The FINANCIAL -- “All businesses, regardless of where they are located, need well
educated and experienced managers and professionals,” R. Michael Cowgill
told The FINANCIAL.
In his 12th year in Georgia, R. Michael Cowgill is currently the President and co-founder of Georgian American University’s business and law schools in Tbilisi as well as Vice-President and Treasurer of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.
Q. What has changed in the system since the period GAU was founded?
A. We started GAU as the education reform was just beginning. As GAU was based on the western system - we were already in compliance with most if not all of the reforms that were implemented. What has really changed is that all universities are now meeting the minimum standards required by the Ministry of Education & Science. Competition has definitely increased in the education sector. There are fewer universities as many substandard ones have lost accreditation - giving way to the concept of “survival of the fittest”. Donor funds have also contributed to the overall improvement in the quality of Georgian education.
The Georgian education system is continually improving. Further, all of us in higher education and in business welcome the added reforms that are being implemented in the school system (elementary, middle and high schools) which serve to improve the quality of students entering and ultimately graduating from the universities. When GAU was started in 2005, I estimated it took almost 2 years to bring incoming students up to an international standard of learning. Although that has not yet reached a level equivalent to most western universities, it has definitely dropped to less than a year. Another benchmark is how we evaluate our students’ performance when they transfer to or attend a post-graduate programme in international universities. Our students are not only competitive with students from other countries, most times they excel.
Q. How important is western education in Georgia? What are the main western guidelines the Georgian education system has to follow?
A. First, we need to be careful in defining what we mean by “western education”. Good education is no stranger to Georgia as Georgia was one of the leading centres for education in the Soviet times. What we now refer to as “western education” is merely a level of quality which includes relevant, up-to-date programmes taught by qualified lecturers that include theory and practical aspects. Those programmes are facilitated by modern texts and materials, a focus on language skills, safe and comfortable facilities, promotion of ethical behaviour and a management structure that facilitates efficiency, innovation and creativity throughout the educational organization. The other key part of that mix is that there is attention paid to the needs of the organizations that hire the students/graduates - and ensuring that the programmes are developed or modified accordingly.
Yes, those qualities are surely the basis for “western education” - but when defined in such a way, it just makes logical sense for defining a successful education system in any society - and not so different than what was present in Georgia during the Soviet period. Western education has just become a good and visible model to follow to get back on track and be competitive. As the world gets smaller and global competition increases, I tell the students at GAU that they are not only competing with the students sitting next to them - they are competing with students the world over.
Q. Why is GAU such an outstanding university among the many universities in Georgia?
A. From the beginning, GAU was run like a business. Meaning that we focused on ensuring our programmes are of the highest educational and ethical standards that meet the needs of the business, legal and governmental communities, those organizations that hire our students/graduates. We also ensure that we have efficient management systems in place, both in the academic and administrative areas which allow us to keep tuition fees as low as possible while still paying staff and lecturers competitive salaries. Our growth has been conservative and controlled and based on the needs of the market place. We have a Board of Shareholders that brings a diverse skill set to support the strategic planning. Furthermore, many of our senior staff members are also shareholders which give added incentives for success.
Q. What kind of opportunities do GAU students have in terms of studying in the USA?
A. GAU has formal affiliations with American University, Washington DC; Clayton State University, Morrow, Georgia; College of the Ozarks, Branson, Missouri; and Fordham Law School, New York, New York all of which allow student exchanges. With GAU’s emphasis on English language skills to complement the technical programs, our students have few problems in being accepted in other US universities on a competitive basis.
Most recently our Natural Science & Engineering faculty has just began advertising the arrangements we have made for virtually “free” post-graduate fellowships with such prestigious US Universities as: MIT, Harvard, Yale, NYU, Columbia, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, Brown, Cornell and Princeton.
Q. The university is called Georgian American. How does the US support it?
A. GAU was started solely from private individual funds - currently with 36% US ownership. There was no US Government funding at all. However, GAU, similar to any business with American ownership, has been and continues to be supported by the American Embassy here in Tbilisi and we work closely with the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. We have also been fortunate to be involved with some USAID programmes, specifically in Civil and Legal Education.
Q. Which faculty is the most popular at GAU?
A. GAU’s Business Administration faculty continues to be the most popular. Within that faculty we have Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Management and Quant’s, which is a unique mixture of Mathematics, Computer Modelling and Financial Analysis.
