-supply principle. You create a new product for that market which you will trade on that marker after four or five years. It is absolutely possible to invest in such a product which is not in demand but the appearance of which will generate new jobs.
I work on that issue together with the department that establishes priorities. There is no demand for a biologist, veterinarian, agricultural specialist in Georgia because there is no agriculture. But I hear from the election manifesto that the Georgian Dream intends to invest a billion lari in agriculture and to see that relevant steps are taken. That means that, even though that market does not exist, if money is directed toward agriculture that market will emerge.
For example, the former government did not finance lawyers, economists. There was logic in that; the market itself gives so much money to, say, law-school graduates that they can finance their education through loans knowing that the market will respond to that.