Higher Education in Belarus: Burdened by Soviet Traditions
Belarusian Minister for Education Siarhei Maskevich on 28 January 2013 expressed his hope that students will convert the Belarusian science "into the main factor of socio-economic and mental development of the country". But does the government really foster the progress of students' education in Belarus?
The lack of academic freedoms, mandatory and old-fashioned study plans have become the main defects of the Belarusian higher education. While government makes certain steps to approach these issues, the progress is rather slow.
The Myth of Free Higher Education in Belarus
Belarusian system of higher education consists of two levels: bachelor and master. It looks similar to the European system, with one rather significant difference. Belarus is the only European country that has not joined Bologna process.
To get a BA in Belarus you have to study not three years like in the West, but the whole five. Followed by the two years of master studies, it makes the term of Belarusian higher education one of the longest in the world. 2013 will be the first year when the entrants start their four-year bachelor programs. This decision was made in order to approximate the Belarusian higher education to the Bologna system which is still an objective for Belarusian government.
Ministry for education statistics states that 428 500 students in Belarus. 51% of them study part-time, while the other – full-time. They study at 55 educational institutions (universities, academies, institutes and colleges). Only ten of these institutions do not belong to government. Private universities have their main specialisation on management and business (among them – a unique women’s educational institution – Envila, where only females can apply).
One of Belarusian universities exists in exile. European Humanities University was ousted from the country in 2004 due to the political reasons and now continues to operate in Vilnius, Lithuania. 1660 students get the higher education there; two thirds of them are Belarusians.
Although education is nominally free, in fact only a minority of all students do not have to pay for their studies. Read more
Although education is nominally free in Belarus, in fact only a minority of all students do not have to pay for their studies. But even these students will have to work for two years for very small wages to compensate for their "free education". Those who have to pay for education, will face rather high fees. Considering the average Belarusian salary of $500, the annual university fee ranging from $900 to $1900 imposes a serious burden on many Belarusian families.
Those who study for free can even receive a monthly allowance (from $50 to $100) called “a scholarship” in Belarus. Its size depends on how well students pass their exams and on financial resources of each particular university. But these students pay their share later, when they get compulsory placed to the prescribed work place for a couple of years after graduation.
Everybody Gets into a University
Since Soviet times entering the university has become not an opportunity, but a social tradition. The society misapprehends those who do not have a higher education. The university diploma remains a certificate of one’s normality instead of showing some degree of professionalism.
To enter the university high school graduates must pass three state-arranged exams in a form of tests. Every field of future study requires a defined combination of three subjects with a state language necessarily included.
For instance, to become a physician one must pass chemistry, biology and Russian (or Belarusian), for a lawyer – social science, Russian/Belarusian and for some strange reason – math, for a programmer – math, physics and again, the language.
One has 10 days to apply to only one university for free of charge education and then, if failed to pass a selection, another 10 days to re-apply for usual chargeable education. Such specialities as "International law", "World economy", "International relations", "Stomatology", "Social communications" enjoyed the highest passing grade in 2012.
But the entrance rate in some universities remains extremely low. They even joked, that one can enter the university just constantly choosing answer "B" in all the tests. Some years, to become a math- or physics-student of the Pedagogic University (a future teacher of these subjects) it was enough to receive 20 of 100 in math or physics.
Study Process: Regulated but Chaotic
The study process in Belarus seems over-regulated. On 19 January 2012 the Working Group on Bologna Process expressed the view that academic freedoms are restricted in Belarus. A year later, on 11 January 2013 three Belarusian NGOs: Centre for Students Initiatives’ Development, "Solidarity" and Public Bologna Committee – reaffirmed the same conclusion in their joint report.
While in most European universities students can choose mot of the subjects they are going to study, in Belarus the choice can be given only during the final years of higher education and only for few marginal subjects. Study plans are sent "from above" as lecturers sometimes complain. The Ministry of Education plans to increase the number of these optional subjects by 5-10% of all studied disciplines next year.
The author of this article studies at the international law department and had to study higher mathematics, ecology, natural science... Read more
Nearly 20% of all the courses are irrelevant to the student's main field of study. The author of this article studies at the international law department and had to study higher mathematics, ecology, natural science, protection from emergency situations, history of universities and higher education and some other strange disciplines.
Recently, the Ministry of Education has asked the academic chairs to prepare proposals to remove some disciplines from the study plan in order to move to four-year bachelor program. The only requirement was not to cut down these "odd" subjects. Some say that such a system exists in order not to leave many needless lecturers unemployed.
Every half a year (January and July) all students in the country pass their semester exams. The procedure has remained the same since Soviet times. Student pulls one upturned question card out of dozens of them. There he or she finds two or three questions randomly chosen from the whole course. Then the student has half an hour to prepare the answers. Finally he or she is interviewed by the lecturer who decides what mark every particular student deserves.
