Georgia’s billionaire-backed university has high ambitions

Hopes are high for a new university in Georgia after it signed a partnership deal with Technical University of Munich

September 21, 2020
Kutaisi International University

It may seem strange that a €1 billion (£900 million) donation to a university went almost entirely unnoticed by academia and the media alike.

The donation by the Cartu Foundation − set up by the family of Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili − to create an entirely new science and technology-focused university was, until last year, the biggest ever individual donation to a higher education institution before it was overtaken by Michael Bloomberg’s much-heralded $1.8 billion (£1.4 billion) gift to Johns Hopkins University.

The little-known location of the new campus partly explains the lack of fanfare around the opening: Kutaisi International University is being built on the edge of Georgia’s third-largest city of Kutaisi, a historic centre of 150,000 people located 100km inland from the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, the expenditure on the new campus is impressive – with the new university, which was announced in 2016, set to admit its first students during September. By 2024-25, KIU hopes to teach 15,000 students, but its initial intake is smaller, partly as a result of strict English language requirements given that instruction will be in English only − a first for Georgia, explained the university’s chancellor, Magda Magradze.

“We had about 1,200 students interested in studying here, but only 250 got through the exams – our priority is on quality and we hope to continue this way,” Ms Magradze told Times Higher Education.

KIU’s focus on quality is also apparent in its choice of academic partner. Its first degree courses in computer science, mathematics and management studies have been developed in association with the Technical University of Munich, one of Germany’s highest-ranked universities, with eight German professors joining the university’s full-time staff this month.

“We love Georgian – for me, it’s the best language in the world – but if you want to work with the best computer scientists, you have to operate in English,” Ms Magradze continued.

The university is the first Georgian university to offer on-campus accommodation, which will help it attract international students, added Ms Magradze.

The university will also house a new €40 million cancer treatment research centre, which will offer local people access to proton therapy. The facility aims to tackle Georgia’s high incidence of cancer – linked by many to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The centre, and Georgia’s newest university as a whole, is certainly a beneficiary of the man once described as the “oligarch with a heart”, although Mr Ivanishvili has been a somewhat controversial figure since he returned to Georgia two decades ago from Russia, where he made his fortune, like other oligarchs, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Critics of Mr Ivanishvili’s conspicuous generosity have cited it as an example of his oversized influence on Georgia’s political life since he resigned as prime minister in 2013.

The new university “will give us a world-leading educational resource to produce the human capital we need to compete and succeed, both regionally and internationally”, said Mr Ivanishvili this month“KIU will put Georgia and the Caucasus region on the map.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Georgia reveals its HE ambitions

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Reader's comments (1)

Thus far Mr Ivanishvili's good works appear to be focused in his home land, unlike other billionaires who seek to interfere in the running of other countries beyond theirs, often to the detriment of those countries.

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