Reflections: Georgia

In May, the final meeting of the Capacity Building project for the Caucasus was held, involving representatives of the United Kingdom, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It was organised by our Georgian colleagues and held in the office of the National Centre for Educational Quality Enhancement (NCEQE) in Tbilisi.

The purpose of this meeting was not only to become familiar with the functions, policies and procedures of the Georgian centre, but also to provide the necessary support and to increase further cooperation between the organisations involved in this project. The director of the NCEQE, Ms Elene Jibladze, emphasised that the objectives of the meeting were to summarise the outcomes of the project between the UK and the countries of the Caucasus region and to expand the cooperation between the centres. She also noted the importance of cooperation with colleagues from the UK for further development of the Georgian centre, as well as the participation of representatives from other centres of the Caucasus region. The project presents an opportunity not only to strengthen communication, but also to develop a unified system of recognition for educational programmes across the region.

During the workshop, participants noted the invaluable benefits of this project and outlined the possibilities for future collaboration. UK NARIC, as organisers, summarised the results of the work for each centre and identified priority areas for further development.

Major changes have occurred in the Georgian education sector since the year 2000.

Institutional accreditation was launched in 2004. Before that time, only private institutions, which began to grow in number from 1991 onwards, had to go through the accreditation procedure. Between 2005 and 2010, institutions had to be licensed followed by accreditation to be fully recognised. The NCEQE was created in 2010, and it is the legal successor of the National Centre for Educational Accreditation. In that same year, mandatory licensing and institutional accreditation were replaced by an authorisation procedure. Standards of authorisation consist of three components: human resources, material resources and educational resources, which are measured every five years by NCEQE.

The Georgian National Qualifications Framework was also introduced in 2010. It consists of eight levels in line with the European Qualifications Framework. Basic education is at the first level, completed general secondary education is at level three, and the last three levels relate to the main higher education qualifications. Compulsory studies are until year 9, but the majority of pupils stay at school up until year 12. Bachelor and Master’s programmes were officially introduced in 2003, totally replacing specialist programmes from Soviet period.

Georgia is one of the states in the Caucasus region that gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, the country has experienced a series of political and military conflicts. At present, the situation is more or less stabilised, and a slow recovery of the relationship with its key neighbour – Russia, both at the political and economic level, is occurring. During his presidency, the current leader of Georgia; Mikheil Saakashvili, has managed within the space of a few years, to almost completely eliminate corruption in the country where the practice flourished for decades. Now, attempts to bribe a police officer were they to stop your car for instance, would be pointless. Local people have certainly appreciated both this and likewise the simplification and acceleration of various administrative procedures, which used to take months to complete.

However, the economic situation of the local population remains very difficult. On the streets there are many poor people begging. As there is only a small industrial sector, there is a corresponding lack of employment opportunities and people are finding employment where they can. In the centre of the city for example, all parking spaces are supervised by a ‘traffic marshal’, a person who helps you to park and looks after your car. You are expected to remunerate the worker before you leave. It would be seem ideal for Georgia to become a major tourist destination since it has so much to offer: the nature and climate, exceptional cuisine and the wine… However, the Georgians may not yet be willing to accept that.

The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, was founded in the 5th century and is an important transit point for international energy and trade projects. The city certainly has its own colour and characteristic details. On the peripheral streets, mostly just beyond the centre of the city, lots of small shops offer products to suit every taste from fruits and vegetables to clothes. These shops are located mostly in the apartments of the seller, windows or doors of which face the street. There is also a large number of bakeries and take-away points, where different national pastries and quick meals are being prepared and sold. The famous pie with cheese – hachapuri, the so-called ‘Georgian pizza’, can be enjoyed straight from the oven.

From conversations with locals, it became clear that the infrastructure of the city has dramatically improved in recent times: new roads and new buildings have been constructed; some of the old ones have been renovated. This surge of activity after years of stagnation has been well received, but unfortunately did not last long. Now, for various reasons the development has halted again. Testament to this, there remains a large number of old buildings in the city that need major repair work or complete demolition due to unsuitability for living. For instance, most conspicuous in the centre of city, is not the new presidential palace and the monumental building of the Trinity Cathedral but the fact that it is surrounded by the houses that are almost falling apart.

The local people however, are wonderfully welcoming and friendly. Most Georgians are religious and respectfully adhere to the Orthodox faith and church. Passing the church, many cross themselves, both old and young people.

Georgians are very musical people. Live bands play at many restaurants and the guests themselves quite frequently get involved and sing national songs. To appreciate it fully, it is necessary to listen to the manner in which Georgians sing. The national music is not very familiar to European ears, but it is nonetheless simply fascinating and it can be listened to for hours. It is usually men who sing and do so without any advance preparation, dividing into polyphony.

We also had a chance to visit the old capital of Georgia – Mtskheta, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, located at the confluence of the Aragvi and Kura rivers. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Mtskheta the main interest is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral which had been the focal church in Georgia for a millennium until the new main cathedral was built in Tbilisi. It contains Christian relics from different periods. Opposite the city, across the river and on a mountain, one of the oldest churches in Georgia is located. Founded in the year 545 this remote church is currently a male monastery. From there you can admire the beautiful view of the city as well as the contrast in the colours of the two rivers.

