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Education in Belarus: between the Bologna process and the USSR

Over the last few decades, Belarus’s higher education system has pursued modernisation. At its heart, however, it remains Soviet, with strong centralising tendencies and a significant ideological component. Русский

"No to the Bologna process!" - a slogan (and policy) Alexander Lukashenka would agree with. CC-BY-2.0: CJCS / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In mid-February, Minsk hosted the very well-attended Republican Student Careers Forum. The large number of attendees even forced the organisers to close registration for the event ahead of the deadline — more than 1,500 people came to the forum. Some attended talks by business owners, others participated in workshops. But the largest crowds were at the exhibitors’ tables. Students and recent graduates were trying to find out how to get an internship or a full-time job. 

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to find a job,” says Olga, who is about to graduate with an economics degree. “There are a lot of graduates. There is demand for people with a background in economics, but typically employers are looking for experienced hires.” Olga’s concerns are well-founded: students’ fears of remaining unemployed stems from the fact that there will be twice as many people graduating in 2017 than before. This is the result of the transition of Belarusian universities from five-year courses to courses lasting four or four and a half years. Current graduates will have entered university in 2012 and 2013, a total of 140,000 students.

Shorter university courses were the first step towards joining the Bologna process, the pan-European higher education area (EHEA) based on a tri-level system of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Yet the modernisation of higher education in Belarus has yet to take place. 

Getting universities and employers to work together

Data from the largest job search website in Belarus, RABOTA.TUT.BY, suggest that in 2016, there were, on average, 44 applicants for every entry-level vacancy in Belarus, as opposed to 10.5 applicants per opening for the job market as a whole. The website’s chief executive, Svetlana Shaporova, notes that recent graduates face the most difficulty in finding a job — especially if they have not had any internships.

Even now, the most demand on the job market is for salespeople. There are around 3,000 new vacancies posted each day. However, Belarusian universities are not producing sales managers, notes Olga Nadtochaeva from the Here and Now consulting agency. “It would be good if they did prepare people for the most-sought after jobs. Often enough, a degree in economics does not prepare students for that role. As a result, both graduates and employers experience their fair share of disappointment,” Nadtochaeva tells me.

Gomel State University. CC BY-NC 2.0 rethought / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Sales aren’t the only area ignored by state universities. Almost every company in Belarus needs HR specialists. The universities do not provide this kind of training. To fill these vacancies, companies end up retraining economists, lawyers, and psychologists. 

“Essentially, the Belarusian educational system is focused on school leavers, who are given the choice of new university courses in order to recruit as many students as possible. For example, a young man may get a diploma in ‘intercultural communication’ and have no idea what job he will end up getting. Universities are not interested in whether a degree would be in demand in the future or the employers’ needs in terms of expertise, know-how, and skills,” suggests Andrey Melikhov, head of HR at Alutech, a manufacturing business. 

The effects of the gap between student training and business needs are equally bad for both sides, Melikhov believes: “Until recently, there was a lot of demand in the labour market, so graduates could always find a job. Now, the situation has changed completely. Universities will have to shift their focus from school leavers to employer needs if they want to give students a competitive education.” As a matter of fact, labour demand has been trending sharply downwards since late 2015 and reached its lowest level in a decade in 2016. Employers are demanding a lot more from job applicants. 

“Universities are not interested in whether a degree would be in demand in the future or the employers’ needs in terms of expertise, know-how, and skills”

This mismatch between universities and employers is something that can be addressed, suggests Vladimir Dunaev, a member of the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee. In his view, Belarus lacks a national framework of qualifications and professional standards. Both are on the roadmap for higher education reform in Belarus, which the country committed itself to when it became a member of the EHEA in 2015. 

So far, professional standards have been developed for four occupations in two sectors of Belarus’ economy: IT and management. For the sake of comparison, it is worth noting that there are hundreds of such standards in Russia. 

Held hostage by the Ministry of Education

Recipients of government scholarships are sometimes not even given the right to choose where to work. Belarus still operates an allocation system, according to which a young graduate must take a specified job for two years. For degrees listed on a shortage occupation list, this compulsory employment is extended to five years.

Each year, during the allocation period, students face a lot of pressure, says Krystyna Murasheva, director of the BOSS student association. Graduates are being offered jobs they have no training for or forced to find their first job out of university on their own and then “allocated” to it and denied their “free diplomas” that would let them work elsewhere. 

Tatiana, a graduate of the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts, was allocated to a job at a community club in a village 150km away from Minsk. She lives in a dormitory in the local regional centre and receives a wage of around $150 a month. Tatiana’s plan is to remain there until the end of the allocation period and move to Minsk or Gomel, where her parents live. She agrees that the job is important for the local rural population (the club hosts classes and concerts), but doesn’t want to stay in the region.

