TBILISI, DFWatch–For the last two days, students at an agricultural college have been at the center of a dispute between the governing Georgian Dream coalition and supporters of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The dispute began with the cancellation of the accreditation of the Agriculture University of Georgia, which recently has been transformed into one of the prestigious universities in Georgia.
Students at the university and the government’s opponents say the decision by Education Ministry had a political motivation, as Kakha Bendukidze, the former economy minister in Saakashvili’s government, has invested in rehabilitating the university.
In earlier years, it was thought that if high school graduates started studying at the Agriculture University, many would say that they weren’t clever enough to study at Tbilisi State University or other high education facilities and students of Agriculture University often became the butt of jokes.
But the university was fully transformed into well-equipped facility with good conditions to study and as part of the reconstruction, some new features and faculties was added.
A few days ago, it became known that the National Center for Developing Education Quality canceled authorization of the university and grounds for this became letter of some initiative group of December 18, 2012, which indicated to violations of accreditation standards.
In January, the monitoring service checked the university. The main problems outlined in the decision of the monitoring commission were the issue of selecting academic personal and their appointment, also the lack of compulsory literature and violations of the regulation of suspension or changing status of students.
The ministry’s decision was met by protests by student, who threaten to continue if the institution’s accreditation is not restored.
Students also say that the decision was politically motivated, as Bendukidze was one of the most powerful ministers in Saakashvili’s government, and conducted significant economic and legislative reforms. A few years ago he left politics, but remains an open supporter of Saakashvili and his National Movement party.
President Saakashvili on Tuesday responded to the scandal around the university by saying that ‘the government attempts to close up the most modern and progressive university.’
“It is obvious that this decision is unjustified and unfair for everyone for those who still have a tiny piece of objectivity,” he said, calling on the government to reconsider its ‘politically motivated decision’, which may lead to ‘catastrophic results’.
Richard Norland, Ambassador of the US to Georgia, the same day told journalists that this issue needs to be studied and academic and political issues should be separated.
Meanwhile, the ombudsman’s office started to study the issue and promised to publish the official position of public defender’s office regarding Agriculture University.
Lawyers for the university on Tuesday said at a press conference that the decision of suspending the authorization will be appealed in court. They claim the decision was ‘significantly illegal and unjustified.’
Iago Khvichia, one of the lawyers, claim that the center of the authorization could have used two weeks on making the decision to avoid errors, but didn’t use this regulation and made an immediate decision.
The lawyers claim that the conclusion, by which the decision was made, indicates to technical details, but not significant violations.
“For example, they give remarks about the age of the lecturer – why the lecturer is born in 1990. There are certain positions which foresee age limit, but there is no age limit for lecturers,” said Lili Begiashvili, another lawyer representing the university.
The lawyers also claim that the accusation about the lack of literature is ridiculous as in the university’s archive there are millions of books which are accessible for every student.
Minister of Education Giorgi Margvelashvili said that if the university improves the violations pointed out, the accreditation will immediately be restored.
He said that the decision was not politically motivated and called on everyone not to mix it and turn this issue into a political one.
“The council, law and commission, which has made this decision, was not set up in a period while I was minister, but they were set up during the previous government,” he said, adding that canceling the accreditation doesn’t mean that it us permanently gone. It may be restored later, he said.
The minister met with the students at the Agriculture University on Tuesday, but the meeting didn’t last more than half an hour, and the students claim they didn’t receive specific answers.
“This university has only a big, bald and fat error and this is me,” businessman Kakha Bendukidze said at a briefing on Tuesday. “This university doesn’t have any other errors – the only error is me.”
Bendukidze thinks that canceling the authorization of the university is a result of a fight against him and this way the ministry ‘decided to victimize 2 000 students’.
“No-one thought about the 2 000 students while thinking of punishing me.”
Bendukidze said that the Free University, which was founded by him and is also thought to be one of the most prestigious universities, will try to receive accreditation on the same specializations so that students of the Agriculture University could switch to the Free University to continue studying, but he also called on students to continue fighting and not to give up.
Kakha Kurashvili, who chairs council of authorization on Tuesday said that the decision to cancel the authorization will be enforced after the spring semester is over.
“This gives an opportunity for students to continue studying under normal conditions and it also gives the opportunity to the Agriculture University to improve errors and restore authorization,” he said, adding that the university may choose another way – through the courts.
Bendukidze responded that it is a lie that the decision will be enforced by the end of semester.
“Such statements are made to calm students down,” he said. “When the authorization is suspended, studying process should be stopped, but they’ve already got themselves into a deadlock.”
“Everything is simple here. They should react to the remarks of the commission and their license will get restored,” Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said on Tuesday.
Students at the Agriculture University have received support from students of other universities, as well as several non-governmental organizations.