EHU: Belarusian University In Exile or For Exile?
Last month the Belarusian youth web site generation.by published a diagram showing that 2/3 of European Humanities University (EHU) graduates do not return to Belarus after completing their studies. According to generation.by, the data came from a poll of 2011 graduates of bachelors' programs published on the EHU website. The university described this information as false and explained that it was a mistake by their website administrator.
This has raised a heated discussion in Belarus in which many questioned whether it was a good idea to spend Western money to help people to leave Belarus. The argument is that the very reason for the existence of the EHU is to raise and nurture a new Belarusian elite rather than to stimulate immigration.
Established in 1992 in Belarus, the EHU had to move to Lithuania in 2005 because of pressure from Belarusian authorities. The exiled university found its new home in Vilnius, which is just a three-hour train ride from Minsk. According to a Radio Free Europe interview with the EHU Rector Anatoli Mikhailov, since 2006 the number of EHU students has risen tenfold. Currently around 1800 students are enrolled at EHU, more than 98% of whom are Belarusian.
EHU as an Exit Strategy
Darius Udrys, EHU's vice-rector for development and international relations who took his position earlier this year, explained to Belarus Digest that the actual figures of those who return to Belarus are not so low. Surveys of 2009-2010 graduates of EHU's full residency BA programs showed that about 37% returned to Belarus after graduation. 43% chose to continue their studies, enrolling in MA programs and 26% of respondents enrolled in MA programs at EHU and 17% at other universities. Those who reside in Vilnius during their BA studies constitute a minority of EHU students.
It is not surprising that a significant number of EHU graduates prefer to pursue study and work opportunities abroad. The young and ambitious may have a hard time finding jobs in Belarus. Belarus today does not need people with strong knowledge of foreign languages and a Western education. The Belarusian state-owned economy is subsidized by Russia and does not have to be efficient to survive.
Foreign investors are scared to go to Belarus because of legal instability and pressure from some opposition groups which see them as "bailing out the regime". As a result many EHU graduates cannot find well-paid jobs in Belarus and look for more lucrative opportunities abroad. It is hardly possible to blame them or the EHU for this.
Incentives to Return
A proper system of incentives could encourage students to return to Belarus and use their education for the benefit of their country. Students could be asked to work in Belarus for a year or two if they received financial aid for their studies. Such a requirement would not be unprecedented. For instance, a large number of academic visitors to the United States are subject to a two-year home-country physical presence requirement. This is how the United States ensure that the education of foreign students paid by the US tax payers in the form of scholarships actually benefits the students' home countries.
It appears that the money spent on the EHU may not wasted even when EHU graduates decide not to return to Belarus immediately after completing their studies. Changes will not happen overnight in Belarus and a long-term perspective requires the preparation of a new elite. The country's transition will be less painful if well-educated Belarusians who have studied and worked in democratic societies are in charge.
No other country will offer EHU graduates a better opportunity to work in senior government positions to implement changes than their own. However, EHU graduates are more likely to consider going back to Belarus in the long-run only if they are genuinely interested in Belarus, not just in learning technical skills and foreign languages. Is the EHU doing enough to cultivate such interest?
The EHU as a Belarusian University
One of the hotly debated topic related to the EHU is the use of the Belarusian language and the identity of the EHU as a Belarusian institution. In an online conference on Radio Liberty in April, the Rector of the EHU Anatoly Mikhailov faced allegations that the university administration does not appreciate the value of the Belarusian language. Some argued that the EHU is a cosmopolitan Russian-speaking university without a focus on Belarus.
When the rector and two of three prorectors do not speak Belarusian, it is difficult to expect that they will encourage its use. A recently announced vacancy for the EHU Head of International Relations Unit mentions that the applicants should have knowledge of English, Russian and Lithuanian. Belarusian is not mentioned at all.
The Belarusian language is in a difficult situation today. According to the 2009 official census, 53.2% of Belarusian residents considered Belarusian to be their native language and 23% predominantly speak it at home. To illustrate the trend, in 1999 73.6% considered Belarusian their native language and 37% used it at home. The position of the language is getting weaker, not least because the pro-Russian authorities of Belarus often openly discourage its use. Aliaksandr Lukashenka speaks Belarusian when he wants to mock opposition and human rights activists.