A village club. CC-BY-2.0: CJCS / Flickr. Some rights reserved.“I did not end up here voluntarily,” Tatiana tells me. “If I had been given my free diploma, I would have stayed in Minsk. In my last year of university, I was working with an events planner there, who wanted to offer me a full-time job, but the university denied them. Their rationale was that my studies were paid for by the state and the country’s cultural institutions needed more staff. 

“I was astonished at the university’s position: if you didn’t want to fall under the allocation, you should have paid tuition fees. It feels like we have two countries here: one that has free enterprise and another that doesn’t. Why can’t I choose a job for myself after university? Yes, my fees were paid out of the state budget, but that itself had been funded out of my parents’ pockets for decades.” 

For Belarusian universities, it’s important that they allocate their students. The allocation success rate determines the number of scholarships offered by the faculty for the following year, which directly affects funding and staff salary levels. Graduates say that universities give priority to state organisations and enterprises. University representatives refuse to officially confirm this.

Allocation becomes an easy way to fill jobs no-one wants because of low salaries

The allocation system contradicts the commitments made in the roadmap, Dunaev notes. “The recommendation was to cut the number of graduates subject to allocation to the absolute minimum. The only exceptions can be students training for jobs on the shortage occupation list. And if allocation is such a great thing as the authorities claim then it must be open to all graduates on a voluntary basis: those who paid tuition fees and those who had state scholarships.” 

The country’s economy, however, is not in the best shape and labour demand is falling. In the circumstances, allocation becomes an easy way to fill jobs no-one wants because of low salaries. 

A fortunate exception 

So far, the luckiest people in Belarus are IT specialists. They are sought after and paid well. Although the average monthly salary in December 2016 for the country as a whole was 801.6 roubles ($421), IT workers were, on average, paid 3,502.8 roubles ($1,843) a month. 

Aleksandra, a student at the Belarus State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, already has a job though she is yet to finish her final year. At Aleksandra's university, there are labs set up by leading IT companies, where students can get work experience that makes it much easier to find a job afterwards.

At Aleksandra's university, there are labs set up by leading IT companies, where students can get work experience that makes it much easier to find a job afterwards

“We get to work with EPAM Systems, SoverSys, and other major companies,” Aleksandra says. “Thanks to this, my peers and I learn a lot and then find jobs. Many of us also attend various vocational courses, there are many of these in Minsk. The most expensive course in Java development, which takes 132 hours, costs $600–650. Hi-Tech Park Belarus has free classes for developers, but there is a competitive selection process. The combination of the two — university study and vocational courses — produces good results. In the end, it is cheaper to study IT in Minsk than abroad.”

Belarus is home to many well-known developers. Victor Kislyi, the founder of Wargaming, which produced the massively multiplayer online game World of Tanks, was born and educated in Belarus, where he continues to live. He graduated from the physics faculty of the Belarus State University (BSU). MSQRD, the popular app bought by Facebook in 2016, was the brainchild of Belarusian developers. 

A still from World of Tanks, a popular online game developed by Belarusian IT workers. CC-BY-2.0: CJCS / Flickr. Some rights reserved.One of the app’s developers, Eugene Nevgen, studied at the Yanka Kupala State University of Grodno; his partner, Sergey Gonchar, is yet to complete his higher education. The president and chairman of the board of EPAM Systems Arkadiy Dobkin grew up in Minsk, graduated from the Belarusian National Technical University, and has lived in the US since 1993. The company was incorporated there and later became a resident at the Hi-Tech Park Belarus. 

A start in life

Students on courses other than IT are not always satisfied with the quality of Belarusian education, which is reflected in the large numbers of people studying abroad. Russia is the main destination: 30,000 Belarusian citizens study there, according to UNESCO data cited by professor Pavel Tereshkovich, an expert with the Independent Bologna Committee

By his estimate, between 2001 and 2015 the number of Belarusians studying abroad rose more than fivefold. For each 10,000 Belarusians, there are 37 students at foreign universities. To put that into perspective, the same figure is 3.4 for Russia, 9.3 for Ukraine, 38 for Moldova, 42 for Lithuania, and 52 for Turkmenistan. 

Student mobility within the framework of the Bologna process contributes very little to student migration recorded in these statistics — few universities here partner with other higher education institutions (HEIs). This has a lot to do with the fact that Belarusian universities lack the funds to sponsor study abroad programmes and there are no foundations that provide financial support for student mobility. 

Those students who find exchange or study abroad programmes funded by the receiving institution face a number of difficulties. Firstly, any study abroad for a period of more than ten days requires permission from the Ministry of Education. Secondly, returning students need to retake every exam they would have missed at their home university while abroad. The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), which makes it possible for courses taken at partner institutions to count towards one’s degree, does not fully operate in Belarus. 

