Attracting Foreign Students to Belarus: Success or Failure?

Turkmen students in Belarus (photo: tut.by)

On 1 September, around 20 thousand foreign students will start the academic year in Belarusian universities and technical schools.

This figure has almost doubled over the past four years, with Turkmens accounting for half of all foreign students in Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities are trying to make a profit from the educational sector, hoping the relatively low price of living and learning will draw in foreign students. However, the poor quality and self-isolation of Belarusian universities may dissuade foreigners from studying in the country.

Belarus looks to attract foreign students

In early August, the Belarusian state-run Capital TV Channel proudly reported that 20 thousand foreign students will be studying in Belarus during the upcoming academic year. This figure also includes students at technical schools, although this is a much less popular option than universities.

Statistics from previous years show that Belarusian universities primarily attract students from Turkmenistan, Russia and China. International relations, economy and philology programmes at the Belarusian State University, the most popular university for foreign students, attract almost half of the international students in Belarus.

While IR and economy programmes are popular among Belarusians as well, philology programmes stay afloat partially thanks to foreigners. While such degrees may appeal to foreigners, Belarusians remain reluctant to major in Belarusian philology, seeing the discipline as useless in a Russian-speaking country.

Having understood how popular the education business can be, Belarus is rapidly looking to attract more foreign students. Moreover, during the economic crisis Belarus lacked additional funds for education, and foreign students' tuition fees supplemented university budgets. According to the Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou, Belarus earned $73 mln from foreign students in 2014. The fees at the Belarusian State University amount to around $3 thousand per student per academic year.

For many international students this sounds like a good deal, as the price of tuition and accommodation in Belarus remains much lower than, for example, in Russia. As one Janapese student explained to Naviny.by, dormitories are 40 times cheaper than in his home country.

However, tuition fees do not seem so low compared with neighbouring Poland or Lithuania. Lazarski University in Warsaw, for example, where many Belarusians study, costs $2.5 thousand per academic year. Students also have the opportunity to study in an English language programme leading to a diploma much more respected in the West. The European Humanities University, a Lithuanian institute with Belarusian roots, also has tuition fees of around $3 thousand per year.

Limits of possible

Belarus can in fact attract more students, but two main obstacles remain in place. While Belarusian education may satisfy Turkmen students, may others perceive it to be sub-par The ranking of the best university in the country, the Belarusian State University, is 421-430 according to the QS World University Rankings. Other universities in the country are rated much worse.

In order to attract foreign students, Belarusian universities need to internalise. National Academic Recognition Information Centres around Europe do not recognise all Belarusian diplomas, although adherence to the Bologna process should improve the situation. For this reason, after completion of a five-year programme in Belarus, alumni cannot apply directly to a PhD programme in a Western university, but need to apply for an MA programme first.

Moreover, there are not enough courses taught in English or teachers with overseas teaching experience in Belarus, thus almost all foreign students study in Russian. On the other hand, Russian language programmes remain one of the reasons students from Turkmenistan or China come to Belarus.

Secondly, unnecessary bureaucracy and low professionalism of education agencies may deter some foreign students. In order to enter a Belarusian university, one needs to pay for registration, pass a paid medical examination, and translate and notarise documents. Moreover, according to Belarusian law, foreign students are not allowed to work during studies.

While it may excel at creating unnecessary bureaucracy, Belarus under-performs in other areas. The websites promoting education in Belarus, such as edu-belarus.com, remain misleading, to put it mildly. Among reasons to study in Belarus listed online, one can find “enrichment of learning experience through visiting professors from USA, Canada and the UK” or “good prospects of permanent residence and settlement in Europe following completion of the programme”.

Unfortunately, it remains difficult to find visiting professors from Western countries, and education in Belarus has nothing to do with getting the right to reside in the European Union.

Another problem is that Belarusian universities lack influential alumni organisations that can help attract new students. Several famous Vietnamese people, such as Nguyen Dang Quang or Fam The Long, who currently head universities or large companies in Vietnam, studied in Belarus. However, Belarus has few students from the country at present.

How many foreign students will arrive?

Currently, Belarus has two options - one of which seems much more desirable than the other.

On the one hand, the number of foreign students is still going to rise, as prices for housing and education will remain low for rich students no matter what. Moreover, Belarus attracts students with lower educational expectations. Many Belarusian lecturers and students complain that foreign students (especially from Turkmenistan) have shown little desire to learn. However, universities do not expel them, as they need their money. Therefore, the flow of such students will continue to grow.

On the other hand, Belarus faces difficulties attracting students with higher expectations (as well as those who have more money). Education in sub-par universities not internationally recognised in a country stereotyped as the last dictatorship in Europe is not tempting to everyone.

So far, Belarus has already succeeded in bringing many foreign students, but it should improve its education system to attract more.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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