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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Georgia purges education system
Sweeping reforms of Georgia's corrupt education system have caused huge controversy in the former Soviet republic, the BBC's Natalia Antelava reports from Tbilisi.

A Georgian student during a test
University admission tests are now mandatory in Georgia

As thousands of Georgian high school students prepare for their university admission exams, many here remember an old Soviet joke about a man who visits a college professor.

"My son has an exam with you tomorrow, but he is not well prepared," he says, "I am afraid that he will fail."

Without raising his head the professor replies: "I bet you $500 your son will pass".

Many in the Caucasus republic hope that from now on this joke will be told as a symbol of the past.

Georgia's new standardised nationwide tests - similar to America's SATs - are designed to overhaul the country's notoriously corrupt education system.

'Shock' for students

Since Soviet times every university in Georgia has administered and graded its own entrance exam.

Ilia Karukhnishvili
Ilia says he was surprised by the speed of the reforms

Officials believe that up to $30m - more than the country's entire education budget - was spent on bribes every year.

So a few months after the so-called Rose Revolution that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, high school students were told to study for a new, state-administered test.

"It really came as a shock to us," says 17-year-old Ilia Karukhnishvili, as he lifts his head from the textbooks that lie open on the table.

"Imagine, all my life I was preparing for one kind of exam, and then the new government comes and changes it all," he says.

Radical change

His five friends, all gathered in Ilia's living room to go over the exam material together, nod in agreement. They say preparation has been difficult, although the process seems to be much more fair.

We have finally come up with a system that almost surely excludes any possibility of bribe-taking
Alexander Lomaia
education minister

"Before all you had to do was to pay. It did not matter what you knew, whether you were prepared. Now, we actually have to work hard, but we have an opportunity to show our knowledge now," says Karlo Kavtaradze.

Only 17,000 out of 32,000 students will get into university this year and 4,000 of them will receive full bursaries for their studies.

And in a country where anyone could get a university degree before, this marks a radical change.

Many believe it is not just the students but the country's entire education reform that is being put to the test.

Georgian Education Minister Alexander Lomaia
Minister Lomaia admits that he faces a tough challenge

And so is the man who is in charge of it.

Georgian Education Minister Alexander Lomaia played a prominent role in the Rose Revolution. Ever since then he has been trying to revolutionise the country's crumbling, Soviet-style education system.

"I hope this test will mark a cultural change too," Mr Lomaia says.

"After so many years of having widespread corruption at the entrance exams, we have finally come up with a system that almost surely excludes any possibility of bribe-taking."

Street protests

From kindergartens to PhD programmes, the country's entire education system is getting a full makeover.

Not even the Communist Bolsheviks did what this government is doing... In reality, they are eradicating our traditional values
Nestan Kirtladze
history professor

Over the past year, the school curriculum has been modernised and dozens of head teachers have been replaced. Many professors and dozens of private universities have been disqualified from teaching.

But it has been a painful and controversial process that has made more headlines and caused more street protests than any other reform.

A few months ago, thousands signed a petition asking the president to sack the education minister.

Westernising the school curriculum, many in Georgia believe, could seriously undermine national values.

"Mr Lomaia should leave the country before he ruins everything," says Nestan Kirtladze, a professor of history at the Georgian University in Tbilisi.

"Not even the Communist Bolsheviks did what this government is doing. They are using the slogans of democracy, but it's all fake. In reality, they are eradicating our traditional values."

'Waiting for result'

Mr Lomaia admits that reforming the education system has been harder than he could have imagined.

"Education is a sensitive matter and the education system is one of the most conservative in any society. So there is no surprise that people react sharply," he says.

"But I think we've managed to show people that what we are doing really needs to be done, sooner or later. And the sooner we start, the better will be the result."

The result is what Georgia is now waiting for.

It will be another month before the students find out how well they did, and longer still before Georgia's reformers are able to tell whether they have passed their own test.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Georgia
31 Oct 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Georgia
31 Oct 04 |  Country profiles


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