“I remember how much noise they made when Belarus joined the Bologna process, but in reality, nothing has changed”

Alesya Pisarchik has been studying at the Comenius University in Bratislava since the second term of this year. Before, she was a student at the Belarus State Economics University and the modern languages faculty at BSU. 

“I remember how much noise they made when Belarus joined the Bologna process, but in reality, nothing has changed: what I have seen is a pale imitation of the European credit transfer system,” Alesya says. “I went to a summer school in Bratislava and then returned for a one-term study abroad programme. When I came back, I had to take every exam I’d missed: there were few equivalent courses at the Belarusian university, so the only exam they did not make me sit was Slovakian oral practice.” By contrast, the university in Bratislava took into account her studies in Belarus and let her transfer straight into the third year of the course without retaking the second one.

Pisarchik notes that a Slovakian university diploma is recognised in European countries and the US, whereas a Belarusian one would raise questions for potential employers: “At the Bratislava university, the only obligation a student has is to accumulate the number of credits in their study plan. You can create your own schedule, there are few subjects where there is only one class you can attend during the whole week, so it’s always possible to move things around. Moreover, you can take courses designed for other degree programmes. If you have an interest in French literature, you can sign up for that, pass the exam, and get extra credits.” 

European Humanities University, Vilnius. Wikimedia Commons.Since 2005, many of those who want a relatively cheap education in the humanities have travelled down the well-trodden path to the neighbouring city of Vilnius, where the European Humanities University (EHU) currently has nine hundred students from Belarus. The level of financial support provided by the university varies according to the student’s academic performance; tuition fees are between 800 and 2,000 euros a year. Bachelor’s courses are free for students from Belarus as long as they keep getting the highest marks. Students from other countries pay 2,500 euros a year and do not have access to performance-based scholarships. 

EHU was founded in Minsk in 1992; the Belarusian authorities closed it in 2004 for reasons of ideology. A year later the school reopened in Vilnius and is now seen as a Belarusian university in exile, although formally it is a Lithuanian HEI. Since reopening, it has awarded degrees to over 2,500 Belarusians. 

Too outspoken for their own good

Another destination for student migrants is Poland, whose authorities have set up programmes specifically for the benefit of Belarusians expelled from university on political grounds. The Konstanty Kalinowski Programme alone has provided scholarships from the Polish government to over 900 students. The first wave of expulsions came in 2006, when the October Square in Minsk was the site of weeks-long protests against presidential elections results involving several thousand people. Many of the students who had taken part in the protests were forced to continue their studies abroad. 

New repressions against students began in 2010, after the presidential election. Students were charged with protesting without a permit and then punished by their universities, which issued reprimands and expelled them. University administrators denied there had been politically motivated expulsions; however, the European Union imposed sanctions on six university rectors, forbidding them entry in the EU. The two universities with the most expulsions were the Belarusian State Pedagogic University and BSU. 

December 2015: "Students against!" protest in Minsk. Image: Twitter.Gleb Vaykul is among those who plan to continue their studies abroad. The student activist was expelled from the modern languages faculty of BSU in his second year, on paper — for poor academic performance. He took part in the Students’ March held in Minsk on 2 December 2015 and believes this was the reason for his expulsion. BSU students organized a #studentsagainst movement on social media and gathered more than 2,500 signatures against the introduction of fees for exam resits. Other campaign aims included stopping universities from exerting pressure on students, the dissolution of the BSU Assembly, and the creation of a new autonomous student union.

“We were protesting the fact that universities ignored us and did not take our opinions into account no matter what. I was charged with unlawful picketing and the Moscow District court in Minsk fined me the equivalent of 18 base units ($160 or about six monthly stipends) for participating in an illegal protest. All student demands were ignored. Since then, almost every Belarusian university has started charging fees for exam resits,” Vaykul says. In total, there had been about 60 participants at the Students’ March, making it one of the largest student protests in recent years. Apart from Vaykul, two other students were expelled and another ten were issued reprimands. 

“We were protesting the fact that universities ignored us and did not take our opinions into account no matter what”

By the time Vaykul was expelled, Belarus had already joined the Bologna process, which means that the country must preserve academic freedoms, Vladimir Dunaev says. However, academic autonomy remains a pipe dream: students play no role in university administration while rectors are appointed directly by the president on the basis of recommendations made by the Council of Ministers.

The only high-profile student organisation is the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), where future functionaries get their starts. BRSM’s former head Igor Buzovsky, for example, rapidly worked his way up to become deputy chief of staff to the president, responsible, until recently, for ideology. The Union is funded by the state and supports the authorities on every issue. 

"Students for Europe!" a slogan from a student protest. Source: Flying University.University staff are leaving the country as well. According to a recent study titled “Professional bans in Belarus: the diversity of forms, aims, and methods”, more than 500 teaching staff in Belarus have been dismissed on ideological and political grounds. Many of them now work at EHU and other European universities, including the Centre for Belarusian Studies at the University of Warsaw.