Q. How many students does the university have annually? Are some of them foreigners?
A. In GAU’s degree programmes: Business; Law; and Natural Science & Engineering - we maintain a fairly constant number of students, between 900 and 1,000. Our certificate programmes in Public Relations, Marketing and Accounting account for another 200-300 students annually. GAU also bought and is finishing the renovation of the former Institute of Geography where we can accommodate 1,500 degree programme students.
As for foreign students, at any given time we have between 5-10 foreign students from countries such as Russia, Belarus, India, China etc.
Q. How successful are GAU graduates? Please tell us some success stories.
A. Although we have not compiled the statistics from the previous graduation, our graduate hiring rates (which also include students going on to post-graduate education programmes) are among the highest of all universities in Georgia: MBA - 100%; BBA - 80%; LLM - 80%; LLB - 70%; PhD - 100%.
Q. In your opinion, in which sectors does Georgia lack in good professionals?
A. Across all sectors, we have excellent top management and good entry level graduates. However, similar to many other countries, Georgia is missing mid-level professionals and management. As for sectors, one of the reasons GAU introduced its new Natural Science & Engineering faculty is that Georgia has a real shortage of well-educated engineers and IT specialists. A few years ago, Georgia had a great shortage of professionals in marketing and PR - but the Business Schools realized this and have made great improvements in attracting and educating students in those fields. The same applies to general and project management.
Q. In which field are Georgians strong and well-qualified?
A. The legal education system has greatly improved and when supplemented with a good practical programme (like GAU’s Legal Clinic) is producing well qualified legal professionals. Similarly, I believe that due to Georgia's history of excellence in mathematics and statistics - now coupled with modern educational programmes in business - Georgia is producing strong graduates in the fields of accounting and finance.
Q. How would you evaluate the business environment in Georgia?
A. As Vice-President and Board Member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia, that question is asked many times and in many ways. Personally, I do not think we are back to the economic conditions we had before the war and financial crisis in 2008. However, especially compared to many neighbouring countries, we have a government that understands that successful businesses are key to the country’s economic progress and continues to work towards an investor-friendly business environment.
Q. What are the main obstacles that foreign and especially American investors face in Georgia?
A. First, realize that there are many global opportunities for investing. Investors are extra careful in choosing where and in what they invest. Even the slightest potential problem may be enough to dissuade an investor. This is the reason many organizations are working with the Government to tackle real or perceived obstacles such as the lack of an independent judiciary and the existence of certain monopolies. The Government has made great strides in tackling corruption and lowering tax rates.
Another impediment I see is that unless the investor brings in all of its own capital, the cost of capital (high interest rates for borrowing) is prohibitive for normal business operations or expansion. I also still see some reluctance from investors due to the continued rhetoric and sabre rattling coming from Russia.
The US has invested quite a lot of money in Georgia - which also gives confidence to American investors. It is very easy to set up and operate a business in Georgia. The US Embassy is very active and supportive as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Also, attractive to American investors is that there are many opportunities still left for profitable ventures - all the good ones are not yet taken. Georgia’s location is also advantageous for exporting to growing neighbouring countries and to the EU. When a country such as Georgia has such a key strategic location and similar values - the investment is well justified.
From a US Government perspective, Georgia’s role in energy transit is vitally important to the US and its allies. Having a stable and democratic partner such as Georgia is a key to maintaining a status quo within the “sphere of influence” of Russia.
Q. What was the latest important development of American-Georgian relations?
A. There have been quite a few recent important developments: the decision of Millennium Challenge to provide a 2nd tranche of funding to Georgia; the Economic Prosperity Initiative (EPI); the US role in the WTO negotiations between Georgia and Russia; and a number of OPIC loans to businesses with US ownership.
Q. How could the investment climate, especially for Americans, be improved in Georgia?
A. The areas important to the investment climate are more institutional in nature. As mentioned above, I see needed improvements in the area of judicial independence; more checks and balances between the 3 branches of government including strengthening of the legislative body of Parliament; further revisions to the tax & customs codes; a reinstitution of the anti-monopoly regulations; and continued reform in the electoral code.
Q. What are the differences and similarities between the American and Georgian business sectors?
A. All businesses, regardless of where they are located, need well educated and experienced managers and professionals. There must also exist a stable and democratic society in which to operate and export to.
As for the differences, America has a longer “modern” history of market-based business practice and therefore has a more well-defined system of human resources for supplying those businesses with well-qualified professionals - at all levels.
As I mentioned earlier, another key difference in the American and Georgian business sector, is that for American business, there is a huge advantage in being able to access low-interest loans for starting and expanding businesses.
Q. What are Georgians’ current opportunities in the US?
A. Like many others in Georgia, I believe that the US presents a great market for Georgian wine.