Letter from Tbilisi

When Pliny the Elder named the Caucasus region after the beauty of the snow and ice on the mountains he was struck also by its diversity. In his Natural History, which was largely completed by 77 A.D., he listed numerous tribes and ethnic groups - many of which still exist in modern Georgia. Today, there are hundreds of active registered and unregistered political parties in Georgia. Additionally, two of its regions, Abkhasia and South Ossetia, have declared themselves separate states and are under Russian authority. There is, in short, a lot of nationalism to be found in the region and among the countries making it up (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia). Consequently, when I recently visited Caucasus University in Tbilisi I expected to find this nationalism reflected in the higher education sector as well. What I found was that Georgia is among a growing list of countries seeking to dramatically increase their international student enrollment.

The Minister of Education and Science, Aleksandre Jejelava, is embracing what I consider a more positive educational nationalism – a drive to internationalize higher education institutions, faculty and student bodies. During my visit to Tbilisi I heard him speak about his vision of Georgian higher education, to "[offer] education to all of our neighbors and draw students from even beyond them." To do so, the Georgian government amended its visa regime to make it easier for international students to come to Georgia for study purposes. By the year's end, Georgia will be part of the European Union visa waiver system and hopes to welcome many more European students under the Erasmus programs.

There are thousands of international students studying in Georgia today. According to UNESCO, over 3,400 international students were enrolled in Georgia during the 2013-2014 academic year. The Minister of Education and Science expressed his goal to double this number as quickly as possible. His perspective is that, "it is the best way [for Georgia] to push up our quality [of education] to international standards and make greater progress in improving our faculty. Because we have lost so many of our citizens to emigration, we don't have enough of our own youth to fill all the seats we have." The country’s priority to internationalize its education system is also expressed in the Ministry of Education and Science’s Consolidated Education Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2011), in which it states “integrating the Georgian general education system into the international education area” as a major objective.

Like the United States, he also sees higher education as one of Georgia's major service sector growth opportunities. In 2012, almost 20% of the government of Georgia’s spending (as a percentage of GDP) on education was for tertiary education. Beyond the many benefits that international students can bring to Georgian campuses, the Minister also recognizes the broader economic benefit that they can bring to Georgian communities. As UNICEF points out, Georgia’s economy is “highly dependent on its human capital” due to the limited domestic natural resources, increasing international enrollment could be a significant source of revenue and means to develop a workforce with stronger global competencies for the country.

What struck me most though, was just how central international education was to the Minister's vision and strategy for improving the higher education system as a whole. That's a rare thing, something I least expected to find in a region defined by enormous mountains that had kept people out for most of history.

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