After being fired from his teaching post at BSU, Andrey Lavrukhin worked at EHU in Lithuania and then became a senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg. “I genuinely struggle to understand,” Lavrukhin says, “why my knowledge, skills, and expertise are not required in Belarus, why the authorities have the right to deny me the opportunity to make my contribution to social development. In 2014, when I left EHU, I had offers from five faculty heads [in Belarus] to work at their universities. Every time, their rectors would turn me down, the people who had made offers to me would make a thousand apologies and say: ‘Well, you understand how it is...’ But I don’t understand! Later, I was given a more straightforward explanation that I should not have been so outspoken in public about certain issues.” 

Searching for an alternative

Teaching staff who have been barred from state universities in Belarus but decided to stay in the country are exploring informal education, setting up alternatives to the state system. Among these is the Flying University, founded in 2011.

Almost every evening, a crowd gathers in a private home not far from the Minsk city centre. In one or sometimes several rooms at a time, seminars are held with a great deal of noise: spirited defence of one’s views is the order of the day. The Flying University is named after the first independent Polish universities, which migrated from place to place to avoid persecution by the authorities. 

“My dream is a university with an atmosphere of freedom. I would very much like for it to be the place where students assemble and where their personalities take shape.” 

The man behind the university, the philosopher Vladimir Matskevich, was de facto stripped of the right at teach at Belarusian public universities in 2004 for criticising Lukashenko. Since then, he has been working on the concept of a civic university and the “Think Belarus” programme that has crystallised into the Flying University. Describing the concept, Matskevich says: “I am an idealist, I believe that ideas rule the world and define human life and activity. My dream is a university with an atmosphere of freedom. I would very much like for it to be the place where students assemble and where their personalities take shape.” 

Among the university’s acclaimed lecturers are the theologian and Bible scholar Irina Dubenetskaya, who teaches Bible school courses, and the artist and poet Mikhal Anempodistov, who leads the school of design. The university looks to attract engaging speakers and there are currently more than twenty intellectuals amongst its teaching staff.

Vyacheslav Bobrovich, a senior lecturer at the Minsk State Linguistic University who also leads the Flying University’s school of democracy, explains his motivation for getting involved with a non-state university: “Those who teach at the Flying University and at Belarussian HEIs live in two seemingly unconnected worlds. I would like for these worlds to intersect. I believe that democracy is the most important thing for Belarus. And learning about democracy is far from easy, but it is very relevant to society.”

The university does not charge fees for its busy programme, which includes regular seminars, course offerings, and the Urbi et Orbi public lecture series that have been attended by more than 800 people. 

The tone of teaching is different from what is possible in the classroom of a state university 

The Flying University’s foray into alternative education is not, however, without precedent. The Belarusian Collegium, founded in 1997, was the first independent platform of this kind. Its curriculum targets university graduates and students in their final years. It has four “departments”: modern history; philosophy and literature; European politics, society, and culture; and journalism. It is difficult to imagine some of these courses being taught at other Belarusian universities. The tone of teaching is different from what is possible in the classroom of a state university — for the most part, the pro-state point of view does not fully recognise the repression of the Belarusian people in the Soviet Union. 

Minsk is also home to the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB), an informal educational programme for students in the humanities. Unlike other educational venues, ECLAB charges fees, but these do not exceed $360 a year.

Dashed hopes 

Despite the high level of interest enjoyed by informal educational programmes, they cannot fully replace universities.

From that point of view, fulfilling the commitments made in the Bologna process roadmap is a topical and urgent issue. In the past, the academic community had high hopes for amendments to the law on education. However, the proposals for reform published on 1 February were disappointing: the provisions they contained made no concessions to demands for more autonomy in education. For example, Belarus is supposed to set up an independent agency to oversee quality in education in accordance with European standards as well as introduce elections of rectors, but the document makes no mention of this. The proposals do not abolish the practice of compulsory allocation and the overall direction of educational policy will continue to be set by the president. 

“God forbid! We began to race after you (Russia) in the pursuit of some kind of Bologna process, but thankfully we have stopped. Otherwise we’ll run straight into a situation where we lose our education to please the west. They come here and are jealous of us: we have a good system of education. Then, we rush headlong into this Bologna process... Thank God, we have figured out we are running in the wrong direction and we have stopped,” Lukashenko said during a press conference in November 2016.

The roadmap mandates that most of the changes, including changes to legislation, must be made by the end of 2017. The issue of Belarus will be raised again at the EHEA ministerial conference in 2018. Judging by official statements, however, it seems like the conservative forces have already won, Vladimir Dunaev believes: “The paradox is that there is no mechanism to hold Belarus accountable for failing to act on its commitments. In the short term, this unfortunately means that education in Belarus is more likely to remain Soviet than to become European.” 

Translation by Alexander Iosad.


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