EHU: How Belarusian is the Belarusian University in Exile?

Photo: ehu.lt

The European Humanities University, also known as Belarus's university in exile, is struggling to find its identity. It is torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a "normal" European university based in Lithuania. Some say, it has lost its Belarusian character and gave up on its original mission. Others say that moving away from the Belarusian language and Belarus-focused curriculum is a sign of a truly international university, which the EHU should be. 

If the EHU is to remain loyal to its original mission as a Belarusian university, it should seriously think about offering what is not available in Belarus or at Western universities. In addition to greater academic freedom (which some say exists in Belarus too), it should keep Belarus-focused courses and language at the forefront of its activities.

A Lost Belarusian Component?

The European Humanities University had a promising start. Professor Anatoli Mikhailov established the university in Minsk 1992. The university had very good connections with Western academics and foundations and enjoyed a reputation as a more liberal university compared to state-run institutions. In 2004, Belarusian authorities put pressure on the EHU management and demanded that its rector Professor Mikhailov steps down. He refused and the Belarusian authorities closed down the university.

The university began a new chapter in Vilnius, 180 km from Minsk.  One EHU political science graduate has identified two periods in the history of the EHU in Vilnius: Belarusian and Lithuanian. The Belarusian period of the EHU lasted until the group of Belarusian political scientists, which included Andrei Kazakievich and Dzianis Melyantsou left the university accusing its management of authoritarianism. The Lithuanian period began when the EHU started to replace dismissed Belarusians with Lithuanian academics, who often had little knowledge of Belarus and "did not know the tradition of the programme".  

The same EHU graduate told Belarus Digest that the political science department was very important and symbolic to them – Belarusian students could freely discuss the political mechanisms of Belarus with their lecturers. To him, other student activities, which the EHU is so proud of, were an added value to the whole political science and history programme. But without quality Belarusian academics in "sensitive" areas, the task of the EHU to retain its identity has become more difficult to accomplish. 

without quality Belarusian academics in "sensitive" areas the task of the EHU to retain its identity becomes more difficult to accomplish

The Belarusian or International University in Exile?  

Today the EHU seems to be looking for its own place. Darius Udrys, the ​Vice-Rector for Development and Communications, explained to Belarus Digest that "the EHU exists for the sake of Belarusian students". He adds that they would like to maintain the main focus on Belarusian identity, but not to isolate EHU. The question is whether making the university truly international conflicts with its mission, which according to Udrys is, "to provide Belarusian students with that which they cannot obtain in Belarus''.  

Vadzim Smok, another EHU graduate in political science and a Belarus Digest author says that in his experience the university stimulated the critical thinking of the students and remained open and supportive to students’ initiatives. In the words of another EHU graduate, "the EHU remains an alternative for many young Belarusians". The Soviet educational system persists in Belarus and does little to encourage the critical and creative thinking of students.

Many young Belarusians choose to study in Vilnius because of its proximity to Minsk. The newly introduced frequent express trains between Minsk-Vilnius and affordable ticket prices, makes commuting to Vilnius even more attractive. The students also like the idea of getting EU-recognised diplomas at a cost lower than at the Western universities. 

Darius Udrys underlines that ‘'we are always trying to balance national identity against what is necessary for us to be an international university'’. However, the university appears to be switching its focus from Belarus-oriented programmes to a more universal curriculum.  Although around 95 per cent of the student body are Belarusian nationals, it appears that they cannot learn much about Belarus at EHU. Only one specialisation appears to have the word "Belarus" in its title - "Belarusian Studies" within the Cultural Heritage programme. In the past, Belarusian Studies was a separate programme. 

This may not fit well with the university's original mission of offering what is not accessible in Belarus. This year the EHU closed its Social Science and Political Philosophy programme altogether. The new program will be called World Politics and Economy Studies and will be conducted jointly with Vytautas Magnus University, a Lithuanian university. Young Belarusians can study visual design, international law and many other EHU courses free of propaganda also at Belarusian universities, closer to home and at a lower cost.

The university's attitude towards the Belarusian language has recently received press coverage in Belarus. Today only a handful of courses are taught in the Belarusian language and a number of Belarusian-speaking lecturers left the university over the last couple of years. Former EHU faculty member Aleś Smalianchuk in his interview for Radio Liberty, argued that the EHU demonstrated contempt for the Belarusian language and history with its current policies.

Others, like both the EHU graduates whom Belarus Digest interviewed, argued that the Belarusian language did not suffer discrimination at the university. Another question is whether the university is taking seriously the task of supporting the language which faces serious discrimination back home. 

The EHU Future: More Belarusian and More Democratic? 

Transparency and democratic governance within the EHU itself is another area where the EHU could improve. According to Vadzim Smok, there is plenty of room for improvement here. When asked what he would like to change at the EHU, he says "the management system - to make the EHU more democratic, in a way, to have more social consensus there between the administration and the academics".

Others are concerned that its founder and rector, Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, has been ruling the university for over twenty years. This seems like a long time. Perhaps the EHU management could follow examples of other European universities which require rotation of management to improve efficiency.

Instead of shifting focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university, it should try to find a balance between being Belarusian and internationally competitive

With all its problems and struggles, it is important to preserve and support EHU. It has infrastructure and a potential to offer a unique environment to Belarusian students. Perhaps the biggest challenge the EHU faces today is how to remain faithful to its original mission. Instead of shifting focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university, it should try to find a balance between being Belarusian and internationally competitive.

Preservation and introduction of courses related to Belarus or at least taught in Belarusian language should be a priority for the university.

Making the university more democratic and Belarusian may also make it more attractive to Belarusian students and those who want to support the university.

Paula Borowska is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. Originally from Bialystok, she studied at the University of Gdansk and the University of Bologna.

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