Autonomy and Higher Education Reform in Georgia - in response to a paper by Professors Gia Dvali, Zaza Kokaia, Vazha Berezhiani and David Lortkipanidze

Paper initiated at a meeting of the CSS International Advisory Board on 7 December 2012.


We have read the paper by Gia Dvali and others in its first draft with interest and concern. It is a very serious set of proposals for reforms to introduce the call for a debate on quality and autonomy as the essential basis for future Higher Education in Georgia to which we are responding. However, from an international standpoint we are aware that there are errors of fact and interpretation in the paper which mean that what is proposed will not actually produce the desired result. As friends of Georgia, we are offering this response as part of the open discussion on future strategies for Georgian Higher Education which was called for by the paper's authors. As a first premise, we are taking as a given that all governments faced with limited resources for education or other necessary public goods, must ensure that these resources are expended for the greatest good of the country as a whole. This in turn defines the essential data (including budget constraints, FTE faculty numbers, faculty:student ratios desired) on which the discussion must be based.

The Mission of Universities in the 21st Century

A university Mission Statement usually invokes the university's role in teaching and research and the contribution thus made to society regionally, nationally or internationally. From the Mission Statement flow the objects of the University, the means by which it chooses, from time to time, to fulfil its Mission. One such object might be that identified by the paper's authors as the mission of the academic community, ‘to acquire and distribute knowledge', but the role must also include education, research and service to the community (in terms of human capital formation to contribute to economic growth, or education in citizenship to contribute to the development of democracy in Georgia) at whatever level is appropriate to the specific institution, in terms of its autonomy and the academic freedom of its faculty and students, noting that academic freedom is inseparable from faculty responsibility for student learning and the proper conduct of research. The excellence of a university needs to be defined in terms of its fitness for purpose: The purpose of a Harvard is different from the purpose of a Community College, but both may be excellent. (In parenthesis we do not agree with the assumption in the paper that university excellence is defined solely or primarily in terms of research.) It is also clear to us that the excellence of a university (or institute) grows from bottom up, not top down, and requires a critical mass of scholars to maintain an international reputation.

Size and Shape of the System of Higher Education in Georgia

The paper does not address the first order question of size and shape of the higher education system. There are critically important issues here. First, how big should the system be? CSS research indicates that there are 57 higher education institutions in Georgia. Is this the appropriate number? Are existing faculty/student ratios optimal? Is the existing proportion of undergraduate students to post-graduate students appropriate?

Many of these institutions are private. What should the relationship between publically funded and private sector higher education in Georgia be? Private institutions have unregulated fees. Public institutions' fees are capped. That may put public institutions at a competitive disadvantage. Should their fees be de-regulated? 

Of the 57 HEIs, 41 are in Tbilisi. The higher education institutions rated in the three most prestigious categories are located in Tbilisi. Given the distribution of Georgia's population, is this desirable? What is the appropriate division of effort in higher education development between the capital and the regions?

Concentrating on developing institutions in Tbilisi may create economies of scale and also critical mass in the country's intellectual life. On the other hand, distributing effort and resources more evenly might more effectively address questions of equality in access. A student from the regions who wishes to attend a more prestigious institution in Tbilisi faces a high personal cost (accommodation, sustenance, travel). Given frequently inadequate family resources to support this expenditure, good students may be prevented from attending better institutions. Improving regional universities would lower this personal cost and would help address this inequity. In addition, given the universities' role in the communities that host them, distributing resources more evenly might well improve community quality of life outside Tbilisi.

Finally, there is the question of the distribution of resources between university and vocational training. Some countries place very little effort into vocational training. Some put substantial effort into the activity. It is unwise to ignore the vocational component in a higher education concept. Arguably, it has a much higher added value for the economy.

Addressing these questions in an open dialogue about higher education in Georgia requires hard and transparent data on the distribution of resources between Tbilisi and the regions, on how money is currently spent in the universities, on the number of students in each university, on the undergraduate/graduate ratio in these universities, and on the allocation of resources to teaching versus research in the higher education budget and in the universities.

