Exclusion from European higher education area must continue

Belarus’ bid to join the European Higher Education Area should be turned down, according to the high-level group following up the Bologna process.

The country is not living up to the principles and values of the Bologna process, which created the EHEA, and its inclusion therefore cannot be recommended, the Bologna Follow Up Group (BFUG) has decided.

Belarus remains the only country of the 48 in greater Europe outside the EHEA.

It applied for official membership in November last year, but the BFUG meeting in Copenhagen on 18-19 January, chaired by Denmark and Azerbaijan, decided against any recommendation that ministers of the 47 countries accept Belarus at the present time.

According to the group, the country does not follow the Bologna process principles and values of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student democracy.

Supporting the recommendation Morten Østergaard, Denmark’s minister for science, innovation and higher education, said: “It is our wish that Belarus should be included [in the Bologna process], but only when academic freedom is secured, and the country has made university reforms and secured the basic rights of students.”

In the meantime, there were other ways to support students, the academic environment and Belarusian society.

“Denmark is and will continue to be an active supporter of the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme, giving students from Belarus grants to European universities,” he said.

The European Students Union (ESU) welcomed decision on the grounds that Belarus should make reforms before being admitted.

“We agree with these conclusions, as we have repeatedly spoken out against EHEA membership of Belarus and have asked for reform first,” said Allan Päll, ESU chair.

“We absolutely support that Belarusian repressed civil society must have every opportunity to build contacts in Europe. While we are doing our part by establishing contacts ourselves, we think that to let Belarus join the Bologna process would only be used for government propaganda, while doing little to improve fundamental issues for students and academics such as freedom of research and study.”

The ministers of the 47 member countries are expected to follow the advice of the BFUG when they meet in Bucharest in April. The group said Belarus must adopt all principles and values of the Bologna process, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student participation in higher education governance before being admitted.

Päll said: “If Belarus wants to show its willingness to join the Bologna Process, it must allow students who have escaped the country and have been forced to study elsewhere in Europe to return to study free of any fear of repression while their academic freedom and right to association is guaranteed. That would be a great start.”

Last month in Belarus Digest, a Washington DC-based newsletter published by a group of independent international analysts, Yauheni Preiherman argued that Belarus needed a comprehensive transformation of its education system to become a generic part of the European education region.

He suggested that the country’s accession to the Bologna process should take place in three stages and be based on the ‘road map for reforms’ suggested by the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee.

The first would involve de-politicising and eliminating state control over higher education, and reintroducing transparent and fair elections of university rectors. The second would provide a legal framework for reform. The third would include technical improvements such as the completion of degree and qualification reform, the completion of quality assurance reform, and the establishment of a national system for supporting mobility.

This month the Belarus Digest reported an increasing braindrain to Russia of young Belarusians – often students – because the European Union is closed to them.

It said the European Union should become more open and offer more education and work experience opportunities for Belarusian youth if it wanted to see a democratic and pro-European Belarus in the future and to balance Russia's influence.

Volha Charnysh, executive editor of the Digest and a PhD student in government at Harvard, told University World News: “By refusing Belarus admission to the Bologna process, Europe is giving up a potential channel of influence in the already closed and isolated country.

“It is true that there is no academic freedom in Belarus, but the country is not that different from several other Bologna members in the post-Soviet space. However, the decision to exclude the country from the Bologna process will hurt Belarusian youth rather than the regime.”

She said the decision would decrease the likelihood of European values ever reaching Belarusian students by preventing deeper cooperation with European universities.

“Criticising Belarus but not declining its membership would have been a much more efficient strategy, not only for influencing education policy in the country but also for reaching future generations of Belarus leaders.”

The heart of the matter, as reported by University World News in December, is the continuous breach of human rights by the Belarusian government of Alexander Lukashenko, notably towards university students.

On 19 December 2011 Catherine Ashton, high representative of the European Union, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement on the human rights situation in Belarus, in which they referred to the “brutal crackdown by the Belarus government on civil society, political opposition and independent media”.

They expressed grave concern over “new laws that will further restrict citizens' fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression and that target support to civil society”.