Study Abroad for Belarusians: a One-Way Ticket?
Students across the world dream about studying abroad, and Belarusians are no exception. The Europe Day Education Fair, organised by the EU Delegation in Minsk on 22 May, gathered a large enthusiastic crowd.
The fair attracted so much attention in part because international education remains out of the reach of the majority of Belarusian students. Challenges that European students never worry about, such as obtaining a visa, financing their education, or even academic preparation, force many young people to stay at home.
In the long run, this growing body of well-educated and open-minded citizens could bring about positive social change in Belarus. Whether this actually happens depends on how many students participate in international exchanges and how many intend on returning home.
When only a very small number of students, those with exceptional credentials and sky-high ambitions, are able to obtain international scholarships, study abroad may become a one-way ticket. A greater availability of short-term academic exchanges may, on the other hand, contribute to promoting a greater number of well-educated and interculturally competent citizens who live and work in Belarus.
Expanding Opportunities to Study Abroad
According to UNESCO, the number of students who study abroad is growing by about 12% each year. Belarusians became a part of this global trend only in the mid-2000s. Since 2007, the number of Belarusians studying abroad has hovered around 30,000, facilitated by the growth in programmes that provide funding and help with visa applications. These include the Erasmus programme, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Muskie Graduate Fellowship, and others.
Erasmus is perhaps the most popular European student exchange program. In 2014, all existing EU programmes in the fields of education, training, and youth were combined into Erasmus+.
The expanded programme will provide opportunities for over 4 million Europeans to study, train and volunteer abroad for a period of at least three months to an academic year. Of these only around 200 scholarships will become available in 2012-2016 for Belarus, a country with over 450 thousand students.
Poland offers more accessible opportunities to study abroad. Around 4,000 Belarusian citizens currently attend Polish and English language programmes.
Because the Polish government funds education only in Polish and only for students who have the Pole Card (Karta Polaka), most of them pay for their own education. A limited number of scholarships exist. For example, Kalinowski scholarship targets ambitious Belarusian pro-democracy activists.
Not surprisingly, the scholarship has fallen out of favour with the Belarusian regime, which complicates the return of the scholarship's recipients to Belarus.
The US State Department also offers academic exchange programmes to Belarusian applicants, including a four-week Youth Leadership Program and a semester-long Global Undergraduate Exchange Program. Belarusian students can also apply for the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program to obtain a Master’s degree in the United States.
Unfortunately, Belarus, along with Uzbekistan, no longer participates in the Future Leaders Exchange Program, which targeted high school students. All US State Department programmes include provisions that require students to return home for a minimum of two years.
Russia imposes perhaps the fewest barriers for Belarusian students. Not only do most Belarusians speak Russian at home, but they can also compete in the same category as the Russian applicants when applying to Russian universities. Upon admission, Belarusians are entitled to a stipend and living accommodations on par with their Russian peers.
Obtaining a Schengen or US visa and financing education in the West at times present insurmountable difficulties, given the disparities in income between western countries and Belarus. An even greater challenge, however, is obtaining a degree that would qualify Belarusian applicants for education abroad.
The Belarusian education system falls short of the Bologna standards, with the absence of academic freedom being the most important shortcoming. Belarus failed to join the Bologna process, a system designed to ensure that higher education standards are roughly equivalent and help to promote freedom of movement within Europe. This ‘Bologna isolation’ has prevented many young generations of Belarusians from participating in European student exchange programmes.
Belarus Becomes a Magnet for Turkmen Students
Despite the shortcomings of the Belarusian educational system, Belarus has itself become a popular destination for international students. By 2013, the number of foreign nationals attending Belarusian universities and colleges had reached 14,000.
Belarus hosts students from about 88 countries. Two thirds come from post-Soviet states, roughly one third – from Asia. Europe accounts for a mere 1.5% of students. In the 2012/2013 academic year, citizens of Turkmenistan accounted for 53% of the total number of international students in Belarus.
Most international students attend the Belarusian State University, Belarusian State Medical University or Belarusian National Technical University. For a long time, medicine and pharmacy (22.6%) were the most popular programmes among international students in Belarus. Now other programmes are catching up.
On rare occasion, Belarus hosts US students. For example, a few years ago the University at Albany offered a service-learning course in Belarus focused on the impact of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. The students stayed in hotels and with host families in Belarus and were involved in the preservation of a neglected Jewish cemetery. Speaking Belarusian or Russian was not required to join the course.
Far-reaching Consequences for Academic Mobility
As a growing number of Belarusians travel abroad, analysts fear brain drain. Studying abroad increases the likelihood of subsequent employment and residence in a foreign country. Students from a country with numerous socioeconomic and political problems such as Belarus may be especially prone to seek emigration.
According to the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, however, most Belarusian students return home upon completion of their studies. Employment and residency barriers in western Europe may explain a high rate of return. Numbers could be even lower if the Belarusian government creates favourable employment opportunities for Belarusians with international educational experience.