Cheating on exams remains really wide-spread. Here all the modern devises can assist: mobile phones, tiny printed crib sheets, micro ear-phones etc. While in other countries the punishment for cheating and plagiarism can result in expulsion, in Belarus a dishonest student risks only to get so-called "retaking" (passing an exam later once again).
Belarusian educational system shows very well the damaging effect too much regulation. As in Soviet times, technical specialists, such as engineers programmers do relatively well compared to their peers from other European countries, humanitarian disciplines such as political science or history remain in a pitiful state.
Blue-Collar Workers Earn More Than University Graduates
On 10 January the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection proudly announced that Belarus has reached a historical minimum level of unemployment: 0,5 per cent. The figure looks impressive even compared to the recently improved unemployment indicators in Russia (5,4 percent) or Kazakhstan (5,3 percent).
Belarusian media started to explain why the figures of the Belarusian government are incorrect. But HeadHunter Belarus – project of RABOTA.TUT.BY – diminished attractiveness of Belarusian labour market otherwise. According to their research, blue-collar workers in Belarus are in much greater demand than university graduates. They also established that Belarusians earn considerably less than citizens of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.
For example, Belarusian accountants averagely earn 2.7 times less than their Russian colleagues. Surprisingly the salary of Belarusian accountants is often even lower than that of Minsk subway cleaners. Despite this parents spend fortunes for covering their children's tuition fees, while the children themselves spend at least five years on the way to a profession which will hardly ensure their prosperity.
Not only accountants' monthly salaries look rather depressive. An average lawyer earns $382 per month, a marketing specialist – $405, while doctors have to work for 10-11 hours to earn their $350.
The trouble comes not only from the generally low salaries in Belarus. It is largely about the low demand for university graduates. More than 77 per cent of Belarusian vacancies are still for blue-collar workers.
Interestingly, from this perspective market economy really works. The most hated by many Belarusian graduates advertisement which they see in the subway offers cleaners $394 per month – far more than many recent university graduates get.
Higher Education's Disappointments
During the last seven years, the number of students enrolled in vocational training training colleges has decreased by almost 35%. The number of university students is constantly rising. The sad reality is coming to the minds of young people gradually after enrolment at university. As the joke goes would you say to graduates of philological faculty? – One Big Mac and Cola, please”. The older Belarusian students become, the less funny they find the jokes about their future career at McDonalds.
There are exceptions of course. For example, the prospects of IT-specialists look rather promising. Impressive popularity of programming faculties and courses accompanies growing demand for programmers, as well as increase in their salaries. Regrettably, not everyone in Belarus has the the right mind-set to do IT work.
Still the algorithm “kindergarten-school-university” governs the minds of young Belarusians and their parents. Universities promise a beaming life success, while entering a vocational school equals to joining the army of untouchable.
The status of a school graduate who decided to have a year gap in education is even worse. If a young man does not enter a university or another educational establishment after school he will have to follow an even more unwanted scenario: a two-year military service.
This does not leave much rule for thinking to a 17 or 18 year old person who may still hesitate about career choices. As a result, this question arises sharply in five years when it is already a time to work. When university graduates suddenly realise that they can get the profession of their dream at a vocational training school only.
Despite a large number of university graduates and their unfavourable employment situation, according to the Belarusian Ministry of Labour and Social Protection unemployment rate in Belarus manages to be just 0.5 per cent. For Belarus it is not sudden and unexpected – last year the official unemployment rate was merely 0.6 per cent.
A good deal of bright graduates leave for Russia, less often – for Europe and North America. Qualified blue-collar workers, especially young men, also find this opportunity rather attractive. In any case the main reason is the salary. If a Belarusian builder in Mahileu region earns about $400, just across the border in Smolensk region it would be $1,200 per month.
Foreign investors remain cautious about Belarus and the state-run economy cannot produce enough jobs with decent salaries. The economy badly needs modernisation which is difficult to achieve without significant foreign investments and a serious commitment to reforms.
Even if the unemployment was indeed so low, it is not a reason to be excited. The above-mentioned research of HeadHunter Belarus suggests that competition for employment is considerably less than in Russia, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan. It makes less than three people for a vacancy and in average each vacancy got only 14 replies from candidates.
The figures can look positive and imply that all Belarusians have already found their dream jobs. However, they lead to other conclusions as well. The main of them is that Belarusian labour market is only slightly familiar with competition for employment. That means employees are not engaged at constant improvement of their skills. They will get a job anyway. At the same, those who are ready to improve their skills and qualifications find leaving, for example, for Russia much more attractive.
Why do people agree to be paid so little? One explanation is that they follow a famous Soviet employees’ wisdom: “We pretend working and you pretend paying.” Perhaps, it is high time to burn the proverb together with the load of harmful stereotypes. Otherwise, the country may end in the same unfortunate way as its predecessor, the Soviet Union.