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On 26 February 2012, Minister of Education Syarhei Maskevich announced a substantial increase of a minimum passing grade to Belarusian universities.
The government wants to decrease the number of poorly performing students and to redirect young people to technical colleges instead of universities.
Belarusian officials seem not to care that much about the quality of an education. On the contrary, in every possible sphere of higher education's regulation they exercise rather utilitarian approach. Instead of making cosmetic reforms the government must have a strategic vision of educational reform.
Statistics Show Some Peculiarities
All in all, more than 428,000 students study at 54 institutions of higher education during the 2012-2013 academic year in Belarus. Approximately 377,000 of them get their degrees at 45 state universities, while the others study at 9 private institutions.
The number of students per 10 000 people
There are three forms of higher education in Belarus: full-time (49% of all students), evening(less than 1%) and part-time (about a half). Full-time education means attending lectures and seminars, while part-time students attend the university only for short periods of time and pass exams there. Evening education means studying at evenings after work.
The higher education in Belarus is either free or paid. To become "state-financed" an entrant must pass his or her exams substantially better than his fellows. However, following the Soviet tradition, a lot of students study for free – 49.4%.
The annual number of enrolled and graduating students is practically even and comprises approximately 80,000 – 90,000. Only 700 students study in the Belarusian language, while the overwhelming majority get their higher education in Russian.
It may look surprising, but even with plenty of free-of-charge places and simplified entering process only 18% of all men (above 15 years old) have higher education. Among women of the same age this figure is 20%.
The Low Quality is Evident
Generally, officials in such anachronistic systems as Belarusian tend not to admit their mistakes. But, the decline in the level of intelligence of Belarusian students becomes manifest and alarming even for governmental officials.
On 26 February 2013, Belarusian minister for education, Syargei Maskevich announced the decision to raise the minimum passing grade for entrants into universities. Till now it has been enough to get 7 out of 100 points at all the entrance tests to be entitled to pass. Starting this year this figure will vary from 15 to 20 (depending on the subject).
As Syargei Maskevich himself explained, this measure will leave 30% of entrants out in the cold. At first glance the decision is positive. But an utterly appalling conclusion follows these figures: for now every third school leaver cannot get 15-out-of-100 result during his or her tests. By the way, recent research shows that such a result can be reached by a simple random filling in the testing form without any preparation.
The declared purpose of the reform is to improve the educational level of students and to "exclude accidental people among the entrants", as the minister said himself. Another goal that he announced was the popularisation of technical schools and colleges.
The idea between the lines is the lack of technical specialists in the country. Belarusian authorities bet on industrial branches of the economy and therefore do not need more lawyers and financiers, but instead – workers and engineers.
Moreover, many students today means many educated people tomorrow. The latter tend oppose the authoritarian system. So to have the obedient population, the regime needs more uneducated people than self-dependent professionals.
Foreign Students as Lavish Sponsors
The Belarusian ministry for education exercises rather utilitarian policy towards foreign students. While the prestigious universities throughout the world do their best to attract young foreign talents, providing them with scholarships and benefits, Belarusian higher educational institutions raise foreigners’ fees two- and even threefold comparing with nationals.
In figures this looks like $1,100 – $1,700 for Belarusians (paid in roubles) and $2,500 - $4,250 for foreigners paid in U.S. dollars. The currency of payment matters a lot in Belarus because of frequent and unexpected devaluations. The gross currency inflow via foreign students’ payments during the 2012-2013 academic year will reach $20m.
Belarusian government concludes specific "educational" treaties with other countries in order to increase the stream of entrants from these states. Among them – Cuba, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Lebanon, Ecuador, Vietnam, China, Kyrgyzstan etc.
The essence of these treaties is mutual recognition of the diplomas and relieved entrance procedure. In practice it means becoming students of top-rated Belarusian universities without any entering tests except for basic Russian (in order to communicate with their fellow students).
Current number of foreign students (by the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus)
Except for favourable entrance conditions, practice shows that foreign students never get expelled even in case of an utter academic failure. All the facts bring to a conclusion that these students are used as a mere financial resource for the government. The fashionable "educational services export" has become an intentional policy of the authorities.
Meanwhile, the problems of low educational level, universal accessibility and the lack of academic freedoms remain untouched while the ministry for education does its best to absorb additional revenues from foreign students.
Belarusian government claims the desire to reach the European quality of higher education and to enter the Bologna process. In order to do it, officials should handle the multiple problems of domestic higher education with a strategic vision. But for now they choose performing merely cosmetic reforms and self-enriching measures.
Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.