Belarus Needs A Strategic Vision in Higher Education Management
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.
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).
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.
Vilnius: the New Mecca for Belarusian Shoppers and Activists
On weekends, Vilnius looks like a Belarusian city.
Cars with Belarusian registration plates, crowds of Belarusians carrying shopping bags, even bus schedules to Belarus from big shopping centres. In 2012, according to the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism, 400,000 Belarusian guests visited Lithuania.
In politics, Lithuania maintains a critical position against Lukashenka's regime. A significant number of offices of foreign foundations and organisations which work with Belarusian civil society are located in Vilnius.
In 2012 the goods turnover between Lithuania and Belarus broke all records. In comparison with the previous year, it grew by 8% and reached $2,3bn. Moreover, Lithuania has the positive balance. Belarusians come to Lithuania more and more often, not only for shopping but also to spend a weekend there.
Lithuania, somewhat paradoxically, remains one of the few countries which profits from Belarus' isolation. Thanks to the protectionist practises of the Belarusian regime, it has become much cheaper for Belarusians to pay for visas and transportation expenses, and to buy many goods in Lithuania, than at home.
The official Vilnius wants the status quo in Belarus' policies to change, but it will not pursue any changes at the expense of its economic benefits. In fact, the current situation in Belarus supports Lithuania’s interests.
Who Earns Belarusian Money in Lithuania?
Lithuanian shopping centres remain the key destination point for many Belarusians. Most Belarusians visit centres like Akropolis and Ozas during the weekends. These shopping centres hold major advertising campaigns in Belarusian cities. According to a study conducted by the advertising agency AD Hunters Baltics, Belarusians bring 10-15% of Vilnius retail shopping income. In some shopping centres, this number has even reached 30%.
Lithuanian supermarkets owners even try to hire personnel that can speak Russian to their Belarusian clients. Clients can drop about $450-600 in one visit to these Lithuanian shops. Belarusian visitors buy everything – clothes, food, household equipment, goods for children and cosmetics. Some even come to Lithuania to change the tires on their cars. All this is cheaper than it is in Belarus. In addition, visitors return the VAT on the border.
Belarusians often call the Vilnius airport “Minsk-3”. According the director of the Vilnius airport air service department Edvinas Levaškevičius, 240-250 Belarusians use the services of the Vilnius airport daily, and the total number of Belarusian clientele reaches about 10% of all passengers of the airport.
This large intake at the Vilnius airport is a result of the Belarusian authorities’ protectionism. The Belarusian authorities protect the domestic air company “Belavia” and keeps low-price airlines away from the Belarusian market. Belarus does not belong to the EU–US Open Skies Agreement either which makes it complicated to open new routes and to lower ticket prices.
Hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist and real estate agencies stay natural beneficiaries of the Belarusian visitors’ financing. Although most Belarusians visit Lithuania to shop, some of them go to Lithuania on holidays as well.
The Capital of Belarusian Civil Society
It often seems that Vilnius is the capital of contemporary Belarusian civil society. Belarusian NGOs and several foreign foundations have more offices here than in Minsk. When Belarusian authorities refuse to register organizations in Belarus, activists often go to Lithuania and incorporate their NGOs there.
Most American foundations and organisations working with Belarus also chose Vilnius for their offices. Among the most influential are International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. A major German Foundation, Konrad Adenauer, is also operating from Vilnius. Most of the aforementioned organisations are not able to operate legally in Belarus and consequently stay in Vilnius, just 30 km away from the Belarusian border.
Plenty of Belarusian civil society organisations, including the international consortium EuroBelarus and representatives of the Belarusian opposition work from Vilnius. Belarusian Human Rights House in Exile, also working from Vilnius, continues to impress with its ongoing activities.The House hosts almost year-round human rights schools, continuously attracting a large number of active youth.
One of the most important institutions for Belarus in Vilnius remains the European Humanities University. Belarusian authorities closed EHU in 2004, but thanks to Western aid the university resumed its activities in Vilnius in 2005. Well-known Belarusian public figures and journalists lecture at the university, including Siarhei Chareuski, Ales Lahvinets and Viktar Martsinovich.
In addition, Vilnius hosts numerous seminars, trainings and conferences for Belarusians. As a result a significant share of money directed to help Belarus lands in Vilnius.
Mutually Beneficial Cooperation
The Lithuanian authorities provide statistical data that the trade turnover between the two countries in 2012 made up around $2.3bn. $1.4bn can be accounted for by Lithuanian exports and $875m – for Belarusian exports. The goods turnover increased by 8% throughout the year.
Alongside this, the goods turnover does not include everything; for example, stores paying for Lithuanian port services. Last year, Lukashenka threatened to use Russian ports instead of Lithuanian ports but this threat remained merely words.
The Belarusian-Lithuanian cooperation is beneficial for both sides. It leads to a situation where Lithuania conducts a two-track policy with regards to Belarus. On the one hand, it supports the opposition and the civil society. On the other hand, it closely cooperates with the regime in the economic sphere. Some even call this hypocrisy.
In fact, Lithuania has become a hostage of its economic benefits and its ability to act on its obligation to react to the human rights violations.
The Future of the Belarusian-Lithuanian Relations
Belarus and Lithuania will have to live with each other regardless of their political regimes. Their cooperation covers not just transit and big business, but also shopping centres, markets, airports, and accomodation. Belarusian and Lithuanian small businessmen strengthen their ties to one another and bring in profits for both countries.
Most likely bilateral relations that are “walking on one leg” – the economy – will continue. Relations at the higher echelons of politics will remain cold for a long time to come. Increasing contacts between people may facilitate changes in Belarus and economic benefits for Lithuania. That is why the decrease in visa fees and simplification of the visa procedures remains one of the few things that the European Union can do to help Belarusian society.