Tenure and the Role of Governance 

We entirely agree that the right governance structure is the chief guarantee of university autonomy and academic freedom. This does not, as suggested in the paper, equate to the introduction of a tenure system which, as described here, most closely resembles the academies of the former Soviet Union which have since been discredited in their separation of teaching and research, and the systems still in place in France and Germany, which both countries have been working for some years to transform. The tenure system in place in leading universities in North America is an aggressive process. It is hard to achieve and the appointments of those who do not make it are terminated; those who do get tenure remain subject to regular performance evaluations thereafter. It is true that tenure may facilitate independent research, but at least as often it tends instead to create an oligarchy or gerontocracy which limits research funding and other necessary goods for young faculty as they build their teaching and research careers. Nor is a tenure system ipso facto any guarantee of quality The ending of the tenure system in British universities in 1987, for example, stimulated competition, one of the best guarantees of academic quality.
Higher Education Reforms

The transformation from Soviet to post-Soviet and finally to modern, 21st Century universities has been a very hard road for many post-Soviet states. We applaud the tough and principled stand taken soon after Georgia's independence to reform root and branch. It is on such a basis that the healthy growth that the young people of Georgia deserve can be ensured for the country's tertiary institutions. The future of Georgia requires only the best from its inevitably limited resources.

Financial Issues

This leads us to the funding of Higher Education, an area not touched on in any detail in the paper, but fundamental to the quality and viability of the system. A quick analysis suggests to us that the full programme of actions suggested in the paper is beyond the budget of many countries in the developed world. In comparison with Georgia, all the countries of the European Union, for example, have had to face very severe budget cuts in higher education and the continued success of many of their universities has depended on a high degree of flexibility and adaptability in identifying diverse sources of funding and, above all, on competition.

In a healthy system competition is necessary both externally, with other institutions and international funders and internally, between one area of study or research in the university and another. It is essential to understand resource constraints and clear choices must then be made which will maximise the social return, i.e. the value added to Georgian society. In hard times universities and all those working in them have to understand budgeting, personnel issues and academic and administrative strategies: that there is not enough money for everything and that to keep their place only the best will do; at the same time, innovative support systems (e.g. early retirement schemes and help in finding alternative employment) are needed to meet the needs of those who must make way for younger faculty with international experience. Financial transparency makes the task of managing this very much easier and this, in turn, entails an open process of internal resource allocation across the university as a whole.

Quality Assurance and Evaluation

The first step in quality assurance is ensuring that the proper process is in place for hiring and promoting the best new faculty. Job Descriptions must be approved by department and University Council; Hiring Committees should include external, preferably international, experts; there should be a probationary period before appointments are confirmed and there must be a regular annual appraisal of all faculty by the Head of Department or Dean/Provost and of each department on a rolling review basis every 3 - 5 years. Each university must have in place a system for quality evaluation which includes qualitative judgements by experts and as well as the usual evaluation of appropriate KPIs and student reports. Again, open competition, based on the evaluation of individuals, courses, departments and research, and on the management of the institution as a whole is the best possible guarantee of the quality of teaching and research over time. (It is important also to identify the sources of funding for quality assessments and audits, either held centrally or transferred to departments for this purpose).

Academic Self Government

The heart of university autonomy is academic self-government - the selection of students and faculty, the content of courses and programmes, the forms of assessment and examination - all of this has a cost and power is always linked to financial decision-making. To ensure that financial decisions affecting academic matters (teaching and research) are made by the faculty (facilitated by the advice of professional finance officers on budgetary and related issues) the university's departmental committees envisaged in the paper must lead up to a higher University-wide, elected Council, chaired by the Rector, where allocation issues can be openly discussed. Only in this way do faculty learn what it means to be a constituent part of a wider university and how, in turn, the needs of some must be sacrificed to the good of all. A line has to be drawn between university governance and individual autonomy and this is problematic in every university in the world. But academics are intelligent beings and, given full information, will make rational judgements. If they are told only part of the story, they will tend to respond only in terms of self-interest.