The lack of state support is one of several reasons why the majority of the urban population in Belarus understands Belarusian but speaks predominantly Russian. It is not surprising that some students find it difficult to study in Belarusian. Learning materials in Belarusian are hard to find and often nonexistent. Moreover, because the Belarusian national identity has been suppressed for such a long time, many simply lack the patriotic feeling and respect which most other nations of the region hold in relation to their native languages.
In the context of contemporary Belarus, the situation with the use of the Belarusian language at the EHU is not so bad. Darius Udrys explained to Belarus Digest that no university in today's Belarus offers more courses taught in Belarusian than EHU. According to him, about 25% of EHU classes are taught in Belarusian and the EHU's required core curriculum includes courses on Belarusian history and culture. Although some question the accuracy of the 25% figure already aired before by Anatoli Mikhailov, several classes, mostly related to Belarusian history and cultural heritage, are indeed taught in Belarusian.
Fr Alexander Nadson, who directs Belarusian Library in London and is regarded as a strong moral authority among Belarusian-speakers, also thinks that the situation of the Belarusian language and studies at the EHU is better than at most Belarus-based universities. His impression is that the university does permit instruction in Belarusian, and that its department of Belarusian studies is conducting a number of important projects. In 2008, the EHU awarded Fr Nadson an honorary doctorate.
Darius Udrys says that the university plans to replace Russian-language modules with English-speaking modules to respond to new trends and student demands. Student demands are indeed importantm but so are the reasons for establishing the EHU as a center of research and teaching activities focused on Belarus.
It appears that more English-language teaching should go hand in hand with the encouragement of the usage of the Belarusian language. With Russia's more assertive policy and uncertain prospects for a democratic Belarus, the cultivation of its national identity may be easier to achieve than democracy for Belarus. Belarus needs an elite with a well-articulated national identity to make its statehood sustainable and democratic.
Towards Belarusian Tilsit
When British historian Norman Davies presented his new book "Vanished Kingdoms" earlier this year, he used Belarus as an example of a nation without a mature elite. According to him, a fragile Belarusian state emerged after World War I, and Stalin purged nearly all its national elite in the late 1930s. In his opinion this is the main reason why today Belarusians cannot govern themselves other than by a "teapot dictator" like Lukashenka. Norman Davies added that it usually takes time to form a demos and a self-sufficient political entity.
The role of exile intellectual centers is difficult to overestimate. For instance, in the period from 1890 to 1904, around 2,500 book titles in the Lithuanian Latin alphabet were published outside of today's Lithuania – mostly in Tilsit, a city in East Prussia. These publications and the Lithuanian intellectual movement in East Prussia played a crucial role in the formation of a modern national identity for Lithuanians and their statehood.
The EHU could conduct more serious research on current political and social topics and go beyond giving technical and foreign language skills to its students. The university could not only tolerate but actually encourage the use of the Belarusian language in teaching subjects beyond Belarusian history and culture. This could be coupled with creating incentives for graduates to return to work in Belarus.
The Belarusian elite of that time lacked a similar safe haven, which made its nation-building task more difficult. With the EHU's help, Vilnius could become a Tilsit for Belarusians.
Three Reasons Why Belarus Should Be A Part of the Bologna Process
Although the level of academic freedom in Belarus is far from desirable, the country's integration into the European Higher Education Process would greatly benefit a new generation of Belarusians and should be encouraged by European policymakers.
On 12 December 2011 the Bologna Working Group reviewed the application of the Ministry of Education of Belarus to join the European Higher Education Area (the Bologna Process). The group will announce its opinion during the Ministerial Summit of the Bologna Process member states on 26-27 April 2012. If the application is successful, then Belarus may discontinue being the last ‘non-Bologna’ state of Europe.
The application has provoked a mixed reaction inside and outside the country. The Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee set up by a group of experts in Minsk emphasized in its report that ‘without complex higher education reforms Belarus’s full membership of the European Higher Education Area will not be effective’. And the European Students’ Union appealed to European states to block the country’s accession to the Bologna Process.