A study funded by America’s National Science Foundation concluded that only 32% of Mexicans with US PhDs still live in the US five years after graduation. With appropriate policies in place, even the best and the brightest may want to return.
Students who do return upon completion of their study contribute to the economic and political development of their home country. The Belarusian economy desperately needs well-trained professionals proficient in a foreign language, as only 5% of Belarusian citizens are proficient in English, according to the Belarusian state statistical agency Belstat.
Even fewer young specialists possess the necessary intercultural competence or care about international politics. In the long run, the growing share of well-educated and well-travelled citizens with ties to democratic countries could foster positive social change in Belarus.
A New Loan from Russia – A Temporary Lifejacket
The growth rate of inflation in the 1st quarter of 2014 amounted to 6.6% and made plans for reaching the official targets for annual inflation highly unlikely.
Despite this, a gradual reduction in refinancing rates with a second round of cuts has been preserved. It was also accompanied fixing the maximum rate of ruble loans at a rate of 39.4% for companies.
By the end of April the international reserves of Belarus decreased by $238m, bringing them to a total of $5.477bn. This number signals the lowest amount of reserves that Belarus has seen since November and makes the problem of attracting capital all the more difficult.
However, a new loan from Russia will allow officials to postpone making any macroeconomic adjustment policy decisions for now. The authorities are not keen on introducing any unpopular reforms in a pre-election year.
Inflation and Refinancing Rates
Consumer prices grew by 1.6% in April, and in January-April inflation reached 6.6%. It appears rather obvious at this point that the authorities will not succeed in reaching their planned annual inflation rate of 11% and it will likely rise at least 5-6 points beyond what the government had planned for.
At the same time a reduced refinancing rate of 21.5% was set in April and May and signals the possibility of a decrease in rates for for the Belarusian ruble. This move supports the decision of the National Bank of Belarus (NBB) to fix the maximum interest rates on loans to legal entities in national currency at a maximum rate of 39.4%.
This decision came into force on 8 May 2015 and will be in effect until at least till 1 January 2015. An attempt to make it easier for for the enterprises to access financing is the primary function of this decision. However, there is a good chance that this will boost inflation, with its’ already high rates.
The possibility of rising inflation together with devaluation expectations from average Belarusians may increase the volatility of national exchange rate vs. foreign currencies and decrease demand for the Belarusian ruble.
Dynamics of the currency market
Over the past months there has been a noticeable trend on the currency exchange market with U.S. dollar vs. BYR (Belarusian Ruble) finally reaching the psychologically round figure of 10000 BYR for $1.
In general the situation for the currency market remained stable, including its more negative tendencies. In recent months the smooth nominal devaluation of the Belarusian ruble has continued with the main factors influencing the situation being inflation, a decline in foreign currency reserves together with rising devaluation expectations among Belarusians.
Demand for foreign currency serves as evidence of increasing devaluation expectations. In January 2014 the net demand on foreign currency was $(-99)m, while in March 2014 it amounted to just $(-10.3)m. The situation which has developed means that Belarus must attract external sources of financing as only the nation's meagre foreign reserves are available to prop up the Belarusian ruble.
New Loan to Help Stabilise Foreign Currency Reserves
In April, there were no signs of improvement with the foreign exchange reserves of Belarus. The prior downward trend did not abate and a monthly reduction to the tune of $238m hit the state's coffers, while the cumulative drop from January – April 2014 has reach a sizeable $1.2bn. At the beginning of May the total reserves sunk to $5.477bn. This reduction in the nation's currency reserves signals that Belarus has only limited resources available for the maintenance of its economy.
Belarus' inability to attract foreign investment partially explains the dip in foreign exchange reserves. According to official statistics in the 1st quarter of 2014 the net FDI in Belarus was $822m. This figure, however, is deceptive as it was likely the result of money being reinvested in the economy. In other words, there was likely no new foreign capital investment into the Belarusian economy.
However, it appears that the authorities will be able to sand off the rough edges of the current economic situation. In the beginning of May it was reported that Russia will provide a loan in order to help Belarus maintain its foreign reserves. Belarus expects to obtain the promised funds in May. The expected sum to be transferred is about $1.5bn, the remainder of a $2bn loan, that was approved by Russia at the end of last December.
Moreover, it looks like Russia’s decision to allocate the rest of the loan will be accompanied by a reduction of export duties on oil and oil-related goods. This welcome news means that Belarus may acquire a significant sum of money through reselling the oil, though it does not come without a hitch. Russia is planning on introducing a new tax for mining operations that will raise the costs associated with delievering oil to Belarus and will mitigate the benefits that Belarus had hoped to gain through reduced export duties.
One possible reason for the generosity and pliability of Russia is to ensure that Belarus will sign the agreement on the formation of Eurasian Economic Union after negotiations felt flat in Minsk at the end of April. Nevertheless, obtaining these funds will allow the Belarusian ruble to sit at a stable level and postpone any threats of its devaluation. Taking into account that presidential elections will occur in 2015, the authorities are doing their best to prevent Belarus from facing any severe economic shocks.
Maryia Akulava, Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)