Walsh, SDSU: Georgia Needs More Involvement from the Private Sector

The ways in which to further modernize and develop Georgia dominate the conversations of many of its citizens and the rhetoric of all of its politicians. Some contend that attracting business investments from the United States, China and the UAE is the answer, while others adhere to a vague belief that as soon as Georgia attains membership in the European Union, its economy will somehow fix itself.

Yet the unpopular (though infinitely more realistic) opinion that Georgia’s democratic and developed future lies in the education sector is beginning to gain ground amongst the government and the public. After an internal evaluation, the Georgian government found that the country fell behind in its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Following a previous successful collaboration between Georgia and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which resulted in developed enterprises and rehabilitated infrastructure including the Samstkhe-Javakheti Road, Georgia reached out to them once again in 2013.

Tender on one of the biggest higher education projects within the 2nd compact was released across the United States and attracted the attention of San Diego State University, which was ultimately selected for the project in April 2014.

“This is Georgia’s second collaboration with MCC, and I think the fact really speaks to the strength of the relationship between the USA and Georgia,” says Dr. Ken Walsh, Dean of San Diego State University Georgia.

The mutual benefits of the project also attest to the partnership between Georgia and the US. As well as Georgians now being able to earn American degrees in their homeland, American STEM students now have a greater opportunity to study abroad.

“SDSU became very interested very quickly because one of our strategic priorities is to triple the amount of our students who study abroad,” says Dr. Walsh. “We believe that there are two primary reasons why someone goes to university – one is to learn a body of knowledge, the other is to develop as a person. We strongly believe that personal development is better facilitated by a study abroad experience. One of the challenges we face in sending our students to other countries is that scientists and engineers usually won't go. Those faculties are so specific in their curriculums it can be difficult to find somewhere else where the course content will translate exactly. What we could see about this program was that since we were supposed to offer accredited programs from the USA, it would be a place for our scientists and engineers from our main campus to come and get international experience, but be guaranteed that the course is the same.”

Yet the main benefits of SDSU’s presence in Tbilisi will, naturally, apply to Georgia. The turmoil of the 1990s prevented Georgia from developing effective and available higher education in STEM fields, which resulted in Georgia either having to hire foreign corporations (which proved expensive) or rely on its own graduates from universities with facilities and infrastructure far below international standards (which proved ineffectual).

“We're trying to address those issues directly by providing a workforce with an internationally accredited US degree educated here in Georgia,” Dr. Walsh states. Starting from 2015, SDSU offers Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Chemistry/Biochemistry Bachelor of Science programs in Georgia.

The trend of Western-educated Georgians is to leave the country and not return, though Dr. Walsh does not believe this problem will prevail amongst SDSU Georgia graduates.

“Hundreds of thousands of students come to the US for higher education every year, and about two thirds of them never leave. Once you go through your undergraduate degree, in that time you become a different person and connect with the local industry in your degree field; this is particularly true for STEM fields, due to the ways in which they coordinate with local industry. Students develop a lot of familiarity with where they are, especially after working internships in the summers and developing personal relationships. With things like that, it is much more likely students will stay where they get their bachelor's degree, so we think it is far more likely that a significant number of our students will stay in Georgia.”

Although producing US-educated Georgians is a key aspect of the project, it is not the only way in which SDSU is helping to develop the country’s education sector.

“Our real objective here is to improve the infrastructure for higher education in Georgia, which is why we partner with three local universities in Georgia – Technical University, Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University – and we're building our facilities within their campuses. We are also working with their faculty; more than 40 of them have been to San Diego to learn about our teaching methods, technologies and laboratory equipment. Some of them are teaching on our courses right now and there will be more over time, so it will have a jump-start effect with this group of young people who are currently studying with us. This will be magnified by the fact that the infrastructure in these universities has been upgraded very quickly, and those facilities will also become available to students studying outside of the program, as well as students from other universities on a sharing basis.”

However, further investment from the private sector remains a critical component for any project of this kind.

“There are so many examples all around the world where universities and the private sector work together in many ways; any story of how universities achieve greatness all over the world is by partnerships with the private sector. A key component right now, even though our programs are relatively inexpensive from the perspective of an international student thinking to go to the USA to get a US degree, they are still expensive in the Georgian reality. The private sector really needs to help us to provide resources in scholarships and for students. It is not entirely a philanthropic exercise because this workforce can ultimately build their companies, and in addition to that help us develop research collaborations involving our students, or internships involving our students, so it can speed this university towards private sector engagement.”

So far, SDSU’s involvement with Georgia is proving a resounding success, not least in the performance of its students.

“We don't have a lot of experience with Georgian students, we didn’t really know what to expect. What we have discovered is that the students here are very dedicated and very talented. In many ways, they have outperformed their peers at our main campus in San Diego. They say things like 'I want to win the Nobel Prize, I want to transform Georgia’, unlike some of our American students who are hoping to make money have a career. The Georgian students are always pushing for what else they can do more.”

The lack of available higher-education facilities is a frequent cause for complaint amongst Georgians; MCC and SDSU have now set a precedent for success that will hopefully be followed.

Tim Ogden

25 April 2016 20:12