Nearly a third of Georgia's 100,000 university students - out of a nation of five million people - attend Tbilisi State University, founded in 1918 as the first university in the Caucasus.
"At the time the university was founded, Georgia was independent," said Teimuraz Khurodze, vice-rector of educational programmes and international relations. Its foundation fell into the brief period (1918-21) between Russian "protectorship" and Soviet control.
The university grew rapidly under the Soviets, who believed the future lay in educating its people. No expense was spared in building up not only faculties of science and medicine, but also those of art and language.
"All the universities founded in Georgia were offshoots of this one," said Dr Khurodze, who witnessed much of Tbilisi's growth, beginning as a student of mathematics 30 years ago and progressing through 20 years of professorship before taking on administrative position eight years ago.
Changes began to take place after 1978, he said. Though education still received adequate funding, Tbilisi started feeling the strain as the socialist system began undergoing its own changes. In 1991 the university received the last of its funding from the disintegrating Soviet system. Students paid nothing before 1991 but, when the 1992 budget fell to less than half its previous level, Dr Khurodze, new in the vice-rectorship, could see something had to be done. "As we saw that we would have financial problems we started bringing in paying students," he said.
The government still sponsors 60 per cent of Tbilisi's students, but the rest are self-sponsored. Though annual tuition fees of $550 generate much-needed revenue, professors still struggle with salaries of $80 to $120 a month. This is a difficult wage to survive on, says Dr Khurodze. Educators have been receiving biannual rises as government funding increases.
The employment situation has been precarious since independence as many former Soviet industries have collapsed. Although the university provides some jobs for graduates, most are finding their own employment.
Private-sector growth is beginning to offer new job opportunities, possibly explaining why international relations, economics and law have been attracting many paying students eager to invest in careers they believe will pay off. Students of languages other than Russian are also in demand as the nation opens up to international business. The number studying pure sciences has decreased along with the funds available to support research positions. Pure mathematics has also declined in favour of applied studies in engineering and computer systems.
The decline of interest in the arts and humanities also marks a cultural shift in Georgia, where artists and poets have traditionally been prized and supported.
With the university based primarily in the capital, officials felt expansion would be simpler and more cost-effective through the establishment of branch campuses. Since 1991, Tbilisi has increased enrolment by almost 20 per cent by opening five extension facilities around the country.
The university has replaced its five-year degree with a four-plus-two system for bachelor/masters degree programmes and has also formed partnerships with institutions overseas including the University of London, Emory University in the United States, and Germany's Bamberg and Saarland universities.
It is part of the European Union's Tempus programme of cooperation in higher education. The Soros Fund has become a donor and the American Embassy in Tbilisi established a library with four Internet-linked computers.
Dr Khurodze commended staff who kept the university operating during the hard times.
"They are the patriots of the university and the country as a whole," he said.
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