Non-Formal Education in Belarus: Unleashing the Civil Society Potential
Over the past couple of years informal education has witnessed remarkable growth in Belarus. It offers Belarusians possibilities missing at the nation's over-regulated state-run universities.
New grass-roots initiatives such as the European College of Liberal Arts and the Flying University are organising innovative and inspiring courses in Minsk. Although functioning within a certain limitations peculiar to Belarus, they still manage to appeal to the nation's youth.
Belarus Digest interviewed representatives of the Flying University and the European College of Liberal Arts about what it is like to organise non-formal education in Belarus.
Education in Belarus: a Sensitive Area?
Many people in the West often have a distorted view of the educational system in Belarus thinking that nothing is impossible in Belarus living under a non-democratic regime. Despite its relatively strong standing in international rankings for education, academic freedom in Belarusian
Belarus remains the only country in Europe outside the common European educational space, also known as the Bologna system. The educational system, largely unchanged from Soviet times, is reacting very slowly to the demands of the market. The stagnate system fails to promote Belarusian civil society and often remains out of touch with the new realities of Belarus.
However, the emergence of projects like the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, the Flying University, the Belarusian Collegium, and a number of Belarusian language courses show a real demand for new modern forms of education. They also show that education no longer exclusively the domain of the state.
The first serious non-formal education initiative, the Belarusian Collegium, dates back to 1997. Its founders gathered a few Belarusian intellectuals and started running evening courses for adults. Despite financial difficulties it continues to function. Aliaksei Lastouski
The Flying University: Responding to the Need for a National Belarusian University
The Flying University (Liatučy Universyte
Much has been changed in education in Belarus since the 1990s. “We can observe the process of squeezing out critically thinking people from academia and education”, Vadalazhskaja
The name of the University relates to the underground “Flying University“ (Latający Uniwersytet) that organised courses to promote the self-education of people in communist Poland. The Flying University offers its courses for free. It does not issue any diplomas and Vadalazhskaja emphasises that the education that the University provides remains largely non-formal.
This year around 300 young Belarusians applied for its courses, and on average around 15 students are attending each course. The University offers 20 different courses and seminars. The most popular courses include the study of the Bible, the "European choice" of Belarus, methodology and design.
34 years old Alexey Konstantinov has been attending courses and seminars at the Flying University already for three years now. Originally from Ukraine, for over 20 years he has been living in Minsk. He told Belarus Digest he was attracted by the unique learning environment at the University, but also its strong principles of encouraging critical thinking.
Liberal Arts: Belarus Today
Another initiative, the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB), launched its courses only this past October. Currently more than 40 Belarusian students are attending various courses at the European College. The most popular courses are in popular culture, media, but also social problems and collective values.
Aleksandr Adamianc, a project director, explains that the liberal arts remain an underdeveloped area of education in Belarus. The idea to establish the College came about as a result of an existing niche in the education market. “Our programme of Liberal Arts is the first in Belarus”, he proudly notes.
Adamianc believes that Belarusians should have the opportunity to obtain a modern European education inside the country saying that "many young people neither have the possibility of studying abroad, nor do they want to". He points to “the conservatism of state education organisations” as the main factor impeding the development of liberal arts education in Belarus.
Predominantly young people attend their courses, with ages varying between 19-35 years old. The vast majority of them have already received degrees from higher education institutions, with a third currently enrolled in other university programmes.
Presently, ECLAB offers a free programme of education and issues certificates for its students. Aleksandr Adamianc
Non-formal vs Formal Education
Achieving success with new non-formal education initiatives can be challenging in Belarus. The biggest challenge for the Flying University was to find rooms for classes. “First, we rented some space, but in a month we were asked to leave. From there we went on “flying” from one place to another”, Tatsiana Vadalazhska
Aleksandr Adamianc from the European College of Liberal Arts told Belarus Digest they did not have difficulties with finding space in Minsk.
The informal nature of these initiatives appeals to many Belarusians, particularly to young people. Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja
Both the Flying University and the European College run attractive and informative web sites and a have strong presence on social media networks, an item that is crucial nowadays. The European College also has ambitious plans to expand and start to co-operate with other European universities so that Belarusian students could obtain dual degrees that would be recognised in Europe.
Non-formal Education's Enormous Potential
Both Belarusian and Russian languages are used for instruction at the Flying University and the European College. Their representatives emphasised that the language of instruction depends entirely upon the instructors themselves.
“For example, the course on “Mathematics as the Language of Thinking” is taught in Belarusian on purpose, because the instructor, Mr Liavonau, wanted to develop this topic in the Belarusian language”, Tats
The European College and the Flying University prove that these kinds of education projects have great prospects in Belaru
With very limited resources, especially when compared to state-funded universities, the organisers of informal courses already managed to make attractive education outside the bounds of state-run institutions. With the organisers' mix of idealism, pragmatism and professionalism, their student numbers and the geographical prominence of their activities is likely to grow further.