Analytical Paper: the state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives
In Soviet times, extramural education was extremely popular in Belarus – the Soviet Union took pride in having created a system for obtaining almost all educational degrees remotely. It was the first in the world to do so.
Extramural education still remains popular, although its utilisation is less wide-spread than in neighbouring countries. Promoting distance education in Belarus would make education more accessible to broader circles of society, including those who are constrained by physical or economic factors.
The established history of extramural education, good technical equipment at universities, and the wide-spread use of high-speed Internet mean that Belarus already possesses a good basis for the development of a high quality system of distance education.
In order to create a high-quality system of distance education in Belarus, it is necessary to create a corresponding legislative base, to organise additional trainings for specialists in the sphere of education, and to expand the cooperation between universities and the companies that work in the high tech sector
Development of distance education in Belarus
After the October Revolution in 1917, Soviet authorities drastically improved the literacy rate in the USSR. Literacy grew from 56% in 1916 to 99% in the early 1970s. In addition to the compulsory eight years of education, extramural education enjoyed large-scale development, as this allowed the working masses to combine education with work.
This lofty aspiration to make higher education accessible has been preserved in Belarus, which occupies a relatively high position on the Human Development Index in comparison with other CIS countries. Thus, according to data from 2014, about 90% of the population possesses secondary or higher education.
According to the Legatum Prosperity Index 2016, Belarus surpasses Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and certain other European Union countries with regards to access to education, quality of education, and human potential. However, education in Belarus still suffers from a number of significant problems, as universities remain strictly regulated and insufficiently integrated into the common European space.
Moreover, the quality of available education often fails to meet the requirements of the labour market, especially when it comes to the humanities and social sciences. Belarus has retained a system of extramural education in which students attend classes once every few months to sit exams.
At present, 61% of Belarusian students are enrolled in extramural education, 39.1% of which are studying distantly. However, the classic concept of distance education remains closely linked to active use of technology. Students enrolled in extramural education in Belarus do not use interactive methods of learning, nor do they have the benefit of a flexible schedule or opportunities to create an individual educational programme.
Due to these factors, extramural education in Belarus does not qualify as distance education. According to information from the International Council on Distance Education, 14% of students in the world obtain their education distantly. Most universities and other educational institutions around the world, including in countries which neighbour Belarus, offer distance learning which often does not require a prior educational background.
Conference panel on distance education in Belarus (December 2016, mostly in English)
Recommendations on development of distance education in Belarus
The analytical paper suggests that in order to develop a high-quality system of education in Belarus, it is necessary to take the following steps:
Develop a normative base
Despite nominal references in the Code on Education, the system of distance education in Belarus requires special regulation and stimulation. Legislation on education should include recommendations on better organising distance learning in universities, and a description of a monitoring system. It is important that the legislation addresses the issue of financing distance education. Moreover, the structure of the distance education system (from vocational to higher education) should be delineated.
Expert and knowledge exchange
Belarus’s recent accession to the Bologna Process will lead to the growth of contacts and exchange experiences in the sphere of education. In order to fully realise implementation of distance education, Belarus needs to train specialists in developing a distance education strategy for universities. This should take the specific features of each educational establishment and region into account. It is possible to achieve this by promoting expert assistance in the form of educational visits, exchanges, and recommendations.
Establish a centre for distance education
The relevant authorities need to follow the best practices of other countries and establish a specially designated centre which would coordinate and facilitate the development of distance education in Belarus and offer trainings for education professionals.
Rooting distance education
It is necessary to stimulate investments in the sphere of education and secure broader participation of the private sector. For the distance education system to function effectively, preparedness and support from the administrations of higher education establishments is crucial. Administrations must be willing to reform and introduce new forms of learning. There is also a need for teachers and other employees of higher education establishments to learn how to communicate and educate using technology.
- Read full paper: The state of distance education in Belarus: problems and perspectives
- Чытаць аналітычную паперу: Дыстанцыйная адукацыя ў Беларусі: стан, праблемы і перспектывы
Schengen visa facilitation: jeopardised by fear of migrants?
Recent statements by Belarusian officials have confirmed that the country's citizens should not expect a more liberal visa regime with Europe in the foreseeable future. Belarus's decision to introduce a conditional visa-free regime for nationals of eighty countries, many of them European, does not mean Europe has to reciprocate.
Georgia and Ukraine, Belarus’s fellow inmates in the Soviet camp, will soon join Moldova in the group of countries which enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen zone. Meanwhile, Belarusians are subject to the strictest Schengen visa regime amongst all Eastern European nations.
Differences between Minsk and Brussels over the readmission procedure, concerning migrants who attempt to cross the Belarusian border into the EU, have dashed hopes for imminent visa facilitation. Does this mean citizens of Belarus will continue to be targets of expensive, complicated, and sometimes humiliating visa procedures?
Migration fears hamper visa facilitation
On 1 March, Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei admitted that migration-related ‘challenges and dangers’ have impacted visa negotiations with Europe. According to Makei’s spokesman Dmitri Mironchik, Belarus is ready to sign the visa facilitation agreement immediately – but not the readmission agreement. However, Europe insists on a single package.
