Four Western Myths about Belarusian Higher Education
The Minister of Education Syarhei Maskevich announced on 3 May 2013 that "Belarusian universities enjoy a high level of autonomy". Considering the fact that Belarus remains the only European state outside of Bologna process precisely because of its lack of academic freedoms, top Belarusian officials may not be completely honest.
However, many myths about Belarusian higher education exist in foreigners’ minds as well. For example, the government neither owns all the universities, nor educates people free of charge. Political expulsions happen only very rarely and usually students can travel abroad without any problems.
Myth No 1: Government Provides Free Education for Everybody
Although the methods employed by the Belarusian government in higher education management retains many Soviet traditions, the state approach to financial issues seems more capitalistic than in even some Western countries.
For instance, in Sweden, Germany, Finland and Czech Republic students enjoy free higher education. Only foreigners, students of private universities and, only in certain exceptional cases, nationals have to pay.
The Constitution of Belarus entitles everybody to free higher education on a competitive basis. And around 50% of all the students indeed study for free. But their "day of reckoning" comes later with the mandatory placement for a two-year term at an assigned working place.
In other words, one half of all students have to pay and the other has to work without being paid much for two years. The Belarusian educational system appears to be totally commercialised rather than socially-orientated.
Moreover, the government owns many but not all universities in Belarus. 10 out of 55 Belarusian higher education institutions do not belong to the state.
Myth No 2: All Political Activists Get Automatically Expelled
Authoritarian regimes often resort to expulsion of politically active students from universities. But in Belarus over the last several years these cases have become very rare.
One of the most famous political expulsions took place in 2009. Tatsiana Shaputska, spokesman of unregistered oppositional movement "Young Front", after a three-day visit to EU-hosted civil society forum in Brussels, was expelled from Belarus State University. Its administration relied on "missing lectures" as an official reason for the expulsion.
Many statutes of Belarusian universities contain special provisions that allow expelling students for "administrative offences", which may include crossing the road in an unauthorised place or taking a bus ride without a ticket. Insofar as many political activists often face detention for alleged "administrative offences", it becomes an easy task for university administrations to expel them if necessary.
But even opposition figures show that the number of students expelled for political reasons stably decreases year by year. An NGO "Solidarity" keeps a record of political expulsions.These figures require further explanation. After the first wave of political expulsions in 2006, with the assistance of European officials and several universities from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Czech Republic, "Solidarity" launched Kalinouski Programme, the goal of which was to provide free places in European universities for Belarusian students expelled for political reasons.
Many students tried to benefit from this opportunity. Emigrating using Kalinouski programme became a kind of trend those days. Nobody could distinguish between those who were expelled because of political activity from those who were expelled and happened to be politically active or pretended to be an activist.
The failure to make this distinction cast a shadow on the figures provided by "Solidarity". But their figures now show that universities punish students for politics in exceptional cases, not as a general rule.
Myth No 3: Belarusian Students Live Behind the Iron Curtain
This stereotype, unlike the other ones, has a bit more substance behind it. According to the law, to leave the country during their studies, a student has to get permission from the university administration and the Ministry of Education.
The old Russian saying perfectly describes the situation with such legal provisions: "The severity of our laws is mitigated by their lack of enforcement". In reality, thousands of students travel abroad annually without asking for any permission. Hundreds of them visit politically-orientated trainings and seminars. The seriousness of consequences very seldom goes beyond an unpleasant conversation with a dean.
Moreover, Belarusian universities cooperate actively with foreign universities. Hundreds of students participate in academic exchange programmes such as Erasmus Mundus or Tempus. Many foreign lecturers work freely in Belarusian universities - for example tutors from German DAAD-programme in Minsk and Hrodna Universities. Many young Belarusians travel for work during summer holidays, particularly to the United States and then return to continue their studies.
Although some formal barriers exist, the "iron curtain" myth sounds like a serious exaggeration.
Myth No 4: Belarusian Higher Education is Based on Propaganda
This myth remains one of the most viable ones precisely because of propagandistic informational coverage of some oppositional and Western media.
In fact the views of lecturers and professors vary just as much as the opinions of the society: some support the ruling regime, some firmly oppose it. In the vast majority of cases the ideological preferences of their teaching and methodology depends on their own beliefs rather than anything else.
At the same time most lecturers prefer to avoid politics in their classes. Even the special course Belarusian Ideology, introduced for brainwashing as many had thought, in reality turned into simple historic overview of political ideologies. The intellectual atmosphere of political indifference and frustration cuts both ways: nobody wants to either criticise the government nor to glorify it.
The author of this article, a full-time law student in Minsk, during his first two years of study witnessed himself that many of the Belarusian State University lecturers openly described the political system in Belarus as an autocracy.
Although Belarus has serious problem with academic freedoms, in practise the situation is better than many people in the West think. With occasional exceptions, university lecturers have freedom to teach what they want and how they want although most of them prefer not to politicise their classes.
As for students, they lack several attributes of free university environment many of them are free to engage in civic or political activities without fear of serious consequences.
The best evidence of this is the author of this article, a full time law student at the Belarusian State University and a regular contributor to Belarus Digest and other independent news outlets.