Satellite state turns to higher education

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once described Belarus as Europe’s “last true dictatorship”. Now, almost 10 years later, the country remains unashamedly authoritarian.

President Alexander Lukashenko rules with an iron fist and journalists and protestors who offend the authorities are arrested and persecuted. Belarus is effectively a Russian satellite state with a largely state-controlled economy and very little private industry.

But its leaders are making efforts to modernise the higher education system by applying to join the Bologna Accord, the system designed to harmonise standards of higher education qualifications and promote freedom of movement in Europe

Belarus is keen to improve its economy, particularly its hard currency reserves following a balance of payments crisis in 2011, and is turning to higher education for answers.

The aim is to increase the number of international students studying at its 54 universities and colleges from the current 17,000, which is 10% of the student population, to something more like 20,000, according to Education Minister Sergey Maskevich, who says the country also wants to encourage research and to enable students and academics to take part in Europe-wide exchanges.

“We’re trying to reform our system of education and optimise it,” Maskevich says. “We’re taking measures to increase the economic efficiency of the functioning of higher education institutions and we’re working on growing university and scientific centres.”

An earlier application by Belarus to join Bologna failed. The reasons are believed to be political: the first application was made in 2012 after the rigged election of 2010 and the demonstrations that followed. The country’s commitment to academic freedom was in doubt.

This time round the country is taking no chances. It hired a firm of European consultants to hone its application, which was submitted at the end of October. The length of qualifications has been changed so that most universities have now converted to a system of four years for a first degree and two years for a masters.

“This was not an easy change,” says Anatoly Osipov, first vice-rector of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics. “Only after all educators at our university agreed to it, did they make the change.”

Belarus clearly feels it has tried hard to meet Bologna’s requirements and will be dismayed if it fails again, particularly as it is the only European country to have been denied admission. A total of 47 countries are in Bologna including Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, countries with poor human rights records.

Officials in Belarus studied the applications made by other countries who applied to join Bologna to learn lessons from their experiences, according to Maksevich.

“Belarus doesn’t want to isolate itself,” says Osipov. “It has to be part of the world.”

If it is allowed to join, it won’t be without a fight. Lined up against will be expatriate Belarusians from all over Europe as well as opponents of the regime such as the university in exile, European Humanities University, which was expelled from Belarus’s capital Minsk in 2004, and not to mention the actor Jude Law who has campaigned on behalf of the Belarus Free Theatre, now in exile as well.

The British ambassador to Belarus, Bruce Bucknell, however, believes it would be good for the country if it came in to the European fold. “It would open up the country a bit if it could join the Bologna process,” he says.

As it is, the country is remarkably isolated from the rest of Europe. The British Council has no office in Minsk and there is precious little in the way of formal collaboration with Britain on higher education issues. Students and academics do not attend conferences in the rest of Europe, as do their colleagues in other countries, although 3,000 students do go on exchanges each year, according to Maskevich.

There are agreements with countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the regional organisation of former Soviet republics, and a joint collaboration is planned with Iraq, which has 400 students at present in Belarus, most of whom are taught in English.

The Iraqi government is trying to encourage more of its citizens to study in Belarus because it is a much cheaper option than, say, studying in the UK, according to the Iraqi ambassador to Belarus Haidar Hadi.

The private Magna Carta Oxford Business School has been able to step in where the British government and UK universities have feared to tread because of Belalrus’s cool relations with the UK. Its chief executive, Vadzim Tsitou, is offering UK professional qualifications in management by distance learning to young Belarusians and these are awarded by the UK’s Association of Business Executives.

Magna Carta will shortly be adding to this by offering an MBA and masters degrees in business and management jointly with the University of Buckingham to people in Belarus who want a British qualification at this level and can afford it.

If the country joined Bologna, there would be many more formal opportunities for staff and students to take part in exchanges, and research and higher education generally would benefit. This would have beneficial knock-on effects on the economy and society as a whole, although the politicians might regard them with some trepidation.

A conference on distance learning in Minsk last month, organised by Magna Carta, was addressed by speakers from all over the world. They included Deborah Trayhurn, a reviewer for the British Quality Assurance Agency, who said Belarus was making good progress towards joining Bologna.

“I think we have heard a lot of positive stuff about the way that the country is moving to align itself with the Bologna model,” she said.

Belarus: facts and figures
  • • Population: 9,500,000

  • • History: The higher education system has been growing and the country now has 54 universities and colleges, some of which include teaching and research, and others teaching only. Central control of the curriculum has been a feature of the system. Student choice and academic freedom have been limited, but change has been coming as a result of the desire to join Bologna.

  • • Number of students: 180,000 a year; number of overseas students: 17,000 a year

  • • Top institution: Belarusian State University

  • • Subject strengths: IT and engineering as might be expected in a Soviet-style country. The IT sector is three-quarters independent of the state, paying very low taxes. Employees of IT companies are free to travel and to say what they think so long as they don’t do so too publicly.