The readmission agreement would commit Belarus to taking back all illegal migrants – including third-country nationals – who enter the EU from its territory. Belarus's open border with Russia would make further readmission more difficult.
While the number of such trespassers remains negligible, Minsk is unwilling to undertake such obligations while the migration crisis looms in Europe. Belarus lacks proper infrastructure to accommodate returnees as well as a network of agreements with potential migrants' home countries.
Europe is not ready – ‘politically or psychologically’ – to grant Belarus a grace period on the readmission of third-country nationals. However, the EU had earlier given such grace periods to Belarus’s neighbours: Russia (three years) and Ukraine (two years).
Schengen visas: a priority topic for many Belarusians
In 2015, embassies of EU countries in Minsk issued 753,937 Schengen visas, 66.3% of them being multiple-entry. This is the highest per capita rate in the world and the fifth-largest absolute number. Belarus also has one of the lowest refusal rates, at 0.3%.
Despite these encouraging statistics, the visa process remains lengthy, costly, overly bureaucratic, and sometimes humiliating. Even people with spotless multi-year records of travel to Europe must, each time they apply for a new visa, submit the same heavy set of documents, pay a high fee, and wait many days before retrieving their passport.
Belarus and the EU began negotiations on simplifying visa formalities and launching a readmission procedure in 2014. This was six years after Minsk had confirmed its willingness to engage in talks. Both parties can assume the blame for this delay.
A successful visa facilitation agreement would make the visa process much simpler for Belarusians. Visa fees would go down to €35 from €60, and more people would be exempt altogether. Additionally, the application paperwork would be streamlined and more multiple-entry visas would be issued with longer validity.
Belarus and the EU have held three formal rounds of negotiations on the agreements, most recently two years ago exactly. Both parties had hoped to initial the drafts during the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in May 2015, but failed to finalise the talks by then.
Are selfish officials responsible for the delay?
Belarusian officials blamed the delay on unspecified ‘technical details’ that required further discussion. Meanwhile, Gunnar Wiegand, director for Eastern Europe at the European Commission, announced in December 2015 that both agreements were ready to be signed.
Allegedly, the only unresolved issue regarded the implementation of higher security standards for Belarusian diplomatic passports. Belarusian authorities wanted the draft to guarantee visa-free travel for diplomats. However, EU negotiators insisted that the passports should first have biometric features.
The comments of EU diplomat caused noticeable discontent in Belarusian society. Many Belarusians blamed selfish officials for the delay in visa facilitation.
In all fairness, Belarusian diplomats were right to demand the country’s equal treatment in international negotiations. Most holders of diplomatic passports cannot use them for private travel. As for official travel, they face no problems obtaining visas anyways.
This ‘technical problem’ is now irrelevant. A government official confirmed to Belarus Digest that the agreed draft includes the same provisions on visa-free travel for diplomats as similar EU agreements with other countries. The issue of biometric passports will work itself out as Belarus starts transitioning to them next year.
Once bitten, twice shy
The Turkish precedent is haunting Europe. The readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey, which came into effect on 1 October 2014, provided Ankara with a three-year respite from readmitting third-country nationals. Millions of refugees from Syria entered Europe via Turkey during this transition period.
Europe’s migration fears prevent Brussels from granting Belarus a readmission grace period. What's more, no precedent exists for a visa facilitation agreement not contingent on a readmission agreement. Thus, the only option for Belarus to obtain a simplified visa regime with Europe is for it to agree to the readmission document in full.
This will not happen any time soon. Moreover, Belarus fears a possible spike in migration from Asia and the Caucasus region and feels unprepared to handle it. It has no detention centres for migrants, who are now held together with criminals.
On 3 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka insisted that he would only consider signing the readmission agreement with the EU when Belarus concludes similar agreements with sending countries (‘all the way to Russia, China, and Afghanistan’).
Belarus already has a readmission agreement with Russia. However, it covers only those migrants who possess a valid residence permit in Russia. Thus, this agreement excludes a vast category of migrants who stayed in Russia illegally prior to entering Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities are working with the EU on securing technical assistance in establishing the proper infrastructure to process the flow of illegal migrants. In January, the European Commission allocated €7m to Belarus to build detention centres for migrants.
However, the Belarusian authorities want more money. In the words of Lukashenka, ‘If the EU doesn’t pay, we won’t detain [the illegal migrants]. It costs much’.
What Europe can do for Belarusians
It looks like the simplification of the visa regime for Belarusians has been jeopardised by bargaining between Belarus and Europe over who should bear the risk and cost of migration. This bargaining may take years.
In the meantime, EU countries are still capable of easing the visa procedure for Belarusians within the framework of existing visa rules. This could mean reducing wait time, simplifying paperwork requirements for frequent travellers, and further increasing the share of multiple-entry visas and their duration of validity.
This would be a decent response to the recent measures taken by the Belarusian government to facilitate travel to Belarus for European citizens. It would also help increase Europe’s soft power in Belarus and dispel the myths of Russian propaganda about ‘decaying Europe’.