Issue 2, 2015. April-May

   

GEORGIA PRIORITIZES STEM DEGREES TO ACCELERATE ECONOMIC GROWTH

The country's labor market gap is well documenteD. A new government push for STEM education - science, technology, engineering and math - will hopefully make those problems a thing of the past.

Maia Edilashvili

The Georgian government has agreed to help fund STEM education programs in Georgia, in partnership with the U.S. government and San Diego State University (SDSU).

In a bid to help to bolster job growth, the Georgian government has agreed to help fund STEM education programs in Georgia, in partnership with the U.S. government and San Diego State University (SDSU).

Starting in September 2015, SDSU and Georgian state universities (Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Ilia State University and Georgian Technical University) will offer bachelor degree programs in Georgia.

Prospective students can already choose from a variety of specialties, such as computer engineering, electrical engineering and chemistry/biochemistry at these Georgian universities. Three more specialties - computer science, civil engineering and construction engineering - will be available from 2016.

STEM=Jobs

Ken Walsh, the dean of San Diego State University-Georgia, says that SDSU is the key producer of the economic workforce in San Diego. "We know how that [education] can transform the region, and we are also seeking opportunities for our students in science and engineering to have study-abroad experiences."

The project is part of the second $140 million compact signed between the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Georgian government in 2013. The compact, which funds projects in general education, vocational education and higher education, is based on the belief that a qualified workforce is a driver of development and economic growth.

The STEM majors offered by SDSU, together with their Georgian host universities, are the only higher education component in the compact.

The MCA's project will run for five years; the government of Georgia has pledged to continue to fund it for 20 years, a country contribution to the project of 23 million lari.

Using Math and Science to Bridge the Gap

The World Bank's 2013 report describes Georgia's unemployment rate as "very high." While there is political dispute over the number, even the official data - 18 percent - represents a large portion of Georgia's employable population. Particularly worrisome is youth unemployment, which, at 36%, is more than twice as high as that of prime-age workers. More than half of the unemployed have secondary school diplomas and as many as 40 percent hold higher education degrees, in part because of a skills mismatch in the Georgian labor market.

According to the WB experts, high unemployment in Georgia reflects both limited net job creation and the skills mismatch. "Despite high formal education, many of the unemployed lack skills sought after by employers. There are job vacancies that the employers cannot fill because of skill shortages," reads the WB's "Georgia Skills Mismatch and Unemployment Labor Market Challenges" report.

One solution: help young Georgians receive the education they need to compete in the 21st-century workplace.

As a result of a several-stage, two-year-long international competition, San Diego State University-Georgia was chosen to provide the STEM university education.

The jury's favorite will not have a stand-alone campus in Georgia.

Instead, facilities hosted by the three partner universities will be shared and students will travel back and forth between the campuses to attend specialty courses. This format is expected to benefit partner universities as well, by contributing to their development through capacity building; creating cutting edge laboratories; and rehabilitating libraries, among other facilities.

"Our laboratories will be available not just for SDSU-Georgia students. So it's a way to accelerate the advancement and learning technologies in the Georgian Universities much more rapidly," Walsh said. At SDSU-Georgia, initially all professors will be from San Diego State University, but the idea is that Georgians also develop in these areas.

Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) Rector Vladimer Papava believes this cooperation will help Georgia create a new generation of engineers - with internationally recognized diplomas.

"These diplomas will help [graduates] find employment both in Georgia and abroad. This project opens up new opportunities for joint scientific research. This is a serious challenge that will move our university to an international level," he noted.

New Government, New STEM Vision

The Saakashvili government was the first to recognize the importance of strengthening technical skills among the Georgian workforce and had planned to open an American IT University in Batumi, even constructing a special building for this purpose.

The plan failed to materialize, in part because of the change in government in 2012: the new government did not agree with the plan to open a science and technology university in Batumi and recently sold the building for approximately $25 million to hotel developers.

Instead, the Georgian Dream government has tasked a special commission to develop a concept for a scientific-educational center for modern technologies, including the construction of a technology university and research center for hadron-therapy, a cancer treatment that uses ionizing radiation.

The commission is chaired by Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and also includes his predecessor, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose charity foundation Cartu, will finance the initiative.

Successful Georgian physicist Giorgi (Gia) Dvali, a professor of physics at New York University's Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics and at LMU Munich, is a co-chairman of the commission.

According to Nikoloz Chkhetiani, chairman of the Kartu Foundation, meetings have already been held with representatives of various international universities. "The University will be built in Tbilisi, as it is the most convenient location for such large projects. The project will take several years to implement and will target a large number of students. A campus will also be constructed," he told Interpressnews news agency.

The Cost of the Best

While funding for the STEM program is coming from the U.S. and Georgian governments, the degree programs will not be free for students.

In addition, the courses will be taught in English, a potential barrier for some Georgian high school graduates.

To help, SDSU said it is offering some scholarships, as well as special English-language preparatory classes, for eligible students who require extra assistance.

For Georgian citizens who will study at SDSU-Georgia, the tuition is about $7,500, which is less than half of the cost Georgian students would pay if they went to SDSU San Diego. "It's an opportunity to get an American degree -it's exactly the same degree, but at much more reduced cost," Walsh said.

In addition, SDSU-Georgia will offer a wide range of scholarship opportunities - covering full, half, or 25 percent of tuition.

"The scholarships are targeted both towards merit, and we will also give scholarships to those who qualify for social support in Georgia, minority populations, orphans, and to those from occupied territories," Walsh noted.

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