Why Belarus Needs the Bologna Process

Belarus remains the only European country excluded from the Bologna Process to date. This situation may finally change on 14-15 May 2015 when the ministerial meeting of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) will consider Belarus’s second attempt to join the 47-nation club.

Even though the Belarusian system of higher education has not seen any fundamental improvements in recent years, this time around it has a good chance of being brought into the fold. If it happens everyone, and especially Belarusian students and universities, will win. However, it will only be a single step in the right direction – as the real work will start afterwards.

Will Belarus Be Accepted This Time?

The EHEA ministerial meeting set to take place on 14-15 May in Yerevan will consider Belarus’s application to the Bologna group. The Belarusian Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou has received an official invitation to attend the event. The Belarusian media have already read this as a sign that the country’s bid for membership has been successful.

Minister Zhuraukou also sounds optimistic. In his words, “Belarus observes almost every principle of the Bologna Declaration, there remain only some formalities [to be worked out]”.

Unofficial sources point to a potential positive decision as well. According to Uladzimer Dunayeu, member of the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, the Bologna Working Group, which reviewed the application, prepared a ‘yes’ recommendation for the ministerial meeting in May.

At the beginning of March, the Working Group visited Minsk and held a seminar at the Belarusian State University. The Head of the Education Department of the Council of Europe Sjur Bergan, who took part in the seminar, made quite an unequivocal statement: “The fact that we have come to Belarus proves that we are seriously considering your application. Otherwise we would not be here”.

Second Attempt in Four Years

The general mood appears to be quite different from the situation at the end of 2011, when Belarus applied to the Bologna Process for the first time. Even though the Belarusian application at that time caused similar discussions inside and outside the country, some things have changed this time around.

As with the current situation, the government then stressed the gradual progress of the educational system and its technical compatibility with the European Higher Education Area, the country's readiness to organise international exchange programmes and apply a unified educational credit system. Also similar to the present-day situation, the Independent Bologna Committee then argued that higher education in Belarus fell short of the Bologna standards and core values.

Yet, the 2011 review of Belarus’s application took place against a very different political background. Only one year had passed since the Belarusian authorities cracked down on mass demonstrations during the presidential election night at the end of December 2010. Belarus-EU relations saw one of the worst periods ever: sanctions lists were growing, both sides exchanged harsh statements and mutual accusations, and EU ambassadors left Minsk several times to display their diplomatic protest.

As a result, in December 2011 the Bologna Working Group recommended a ministerial meeting (held in April 2012) to not accept Belarus – and at that time, the ministers agreed. According to their assessment, the Belarusian system of higher education did not respect the principles and values of the Bologna Process, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student participation in the governance of universities.

Now that the relations with the EU have entered a phase of rapprochement, the overall political context for Belarus’s Bologna application has considerably improved. The growing bilateral agenda and Minsk’s efforts in mediating a de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis have played their own role.

Has Anything Changed in Higher Education in Belarus?

In December 2014 the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee prepared a new report on the country’s readiness to join the EHEA. According to this report, the system of higher education in Belarus has made significant progress but still failed to meet the necessary criteria with the issues that prevented its acceptance three years before. Representatives of some independent student organisations agree with this assessment.

Officials from the Ministry of Education and rectors of Belarusian universities have offered up different points of view on the degree to which things have changed over the past four years. Minister Zhuraukou argues that:

now we can say with confidence that Belarus has a two-stage system of education with bachelor programmes (from three to five years depending on one's specialisation) and master programmes. … We have introduced the possibility of getting PhD through defending a thesis. Moreover, now a PhD defence can be conducted in English. All Belarusian universities have started to have courses in English. … Of course, Belarus has its own issues, as does any other country, but in general we are in compliance with the guidelines of the Bologna convention.

The First Deputy Minister of Education Vadzim Bohush claims that in all Belarusian university students now have a direct vote on all issues facing their institutions. Students’ representatives sit on university councils and have the right of a binding, not advisory, vote.

However, according to the monitoring carried out by the Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee and the youth trade union group Students Rada, the student quota (25%) in university councils is hardly respected.

Why Is Bologna Good for Belarus?

Thus, the state of play in the field of higher education in Belarus has not progressed a lot since 2011. Neither have the discussions about Belarus's potential Bologna membership: both supporters and opponents of the idea firmly adhere to the same arguments.

And this is no surprise.

The fundamental mistake of traditional Western policies towards Belarus is expecting too much too soon, even though the reality on the ground simply precludes a possibility of a quick change.

A realist needs to accept that the full implementation of the Bologna principles contradicts the very nature of the present-day political reality in the country and that there is no external or internal power capable of changing it at present. And the real question of the day has to do with the prospects of long-term improvements.

Isolation, as Belarus has already demonstrated, hardly serves anyone: whether it be the country in general, the government, opposition, civil society, educational system or individual citizens. Moreover, the prolonged isolation of higher education institutions primarily harms those whom it claims to protect – the young generation of Belarusians, who are deprived of basic opportunities as a result of these policies.

Even a minor opening up of the Belarusian education system, which the Bologna process can facilitate, will be a meaningful step in the right direction. It will also help equip more progressively minded individuals in government circles with additional arguments against the Soviet-style retrogrades that still dominate many academic and policy-making institutions in Belarus.

In the light of this, the ministers of the Bologna group should accept Belarus to the European Higher Education Area. And it is important to use the membership not for political sloganeering but for promoting the fundamental principles of the Bologna process in practise, in a manner that is patient but also consistent.

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.

Defying Bologna

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.

Alternative Report

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

Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk