EUROPE: Block Belarus bid to join HE area - Students

The European Students Union says Belarus should not be allowed to join the European Higher Education Area because it denies academic freedom.

Belarus applied to join the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) on 30 November and a decision will be made at a meeting of EHEA higher education ministers in Bucharest, Romania, in late April 2012.

But on Wednesday Allan Päll, chair of the European Students Union (ESU), said: "Even though Belarus might fulfil formal criteria to join the EHEA, it should not become part of it as there is no such thing as academic freedom in Belarus."

The ESU has called on the accession committee to "highlight facts of the continuous violation of academic freedom" in the country and draw them to the attention of European ministers.

Päll said: "In December 2010, around 600 activists - mainly young people and students - were put on trial and 20 Belarusian students were expelled from their university following violently repressed protests against the election of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko. ESU was and is disgusted by these practices and has not forgotten about it."

University World News reported that students were beaten, detained and expelled from universities in response to protests over the presidential poll that saw Lukashenko elected for a fourth term amid allegations of electoral fraud.

Among the activists arrested were 11 students from the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, 10 of whom were sentenced to between 10 and 15 days in prison.

In Febuary 2011, higher education ministers from eight European countries wrote to their Belarusian counterpart, Sergey Aleksandrovich Maskevich, demanding academic freedom for students and lecturers in Belarus.

At the time, Tora Aasland, Norway's minister for higher education and research, said in a letter to Maskevich: "We are distressed to find out that Belarusian students from the European humanities academy in Vilnius are among the detainees and are unable to return. Any action that restricts freedom of thought and expression reduces the vitality of the Belarusian academic community and seriously undermines the participation of your country in shaping the European future of knowledge."

Jan Björklund, Sweden's higher education minister, told Maskevich: "It is not acceptable that academics are obstructed in the search for knowledge because their political views do not fit the regime."

Ministers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, The Netherlands, France and Austria expressed similar concerns. Sweden, the UK and Poland have also denounced the repression, reports say.

Päll alleged last week that some of the countries that had opposed violations of academic freedom in Belarus are now considering letting the country join the EHEA.

According to the EU Observer, the current balance of votes in the 47-state regional association is unclear ahead of a decision at the ministerial meeting that will take place in Bucharest in April.

But a number of EU states including Denmark, which will hold the EU's six-month rotating presidency from January, support the inclusion of Belarus, believing that increased educational links could encourage democratic debate in the country.

"The main argument they use is that once Belarus is in the EHEA, we could support democratic change in the country," Päll said. "But ESU fears that letting them join right now will make it impossible to hand out sanctions in case of student repression."

The ESU instead supports cooperation with academics and students and the full use of current mechanisms, such as the Tempus and Erasmus Mundus mobility schemes.

"We hope more openness will gradually bring positive change in the country. Then the ban on accession can be revised," Päll said.

The EHU, a private, non-profit liberal arts university founded in Minsk in 1992, relocated its headquarters to Vilnius in 2004 after the authorities expelled it from Belarus.

It serves nearly 2,000 mostly Belarusian students and claims to offer a "unique opportunity" for students from Belarus to study political science, communications and international and European law, in a free and democratic environment.

Together with Human Rights House and Belarus Watch, EHU offers an election observation training programme called Election Observation: Theory and Practice.

The UK recently renewed its support for the university with a donation of EUR100,000 (US$130,000), according to EHU.

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