Kakha Shengelia – Leading universities in an uncertain world

Kakha Shengelia, president of Caucasus University in Tbilisi, Georgia, takes over the three-year presidency of the International Association of University Presidents or IAUP – often described as the global voice of higher education – at its 2017 conference in Vienna from 5-8 July.

At 46 he will be the IAUP’s youngest president, having taken on the leadership of his own university at age 36, after a political career as deputy mayor of Tbilisi and a member of the Georgian Parliament that included deputy-chair of the parliament’s education committee.

He outlines what lies ahead for his presidency at a time of global political, economic and security uncertainty.

UWN: What do you see as the main challenges for university leaders in the next three years as you take on the presidency of IAUP?

Shengelia: There is a lot of uncertainty right now because of technology, and the political and economic situation which is having a big effect on this globalised world.

I hope it will not be a worst-case scenario and things will get better in the next few years and the world will be safer, but right now going to any country in Europe, or even to the United States, it feels not so secure. Brexit and [US President Donald] Trump are affecting how students and faculty move globally.

The second challenge is the financial constraints that affect universities a lot. The Japanese presidency of IAUP [under Toyoshi Satow, chancellor of JF Oberlin University in Tokyo] laid a very strong basis for the IAUP in Asia – especially in Japan, South Korea and Thailand – and I will continue with this and increase the dialogue to get a good pace in Africa and in Latin America.

African countries need more resources, more capacity building, more attention, more development, more advice and so forth. So my presidency will be more devoted to the African continent as well.

UWN: Do you have a theme for your presidency?

Shengelia: The theme for my presidency and for the IAUP’s Vienna conference is innovation and education.

We have to use modern technology for learning, we need to find out what industry is expecting from education and we need to tie higher education in with industry as well.

In 25 or 40 years the typical university will not be the same as now. We cannot copy what we did 25, 30 years ago or even five years ago. Theory is not enough – we must have theory combined with practice. We have to create something new, based on modern technology.

What do students want from universities? They want knowledge, yes, but after knowledge they want jobs. And to have jobs you have to provide real learning and real education in your university, to the level that industries want.

I think we are late coming to this. We are losing time with those three years or four years at university while we cannot even cope with rapid changes happening right now in education and in world high-tech industries. We cannot afford to lose these three years.

When students come out of university they have to be ready to work in any industry in the world. Yet a lot of universities in the world do not have internet in classrooms, and no access to anything but the professor or teacher in the classroom.

So education has to be number one for every country in the world – for governments and society.

Nowadays you can sit in London or in Oxford, or here in Georgia, and have access to the best lecturers in the world by internet, by email or via e-learning platforms.

We have classroom simulations based on what’s happening now in industries and in technology in the outside world, not locked in classrooms and listening to old-fashioned professors and old-fashioned lecturers. We need to get feedback from the outside and from industries on what they want students to be like after three years of university.

UWN: Focusing on Africa, what do you think the continent needs?

Shengelia: What they need is capacity building and a commitment to education opportunity for all, raising the gender ratio, and sometimes there is the problem of human rights and freedom of opinion and enquiry and speech. And also addressing poverty through education – these issues will be very important for me.

In the past we wanted to create 1,000 chairs for Africa so we could bring expertise and professors and Africans back to Africa, and this was supposed to be financed by big countries like the US or Canada, or the World Bank.

IAUP will see what we can do to revive this programme and help this continent. Right now we have 40 to 50 presidents of African universities who are members of IAUP and we want to expand that. I am planning to travel on my own expenses to Accra, Ghana, in October.

We will reach out to African countries and engage African universities and maybe we can reduce fees or we can finance them or if possible bring more African presidents into the club and show them our [leadership] practices in European and American universities, what we are doing, and take this knowledge or expertise back to Africa.

We have a very good working partnership with the United Nations, particularly with the United Nations Academic Impact or UNAI. Ramu Damodaran [leader of UNAI] is one of its brightest heads and we are really counting on his help. He is now on the IAUP advisory board so this collaboration will go further and deeper.

The main focus will be the 10 UNAI principles, which we are going to follow closely because we want this to be implemented, especially for African countries.

UWN: You are uniquely placed in Georgia, with the war with the Russians in 2008 and subsequent occupation. What has it taught you that can help other university leaders in conflict zones?

Shengelia: Georgia is still under occupation. Still 20% of our territory is occupied by Russian tanks and Russian personnel, but hopefully in the foreseeable future the Russians will leave.

Higher education is an area where you can unify a divided country. As IAUP president I am talking to Russian universities, even though I am not so happy to do so. But my personal opinion has to be different [from my IAUP role] and I have to promote IAUP, not just here in Georgia but in Russia and in Ukraine, in Central Asian countries, in the Middle East and everywhere.

If we can engage both sides through education, it can help heal the wounds we have and which the Ukrainians have, in this part of the world – and by the way, we are building at my university an Institute for Peace which is financed by the European Union.

We can show the world that even though we do not like Russian politics or for Russia to be in my country, we can find a common language to speak about education which unites us, not divides.

Russia is not a very loved country here in Georgia but it is our neighbour whether we like it or not, and we have to learn the language and we have to learn about Russia because we cannot move somewhere else and we have to know what Russians think about us and what they are going to do about our territories.

We have to be constantly communicating with them to solve our problems. We have to be economically developed, more politically developed, a more democratic society so that it will be easier for us to talk to them about peace.

University presidents are respected. To say you are president of a university means a lot, even for a president of a country or a ministry and society. It is a very important position and we can definitely change the understanding of education worldwide in a better way.

In higher education, but especially when it comes to problems like world health or terrorism or security, we definitely have our say, even though we are not politicians. So what we say can make changes happen.

UWN: Many IAUP members are receivers of refugee students and scholars. How does the refugee crisis impact on global universities?

Shengelia: The refugee crisis is a big issue in European society. We are working with the Institute of International Education, which has a special programme for university scholars.

A lot of IAUP universities are involved in this and we are taking care of professors from countries like Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, helping to give them a living – lectures and stipends and housing. We will continue to do this and more of this.

* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.