BELARUS: The odd-one-out in Europe

The Belarusian higher education system is undergoing a steep decline and reduced educational quality, according to experts. They say that although most Belarusian university graduates have a high level of knowledge, they are unable to predict, analyse and work in non-standard conditions as their European counterparts can.

The experts also warn the government is tightening up university freedoms and autonomy.

During the last decade the number of private universities has halved while local government has virtually exhausted all its resources to attract private funds to higher education. This has made Belarusian universities unable to compete in Europe.

Belarus remains the only European country that has not yet signed the Bologna declaration. Experts explain this is because it still uses the Soviet model of higher education which has nothing in common with European educational standards.

Despite the continually declining prestige of local diplomas, demand for higher education remains high in Belarus.

Svetlana Matskevich, a specialist at the Agency of Humanitarian Technologies, said most Belarusian universities focused on the accumulation of knowledge, instead of its application. Matskevich said the number of students was increasing but educational technology had not evolved.

"Because of ever-increasing numbers of students, teachers can hardly cope with the load, while the educational processes have become ineffective," she said.

Local lawmakers believe one way to solve the problems could be to reduce the study time of some specialties from the current five years to three. This would help save budgetary funds and attract talented foreign students to the country.

Meanwhile, the government is continuing to tighten academic freedoms and university autonomy by implementing unpopular changes to the higher education legislation, says Vladimir Dunayev, former head of the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in Lithuania.

Dunayev said a few months ago the government decided to amend the State Education Act by removing an article concerning existing academic freedom and autonomy of local universities.

Such action is contrary to recent announcements by Minister of Education Alexander Radkov, who promised to accelerate efforts in the field of European integration through the adoption of the Bologna declaration.

Belarus officials hope Europe will close its eyes to violations of academic rights and to the present structure of higher education which has no bachelors courses at all, only masters programmes - a system completely at odds with the rest of Europe.