The Place of Research Institutes

Georgia has taken a wise and essential step in integrating research institutes into the universities, thus supporting the important principle of the indissolubility of teaching and research and ensuring that students will have the possibility of learning scientific methodology for themselves even in their first year. This is a well known and widespread issue in HE systems globally, and those countries which retain coexistent but independent universities and research institutions are working hard to resolve the problems this causes. Given the constantly increasing costs of hard science, uniting research in universities and institutes is also the only way in which equipment and consumables for teaching and research labs can be afforded. It is now critically important that University Rectors take the initiative to work with their new Research Institute colleagues to define the areas of future collaboration and the appropriate methods of funding from the university's budget. This integration process is a great opportunity for both sides and the Ministry will be able to find some small resources with which to reward the most successful models of such integration, particularly those where strong student interaction is involved.

The Transition Process

We understand that it is generally recognised in Georgia that there is a need to review the purposes and structures of higher education in response to changing times and very severe financial constraints. None of this is easy and establishing an objective basis for quality judgements can help the process forward. We note that the paper makes no mention of a valuable tool for research support, competitive excellence in winning external funding e.g. from the EU in collaboration with foreign universities. We note that it is also important to define areas where Georgia has a competitive advantage (which could be identified from an analysis of research grants from external sources over the last 5 years). 

We note that the staff: student ratios are at the low end of the spectrum, and that, as faculty retire, these ratios should be allowed to rise so that they are in line with the best universities elsewhere in the world; similarly, administrative staff numbers are high and should be progressively cut as vacancies appear and existing staff are redeployed.

As savings are made, they should be used to enhance academic salaries for those new faculty who are hired by a new rigorous process to be internationally competitive, and who are then offered the chance to apply for regular promotion on the basis of an institution-wide process. This should be conducted annually across the university to ensure that the highest possible quality is maintained across all university faculties. 

Existing staff may also apply for promotion on the same standard international basis of student and peer evaluations, record of publications (preferably in peer-reviewed journals) and grants obtained, and letters of reference from external experts sent directly to the Head of the Promotions Committee or the Rector. If they are not promoted, existing staff will not lose their jobs, but will, if they wish, continue on the same grade and salary level till retirement. Promotions offer opportunities for which all faculty can compete without the stultifying effects of tenure. 

In conclusion, the authors of the concept paper should be applauded for opening an extremely important debate on higher education. However, in its focus on tenure and the structuring of funding and decision making issues around research, the concept ignores the centrality of teaching in higher education and undervalues the contribution of the university in building the future of the country. It also needs a more hard-headed analysis of the public sector funding environment. Hard choices must be made between competing demands for limited resources. The priorities chosen ought to be those that deliver the maximum public good within Georgian society. 

The authors of this paper are happy to continue to consult on the further development of the concept if desired.

Professor Louis Maheu, University of Montreal, Canada Dr. Louis Maheu is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Professor Emeritus at the Department of Sociology, University of Montreal. Dr. Maheu is the former Dean and Vice-principal for Graduate Studies at the University of Montreal. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University Paris-Sorbonne. He published extensively, more than 100 books and articles, on social movements, social classes, scientific organizations and communities, graduate studies and universities. Dr. Maheu served on and chaired many committees regarding research, higher education and graduate studies issues, namely for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, the USA Council of Graduate Schools and National Research Council (Methodology Committee on Research Doctorate Quality Assessments), the Quebec Council of Universities, the Quebec Association of Graduate Deans, the Canadian Foundation for the Social Sciences, and the International Sociological Association (Research Committee on Social Classes and Social Movements).

Anne Lonsdale, University of Cambridge, UK Anne Lonsdale, CBE, MA, was President of New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), Cambridge University from 1996-2008. She was Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University from 1998 - 2003 and a Deputy Vice-Chancellor till 2008. She studied Classics and Chinese Language and Literature at Oxford and taught Chinese Literature there. She later became Director for External Relations at Oxford and, from 1993, the Secretary-General of the Central European University in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, and has worked on university management and governance issues in Europe, America, China, Africa and the Middle East.
She is currently Deputy High Steward of Cambridge University and Chair of CARA (Council for Assisting Refugee Academics) in the UK. She is also a Trustee of the European Humanities University, in Vilnius (after its closure by President Lukashenko in Minsk in 2004), and the Founding Provost of Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan.

Professor Roland Dannreuther, University of Westminster, UK Roland Dannreuther is currently head of the department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster. He is also an International Fellow at the Department of International Relations, Tbilisi State University, Georgia. He was previously Professor of International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, Faculty Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and Research Associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies 

Tbilisi 9.12.12