The argument that the Belarusian education system falls short of the Bologna standards is undeniable. Moreover, it cannot be brought close to those standards in the existing political realities. However, this should in no way be used as a counter-argument against Belarus’s membership of the European Higher Education Area.
The Belarusian path to the Bologna Process has been long and full of contradictions due to politics. At the beginning of the 2000s the Belarusian government introduced a number of novelties to the education system that were supposed to bring it closer to the European Higher Education Area standards.
For example, high school education was extended from 11 to 12 years and universities started to award bachelor’s and master’s degrees in addition to the Soviet-style specialist degree. But beginning from 2004 and particularly after the 2006 presidential elections the Bologna-oriented reforms were ‘frozen’. It was a reaction to the growing dissatisfaction with the government’s policies among the youth, which the authorities explained by its ‘Western influence’. As a result, a series of counter-reforms were carried out that reintroduced some Soviet traditions such as 11 year long high school education and 5 year long university education.
In September 2011, the new Education Code came into force. Some provisions of the Code clearly contradict the Bologna Process principles. For example, it established the principle of ‘responsible autonomy’ for universities. Essentially, this principle further limits the academic freedoms and autonomy of universities.
Interestingly, in parallel with the elaboration of the Education Code the Belarusian government again declared its willingness to join the European Higher Education Area.
This month the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee released a report called 'Belarusian Higher Education: Readiness to the European Higher Education Area Admission' which concluded that the Belarusian higher education system is not ready for the Bologna Process. The authors argued that Belarus needs a comprehensive transformation of its education system to become a generic part of the European education region.
They also suggested that the country’s accession to the Bologna Process should take place in three stages and be based on the ‘Road Map for Reforms’. The first stage envisages de-politicizing and the elimination of state control over higher education, in particular the re-installment of transparent and fair elections of university rectors. The second stage focuses on a legal framework reform. And the third stage includes such technical actions as the completion of the academic degree and qualification reform, the completion of the quality assurance system reform, and the establishment of the national system for supporting mobility.
Why Belarus Should Be a Part of the Bologna Process
There is no doubt that the Belarusian education system needs a fully-fledged reform in the ‘Bologna spirit’ and that the road map suggested by the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee is essential for that. But it is extremely important that Belarus becomes a member as soon as possible even without such a reform. And here are three core arguments in favor of that.
First, applying ‘accession conditionality’ (i.e. membership only after reforms) will simply produce no results. The carrot of the Bologna Process is too small and of no great value for the incumbent government. Moreover, a comprehensive education reform that corresponds to the ‘Bologna spirit’ is inconceivable in Belarus without a reform of the existing political system which may or may not happen soon. Therefore, imposing ‘accession conditionality’ will have no impact on the state of higher education in Belarus.
Second, keeping Belarus out because of its politicized education system will only have adverse effects. It will further isolate the country and Belarusians from the rest of Europe. This would be particularly undesirable because what may be deemed ‘Bologna isolation’ will not hurt the regime, but primarily the younger generation – the future of the country. On the other hand, opening the ‘Bologna door’ for Belarus will facilitate better social exchange and more contact between people. In other words, it will be a new effective channel for transmitting European values to Belarus.
Importantly, the potential of this new channel will be much higher than that of the limited number of existing scholarship programs. The recent initiatives, such as the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme specifically designed for Belarusian citizens will do a great job in promoting Europe in Belarus. But the capacity of such initiatives are limited. The number of students who are awarded scholarships and complete full degrees abroad is small. Therefore, letting Belarus in the Bologna Process will expose many more young Belarusians to European values.
Third, the Bologna Process will open a new window of opportunities for Belarusian universities. It will enable them to develop cooperation links with leading European universities. International research projects and exchange of experience, staff and students will gradually impact the academic quality of the higher education institutions in Belarus. As a result, the universities will produce better qualified graduates with foreign language skills and a higher degree of understanding how democracy and market economy works.
There is still a possibility that hardliners in the Belarusian regime will try to prevent the country's accession to the Bologna Process. But there is a hope that if they fail, young Belarusians will have a chance to experience the benefits of being a part of wider democratic Europe without borders.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk