Cancelation of an authorization to Agrarian University, a high educational institution which has seen major investments and significant rise in number of students recently, has triggered allegations against the authorities of political meddling in an academic institution.
The Agrarian University is run by a foundation founded by Georgia’s ex-economy minister and former state minister in charge of reforms Kakha Bendukidze.
Bendukidze, who amassed wealth in Russia in the 1990s, moved back to Georgia in 2004 when he was appointed as economy minister; he then served as state minister in charge of reforms in 2004-2008 and was head of government’s administration till early 2009. Several years ago Bendukidze started investing in education sector in Georgia and launched Free University. In 2011 an entity founded by Bendukidze took over the management of the state agricultural university and then privatized it for over USD 5 million on the condition to keep the institution’s current educational profile for at least eight years and to invest in it GEL 8 million. Since then, according to rector of the Agrarian University Lasha Gotsiridze, over GEL 10 million has already been invested, including for renovation of facilities and equipment of labs. Bendukidze is a chairman of supervisory board of the Agrarian University.
In December a group of former employees of the university, who were sacked after the new management took over the university, appealed to the National Center for Education Quality Enhancement (NCEQE) to study the Agrarian University’s conformity with the standards set by the legislation.
National Center for Education Quality Enhancement (NCEQE) is an agency at the Ministry of Education, which administers institutional and program accreditation for both private and state-owned educational institutions. NCEQE evaluates educational institutions’ compatibility with set standards and decides whether to grant or not an institution “authorization” – a certificate required for any institution to carry out high educational activities in Georgia.
NCEQE launched inspection of the Agrarian University on January 3, 2013. In the process of inspection in January the management of the university expressed fears that the process was biased and the inspection was a mere formality with an outcome already preconceived.
After a lengthy discussion, which started on the evening of March 11, NCEQE’s council for authorizations took a decision at dawn on March 12 to cancel the authorization of the Agrarian University. It said that although the university addressed some of the problems revealed in the course of inspection, not all the issues were tackled. Among the reasons cited by the council behind its decision to cancel the authorization were allegations that the University issued bachelors degree to two students in violation of regulations; carrying out some doctorate programs without proper accreditation; recruiting some personnel in academic staff without a competition, as well as having some provisions in its internal regulations which contravene legislation and violate students’ rights.
NCEQE’s council for authorization said that its decision would go into effect four months later, by the end of this academic year.
Management of the Agrarian University and its students condemned the decision as politically motivated.
According to the management while there could have been some minor “technical” and “procedural” shortcomings, none of the reason, cited by the NCEQE, was sufficient for taking such a drastic move against the university, which actually left the institution in limbo, threatening its future.
“There were no real reason for cancelation of the authorization; reasons cited by [NCEQE] were just pretexts for such a decision, which I think is politically motivated and is related personally to Kakha Bendukidze,” Lasha Gotsiridze, the rector of Agrarian University, said on March 12. He also said that all those “minor” flaws cited by NCEQE had no effect on the level of education provided by the university.
“The Agrarian University has one major ‘flaw’ and that’s me,” Bendukidze said, adding that the decision to cancel the authorization was part of “a struggle personally against me” and suggested that the authorities might also take similar measures against his another institution, Free University.
Education Minister, Giorgi Margvelashvili arrived at the Agrarian University on March 12 to meet with students, who were condemning the authorities’ decision and telling the minister how unfair NCEQE’s decision was against the background of significantly improved conditions and quality of education in the university.
“Having a good lab does not mean that a university should not observe other rules set by standards,” Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili said.
He said that controversy stirred over the university and NCEQE’s decision was artificial and politicized. Margvelashvili says that the university will be able to restore its authorization without any problem as soon as it addresses those problems identified in the process of inspection.
On March 13 a group of students, including from some other institutions, gathered outside the Education Ministry to protest against NCEQE’s decision. Minister Margvelashvili met with some of the protesters in the ministry.
“Addressing these flaws requires one or two days. I promise you that as soon as [the University’s] internal regulation is put in line with laws the authorization will be restored in the shortest possible timeframe,” Margvelashvili told the students on March 13.
Bendukidze said on March 12 that the option on which the Education Minister was speaking was not as simple as he tried to portray it. Bendukidze said that this option was fraught with a risk that NCEQE would anyway find some pretext for not restoring authorization to the Agrarian University.
Bendukidze said that the university would now try to tackle the problem on the one hand by appealing NCEQE’s decision to the court, plus by addressing those minor “made up” technical shortcomings found as a result of inspection and on the other hand by launching in the Free University those courses, which are now taught in the Agrarian University; this latter option, if implemented, formally means moving students from the Agrarian University to the Free University, but actually keeping academic courses based on infrastructure available in the Agrarian University. Bendukidze on March 12 also called on the students to keep on expressing protest against the authorities’ decision as such unfair decision should not be left without reaction.
Tbilisi-based watchdog Transparency International Georgia said on March 13 that NCEQE’s decision against the Agrarian University was triggering question marks.
“It is unclear why it was needed to take such a strict measure against the university,” which has went through major reforms in recent few years, leading to increase in level of education provided by the university and consequently to increase of its popularity.
“There is a suspicion that this decision might be related to presence of representatives from the previous government in the management of the university; that would be extremely alarming,” TI Georgia said, adding that hampering educational process and creating obstacles to the growing educational institution will harm entire education system and create threat of exerting political influence over high educational institution.
Asked about ongoing controversy over the Agrarian University, U.S. ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland said on March 12: “It is important not to mix academics and politics.”
“I am sure this issue will be looked at carefully. There are accusations that politics and academics were mixed before and now there are accusations that politics and academics have been mixed now. So this will have to be studied and the main thing is to keep academics and politics separately,” the U.S. ambassador said.
Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili said his office had started studying the issue and called for avoiding mixing politics and academics. He also said the issue should be resolved without infringing rights of students.
In a written statement on March 12, President Saakashvili condemned cancelation of Agrarian University’s authorization as government’s attempt to “close down one of the most modern and progressive universities” in Georgia. He called on the government to revise this “groundless”, “unfair” and “politically motivated decision, which may cause disastrous consequences”.
PM Bidzina Ivanishvili downplayed controversy and said on March 12 that it “won’t harm students”; he said that the issue was blown out of proportion and “excessively politicized”.