Draft amendments to the law on high education, drafted by the Education Ministry, which gives the Prime Minister right to appoint provisional heads of state universities, has met a strong opposition from some universities’ academic circles and UNM parliamentary minority group.
Even some members of the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group spoke out against the proposal.
Among other issues, the proposed bill offers to give the Prime Minister the right to appoint an acting rector in state universities pending election of new rector; a candidate for an acting rector will be nominated to PM for confirmation by the Education Ministry.
Opponents say that this provision will pave the way for government meddling in the universities’ academic independence and significantly limit institutions’ autonomy.
Under the existing law, if a rector resigns, a governing body of the university, Academic Council, appoints a provisional, acting rector before the election of new one.
The bill was passed by the Parliament with its first reading on June 12. But at least dozen of lawmakers from the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group, mainly those from the Republican Party, refused to support it; several MPs from PM Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party, among them MP Eliso Chapidze and MP Gedi Popkhadze, also did not vote for the bill.
GD MP Levan Berdzenishvili from the Republican Party said that giving the PM right to appoint a provisional head of the state universities “is unacceptable in principle.”
“I do not deem it right to limit, even temporarily, autonomy of the state universities,” he said.
A group of students and lecturers, mainly from the Tbilisi-based Ilia State University rallied outside the Education Ministry on June 14 to protest against the bill.
In other changes, the bill introduces some new academic raking criteria, according to which doctoral degree seekers will no longer be able to hold assistant professor’s position; some opponents of the bill say that this provision will eliminate currently existing more flexible system, which, they say, is more appropriate for the Georgian education system at this stage of development.
In other changes, the bill, if approved, will require for a rector to be a holder of a doctoral or equivalent academic degree – no such requirement is envisaged by the existing law.
Rector of the Tbilisi State University (TSU), Alexander Kvitashvili, who was healthcare minister in 2008-2010, resigned after the bill was initiated. Kvitashvili, whose election as TSU’s rector in 2010 was seen by critics as a political move, holds no doctoral degree hence becoming ineligible for rector’s post when and if the new bill goes into force. TSU’s 12-member academic council authorized Kvitashvili to be an acting rector before it elects new rector; by doing so Kvitashvili and TSU’s governing body actually preempted the bill’s provision, which in case of enforcement, would have given the PM the right to appoint acting head of TSU and holding of election of new rector under the supervision of PM-appointed acting rector.
The bill also offers to introduce a scheme setting wage ceilings for academic and executive personnel of the state universities. Some opponents of the bill say that it is inappropriate for the state to determine such issues in the universities and some others have complained that the proposed scheme may lead to decline in wages for some positions in the universities.
Seeking speedy passage of the bill, the government has requested to give the draft amendments special status allowing the bill to be confirmed through faster procedures. The Parliament, which has already approved the bill with its first reading, is scheduled to discuss the document with its second and possibly with third reading on Friday; but the Parliament may run out of time as Friday’s agenda includes many other issues and no discussion of the bill was yet launched as of late afternoon.
Opponents also complain that the bill was proposed without any proper prior discussions with relevant stakeholders and call on the Parliament and the Education Ministry to engage more actively with the academic circles and universities before passing the bill.