Lukashenka appoints a top communist as the new Minister of Education
On 15 December President Aliaksandr Lukashenka appointed vice-mayor of Minsk Ihar Karpenka as Minister of Education. However, two important facts about the latter have caused serious discussion within the Belarusian expert community.
First, at the moment of his appointment, Ihar Karpenka was the Head of the Communist Party in Belarus. Second, the dismissal of the previous Minister, Dr. Mikhail Zhuraukou, contained an element of disgrace: he was sacked during his annual leave while he was outside the country. Moreover, after his dismissal, Zhuraukou was demoted and is now simply a head of department at the Belarusian State University.
These circumstances raise questions regarding the fate of Zhuraukou’s legacy, the most important aspect of which was Belarus’s participation in the Bologna Process.
Belarus’s Via Dolorosa and the Bologna process
Belarus joined the Bologna process in May 2015 as part of a phase of soft political liberalisation and rapprochement with the West. However, because the country’s educational system has remained far below the standards set by the Bologna Process, Belarus has committed to implementing a road map of reforms by 2018.
However, many experts have pointed out that the real intentions of the Belarusian authorities go far beyond the goals and principles of the Bologna Process. For example, Vadzim Mažejka has expressed the opinion that in committing to the Roadmap, Belarus aimed to lower the duration of study in order to reduce public spending on education.
Promoting diplomas from Belarusian institutions among foreign students as 'internationally recognised' would also help reduce public expenditure: fees paid by foreign students constitute a significant share of the incomes of Belarusian universities, sometimes exceeding 50 per cent of their budgets.
Imitation of a pro-reformist dialogue with the West has also contributed to the Belarusian authorities’ considerations.
On 13 December 2016 the Ostrogorski Centre co-organised the 4th Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference 'Education as a Human Right: Modernising Higher Education to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century'. During the conference, two prominent speakers representing state and non-state positions on education, Dr. Ihar Tsitovich (a vice-rector of the Republican Institute of Higher Education) and Dr. Uladzimir Dunaeu (a member of the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee), discussed achievements and difficulties in implementing the roadmap.
The two experts revealed the fundamental contradictions between the Belarusian authorities and independent analysts in their approaches to the Bologna Process. The authorities highlight primarily technical steps, such as introducing Diploma Supplements, developing modules and the credits system, and introducing changes in curricula.
Meanwhile, independent experts point to more fundamental principles such as academic freedom, mobility, close cooperation between the business and educational sectors, international cooperation, education based on students’ needs, co-existence between formal, informal, and non-formal education, etc. According to the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, in 2015-2016 Belarus implemented only nine per cent of the roadmap. In many spheres, progress has been negligible.
While the fundamental contradictions between the intentions of the Belarusian authorities and the essence of the Bologna Process have become increasingly apparent, its value for the government appears dubious.
During the two years since Belarus joined the Bologna Process, growth in the number of foreign students has remained insignificant: less than 1,000 people, or about seven per cent. Moreover, the number of students from Turkmenistan and China – the largest consumers of Belarusian educational services – has decreased: from 801 to 759 students (China) and from 8,342 to 7,911 students (Turkmenistan).
One major problem lies in the values of the Bologna Process and academic freedoms. A test of the authorities' limits occurred in November-December 2015. A group of students at the Belarusian State University took a stand against the University’s plan to introduce fees for re-sitting examinations. In spite of the insignificance of the case and the wide range of opportunities for dialogue, the authorities nevertheless chose to rely on repression. The rector of the University even refused to meet with the protesting students.
Moreover, in January-February 2016 the Ministry of Education made an attempt to replace the deans of the most ‘oppositional’ faculties, but succeeded in replacing only the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy.
A second problem occurred during the Parliamentary elections in September 2016. In Belarus, no one can claim to really know the results of elections. However, some facts point to the growth of protest voting among students. For example, one opposition candidate and professor at the university, Aleh Trusau, claims to have counted the votes of his students. His figures significantly contradicted the official results.
It seems that Mikhail Zhuraukou’s inability to prevent dissent among students and the poor results of Belarus’s participation in the Bologna Process contributed to his dismissal significantly.
What tasks does the new minister face?
During the appointment of Karpenka, Aliaksandr Lukashenka made a clear statement on his vision for the new minister’s work. According to the president, Karpenka is well acquainted with the ideological pillars of the state. The Communist Party enjoys great support from the authorities, who claim that communist ideology remains relevant for Belarus. In November 2016, the government of Minsk unveiled a new monument to Lenin together with the Communist Party in Minsk.
Karpenka’s biography also raises questions. The new minister of education lacks experience in this sphere. In 2003-2004 he served as vice-rector at the Belarusian State Pedagogical University. He supervised ideological work and social issues, while activities related to education were not part of his responsibilities. In 2004 Karpenka started his public administration career (as a member of Parliament and then as vice-mayor of Minsk) and returned to the sphere of education only in 2016.
Kaprenka is one of a number of critics of Belarus's participation in the Bologna Process. He praises the Soviet educational system, the important role of ideology and forced labour in education, as well as obligatory work placements after graduating. Independent experts, such as Uladzimir Dunaeu, consider Karpenka's appointment 'a step back' for education in Belarus.
However, the most important point concerns the authorities’ general attitude towards the Bologna process. In addition to disappointing results, the government has started to feel insecure about the amount of freedom, or even simply hints of freedom, in the academic sphere. The students protests are a clear example of this. It seems that the authorities would prefer stability over uncertain future economic benefits and a chance of protest.
Thus, it seems that the main tasks for the new minister are to increase control, strength ideology, and prevent the Bologna Process from resulting in any serious transformation.