There was once a popular joke in Georgia about a man who visited a university professor.
“My son is such an idiot that he will never pass your entrance exams,” said the despairing parent – to which the academic replied: “I bet you $1,000 that he will.”
The joke highlighted just how rampant bribes to university staff had become after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to some estimates, more than half of university places were sold to students in the early 1990s for as much as $30,000 (£21,000) at a time.
Low pay for academics helped to institutionalise this corruption throughout the academy, with many staff receiving kickbacks worth hundreds of dollars to graduate mediocre students.
Sweeping anti-corruption reforms enacted after the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003 have put an end to these practices and jokes. Students entering Georgia’s 75 higher education institutions must now pass a state-wide university entrance exam, introduced in 2005, with a rigorous checking process under which each exam is read by at least six independent graders.
Those sitting the exam in its early years did so under the gaze of CCTV, with scripts theatrically escorted to exam markers with a police escort, explains a 2015 report published by the Legatum Institute, a London-based thinktank.
“The exam has worked very well in addressing issues that existed,” said Mikheil Chkhenkeli, who was appointed Georgia’s minister of education in November, having previously been vice-rector at Tbilisi State University, the country’s leading higher education institution.
“We are now thinking about improving the exam by involving more university and high school representatives [in its design] so it reflects the needs of universities,” said Professor Chkhenkeli.
The exam, taken by Georgia’s 140,000 higher education students, could also become tougher, the minister told Times Higher Education in London.
“We want to raise the quality in general and improve the quality of undergraduates by having rigorous processes,” he said.
Georgia has been equally determined in rooting out other forms of academic corruption. Moves to shut down diploma mills by introducing a new accreditation process led to the closure of more than half of the country's higher education institutions in 2005, halving the undergraduate intake that year to about 16,500 students, the Legatum Institute says.
Many academics suspected of gaining their jobs thanks to nepotism or bribes were forced to reapply for their posts under an open and competitive process.
“There is now a very clear and transparent hiring process,” said Professor Chkhenkeli, who spent 20 years teaching at US universities after taking his PhD in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. “There will be a few isolated incidents [of nepotism] but it has, to a large extent, stopped. The ministry will fight very hard against [nepotism].”
With these problems in check, Professor Chkhenkeli is looking to “improve quality at every level of education” and build on the country’s traditional strengths, which, like other post-Soviet states, often reside in the sciences.
“Georgia’s mathematical schools are extremely strong and we do well in physics, but we’ve also been strong in psychology and languages too,” he said, pointing to the many poets produced by the Black Sea state, which is sandwiched between Russia and Turkey. “This is a significant part of our intellectual lives,” he said of this literary inheritance.
Professor Chkhenkeli is also aiming to attract more young people to consider an academic career – a task aided by the growing faith that job applications will now be assessed on merit, rather than the “academic barons”.
“Young people should have the sense that if they work hard, their efforts will be rewarded and their careers will blossom,” he said. “It’s a worldwide issue that not so many young people are going into careers in fundamental research, so one of our efforts will be to get young people involved in research at an earlier age.”
Increasing student mobility is also another priority for Professor Chkhenkeli, who himself spent a year at a US liberal arts college as an undergraduate as part of a US-Soviet Union student exchange in the 1980s.
He is keen to expand outward mobility, but also believes that Georgia can become an attractive destination for international students. It currently has about 10,000 international students, representing a 10-fold increase since 2009, but Professor Chkhenkeli believes that this number will grow rapidly thanks to a revived interest in Georgian culture and an expansion of courses offered in English.
“We have academic strengths in science and technology, but also in the humanities,” he explained, “and when you combine this with Georgian hospitality and our lifestyle it will offer a very fulfilling experience to students”.