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.
Poland, Belarus and Ukraine To Revive the Baltic – Black Sea Water Route
Belarus and Ukraine are currently studying the economic feasibility of reviving the E40 waterway which goes along the Vistula and Dnieper rivers. It will connect the Baltic and Black Seas and make inland shipping cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
On 10 October the trilateral commission presented their project on the route's restoration at the international exhibition "Transport Week – Belarus 2014" in Minsk.
The Oder-Vistula-Dnieper route, which had operated since the 18th century and connected the two seas till World War II, has laid in ruins for decades. At present, interest is growing again not only in the Eastern Europe region, but also in Scandinavia and Turkey.
Belarus and Ukraine water transport agencies seem to be quite happy with the project, while Polish civil society express their concern about its potential impact on the environment – it can damage natural water reserves and cause flooding.
Earlier on, the Latvian government turned down a project that would connect the Daugava and Dnieper rivers for the same reason. According to their assessments, the reconstruction of the ancient trade route “from the Varangians to the Greeks” could endanger Latvia's greatest river environment.
The Vistula-Dnieper project
The Oder-Vistula-Dnieper inland waterway emerged in the 18th century and crossed several countries in Eastern Europe, including the lands of modern Belarus. As a trade route, it connected the Baltic and Black Seas and operated until World War II. After the war part of the route, stretching from Warsaw to Brest, stopped working. Soviet leaders thought about reviving the route, but never got any further than talking it over. Since 1990s, however, these newly independent countries have renewed their efforts to restore the trade route.
Recently, discussion over the restoration of the route led to the project “Restoration of Inland Waterway E40 in the Dnieper-Vistula region: From Strategy to Planning”. The project is an attempt to prepare an economic and technical justification, as well as a comprehensive study of its environmental impact and other potential consequences which its reconstruction might lead to.
Costing $1m, it is being financed by the EU cross border cooperation programme Poland-Belarus-Ukraine. The study will be carried out from 2014 to 2015. The reconstruction of the waterway itself is estimated to cost around $150-200m.
After a conference in Brest in March 2014, a permanent commission for discussing the Dnieper-Vistula route was founded. It includes both national and local governments as well as experts and NGOs from Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. In July, a conference took place in Warsaw with about 100 politicians, officials and experts to discuss the project.
Economic Benefits and Environmental Concerns
The countries of the Black and Baltic Sea regions, and transit countries like Belarus, are all interested in using the waterway to ship their cargo at lower prices and with greater ease. Inland waterway transportation consumes less energy, as it can move with the river's current without consuming fuel for hundreds of kilometres at a time. Moreover, it causes less environmental pollution than both railroad and motorway cargo transportation.
According to Polish experts from the trilateral commission, the E40 route operation will reduce the cargo transportation time between the two seas by 21 days, will cut fuel consumption by a third and relieve the current cargo loads of the Polish ports in Gdansk and Gdynia. After its complete reconstruction, the route will be able to ship 8m tonnes of cargo annually.
Belarus and Ukraine are the project's primary advocates. In more democratic Poland, civil society is voicing its concerns on how the government’s economic interests may impede on the environment's health. A part of the Bug river is located within a natural reserve that makes up part of the EU Natura 2000 network. Poles also worry about the impact of the project, particularly its potential to flood the Vistula river in Poland. Of course, the same problems may also arise in Belarus, but no one is able voice their objections to the project if a decision has already been made at the top.
The Belarusian Fleet
If implemented, as an inland country, Belarus would get access to two seas, with the Baltic Sea ports being the most lucrative. It would allow it to cut shipping costs for Belarusian exports like potash and oil products, as well as the freight of its Eurasian Union partners. This would make Belarus a major player in the European waterway transportation system.
Belarusian representatives view the project as being of strategic and long-term importance. Back in 2008, a Ministry of Transport official Branislaŭ Havaroŭski said, “the time will come when the EU will engage in the project to relieve railroad and motorway East-West routes”. It appears, he may have been right.
In Belarus, the waterway's infrastructure has depreciated considerably, though the government is currently trying to repair it. The areas currently under considering include the western Bug and Prypiac rivers since they are part of the E40 route. However, the facts on the ground seem to demonstrate that the project has largely been a failure. In January 2014 a state agency inspected the work of inland waterway transport companies. It concluded that the sector is stagnate and the state's development programme for the sector over 2011-2015 had failed.
The number of usable vessels continues to decrease in number and even the capacity currently available is scarcely used. These newly created companies, which should have been working to develop the water transportation network appeared to rather be dealing with trade and not the inland fleet's development. In other words, the industry has plunged into corruption and is in a critical state.
Will the Vikings’ Route be Revived?
In early 2000s, the Belarusian government announced plans to restore the Daugava-Dnieper waterway. This waterway served as a part of an ancient trade route that stretched “from the Varangians to the Greeks” and connected Scandinavia, Kievan Rus’ and the Byzantine Empire via the Baltic and the Black Seas.
According to Belarusian officials, an international consortium have expressed their readiness to implement the waterway restoration project worth $10bn, with Kaupthing Investment Bank from Iceland providing a bulk of the investment. The authorities have estimated the annual freight that will pass via the route to be around 100m tonnes.
Talks surrounding the project took place in 2004 at a session of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Soon after, however, the Latvian Ministries of Transportation and the Environment announced that they thought the was a potential threat to the environment as it could negatively affect the Daugava river in terms of the quality of its water and its overall environment. Furthermore, they claimed the project was economically infeasible.
So far, the project is stuck in a stalemate, with neither Belarus nor Latvia possessing the political will or the funds to implement it. Nevertheless, the inland waterways remain a potentially lucrative area for development and the governments seem likely to return to it when the necessary conditions emerge.
Meanwhile, the Vistula-Dnieper route's reconstruction may yet see the light of day in the coming years. With the obvious economic and environmental advantages, the project can benefit both EU and Belarus, as it will help it further integrate into the European economic space and attract foreign investment.