To sum up our project in the Caucasus, whilst the countries remain diverse, there is plenty of potential for further development across the region. It would be nice to witness a more active participation of these countries in the global education market, and likewise to see international higher education providers using the opportunities that the region has to offer. Staff at all three centres strongly advocate the development and promotion of education and academic mobility. All have made substantial legislative changes and are ready to cooperate with global partners. We look forward to engaging more frequently with our counterparts on the global stage, wishing them every success and will continue to support their efforts to collaborate more fully with international partners.


Arseny Kruglov, July 2013

Reflections: Azerbaijan

bakuA few weeks ago, we participated in the second workshop of a joint project between the countries of the Caucasus region. This time it was held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku with the participation of the Georgian side.

During our two-day meeting, we got acquainted with the work of the centre, our Azerbaijani colleagues presented to us their recently launched website for online registration of applications and spoke about the current situation in the country’s higher education sector. In our opinion, the meeting was very friendly and productive. Colleagues from three countries (Azerbaijan, Georgia and the United Kingdom) had a chance to share their experiences, to ask questions, and to establish closer contacts for successful cooperation in the future. The meeting was conducted in Russian rather than English.

It should be noted that the main aim of this project is “to increase transparency and consistency in recognition practices across ENIC/NARIC network”. During this project, which is financed by European Commission together with UK NARIC, our intention is to promote better understanding of the structure of qualifications in the various countries of the world, to improve online data handling and storage systems, and to place more focus on learning outcomes while evaluating documents. Another important aspect is the development of cooperation between centres in general.

The process of recognition of foreign educational documents started in Azerbaijan in 2004, when the country began the process of integration with the European education system. Azerbaijan joined the Bologna process in 2005. Up until now, the main focus of the centre is still given to higher education. However, our colleagues have a strong desire to apply to the government for permission to deal with secondary and vocational education documents. As the centre is a structural unit of the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan and its decisions are legally binding, it somewhat limits the ability and desire of employees to further develop their centre.

The majority of applications to the centre are from Azerbaijanis citizens, who received an education internationally. On their return to Azerbaijan everyone must go through the procedure of recognition in order to be eligible to get a job. Among the countries where students from Azerbaijan are studying the first place is taken by Russia, while the UK is in sixth place. Students are taught in 55 countries. The government also funds the training of its citizens abroad, with the sole condition that after training the graduate should sign employment contract with the state at least for three years. Fields of study are determined by the need of the market. The main ones are tourism (the most popular place for training in this area – Switzerland); humanities and management – the UK; medicine and technical professions – Germany; technology – Japan and Malaysia.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Transcaucasian region and is considered to be the first democratic republic in the Muslim world. After gaining independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has endured a difficult period through the ethnic conflicts that affected the migration of various peoples.

It is interesting that in the country there are 9 out of 11 climate zones. Unfortunately we were not able to visit these other areas, spending all the time in Baku.

Baku is being actively developed and built. Certainly, the presence of natural resources (oil and gas) in the region contributes to the dynamic development of the city. Baku also hosted Eurovision song contest last year. For this purpose a new concert hall was built. On the road between the airport and the city you can see the huge construction site – this is preparation for the upcoming first European Olympic Games in 2015. In the city many of the old houses are being demolished, others are being renovated; many modern complexes are being built. The National Flag Place flagpole is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. The most prominent building is a newly built three flame-shaped towers, a symbol of modern Baku. They were built by specially invited Japanese architects, as Baku is in a seismic zone. During night time illuminated towers simulate one hundred and ninety meter flames and gigantic national flag.

We came just before the national holiday Nowruz (Persian New Year), which is celebrated on the 21st of March. During this period, the population creates bonfires on the streets of the capital and kids and teenagers jump over fire. Also traditionally a lot of pastry and bakery is prepared. It is pleasant to see that the younger generation is being brought up following traditions and the spirit of the nation. In the old town a celebration was organised with folk music, singing and dancing in national dress. Two traditional characters entertained the audience and children. There were many school kids, and when one of the clowns invited a boy to dance, the latter without preparation but with great agility, began joining in the folk dance.

As always in this region you are struck by driving style. Each time you cross a road, you cannot be sure whether you will get to the opposite side in good health. Cars are driven in such way, so that it seems one big accident is about to happen in the whole city at once. Although it has to be said that during our whole stay we did not see one accident. Particularly impatient drivers just use the opposite lane.

An interesting point is that in 2011 the Ministry of Transport of Azerbaijan signed a contract with Manganese Bronze Holdings PLC for a total amount of $ 27 million. As a result, Baku taxi station was upgraded by London Taxi TX4 cars of purple colour. Availability of taxi meters takes away traditional bargaining and reduces disputes between passenger and driver. It was very unusual to see London cabs as far as 3,000 miles away from England.

It is amazing to see a large number of posters around city showing the current president and his father, who ran the country for ten years until 2003. Often on the streets you can also see the sayings of both leaders.

In the old city there are many souvenir shops, selling national products from daggers and scarves to dowry chests and handmade carpets of amazing quality.

It will be interesting to see what will become of Baku and the country in the next few years. Will the capital benefit further from the export of natural resources? Will the difficult relationship with neighbours be resolved, and what will be the future of ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan? And how will international higher education providers use the opportunities that the country has to offer?

Arseny Kruglov, March 2013