Analytical paper: Plagiarism among Belarusian students. Contributory factors, consequences, and solutions

The Ostrogorski Centre presents a new analytical paper “Plagiarism among Belarusian students: Contributory factors, consequences, and solutions”, written by Vadim Mojeiko and Piotr Rudkouski.

The paper primarily based on suggestions made during a conference on reform of Belarusian higher education held on 27 December 2018 in Minsk, organised by the Ostrogorski Centre.

Dedicated to the issues of higher education and its reforms in Belarus, the conference allowed academics, practitioners and administrators to discuss the existing problems and possible solutions. The main topics concerned new forms of practice-oriented business education at the masters level, modernization of higher education at entrepreneurial university framework, reforms of Belarusian scientific research, and the issue of plagiarism at Belarusian universities.

The analytical paper suggests that written assignments remain particularly vulnerable to various dishonest
practices – plagiarism being the most conspicuous. At least 50% of Belarusian students plagiarise. They commit all varieties of plagiarism, although “compiled” and “copy-paste” plagiarisms occur most frequently. It is very likely that a significant percentage of Belarusian students studying at Western-type universities also resort to plagiarism.

There is remarkable tolerance of plagiarism within the Belarusian education system. Lecturers are generally lenient when it comes to punishments for plagiarism. There are no critical thinking and/or academic writing courses, which would introduce students to good practices in respect of finding and processing data.

The current system requires that students produce a large number of written essays, but it does not give them tools for doing so appropriately. This is a chief contributory factor in plagiarism.

Other contributory factors of plagiarism include the absence of licensed anti-plagiarism software at lecturers’ disposal, the excessive workload of students and lecturers, lecturers’ low salaries, and the weak academic
ethos in Belarus. To start seriously dealing with the problem, universities should first of all train students in critical thinking and academic writing. It is imperative to give students instruments with which they can complete written assignments. No other measures will work if this element is neglected.

Recommendations

The research paper proposes several initiatives on how to decrease the plagiarism level among Belarusian students,  however, the authors acknowledge that the use use of anti-plagiarism software remains far from being a panacea.

  • Train students in critical thinking and academic writing

It is crucial to give students instruments with which they can undertake written assignments. No other measures will work if this element is neglected. The Belarusian students who plagiarise are not only “culprits”, but also “victims”: if they are not trained in academic writing or if it is at a low level, how can they succeed in doing written assignments on their own? As one of the interviewees aptly said, “It is necessary to distinguish between cynicism and the lack of knowledge. We must introduce the courses for lecturers on how to analyse a [student’s] text and detect plagiarism, and for students on how to write academic essays.”

Piotr Rudkouski and Vadim Mojeiko at the Ostrogorski Centre’s conference on the reform of higher education.

  • Provide financial incentives for combatting plagiarism.

The incentives can be both positive and negative. To quote one of the interviewees, “A system of selective post-checking [is needed]: premiums for lecturers should depend on whether they accepted plagiarised essays or not.”

  • Use automatic anti-plagiarism checkers, preferably licensed versions.

However, one should remember that these checkers cannot substitute for the personal commitment of a lecturer. Software is not a panacea. To quote one of the interviewees, “Yes, we need anti-plagiarism checkers; up to half of all plagiarism can be detected in this way. But it can only serve as an element supplementary to human engagement.”

  • Revise the workload of both lecturers and students.

For lecturers to be able to combat plagiarism, it is necessary to ensure enough time and appropriate conditions for doing so. When it comes to students, it is advisable to reduce the volume of classroom tutorials to allow more time for students to work on their own. To quote one of the interviewees, “Students are overloaded with classroom hours, they have no time to prepare written assignments.”

  • Combat plagiarism at the earlier stages of the educational process.

If young people get accustomed to plagiarising in secondary schools, it is extremely hard to eradicate this habit later. “Plagiarism originates in [secondary] school. We should check essays and presentations [in schools] more strictly.”

  • Change the system of recruitment to universities.

“The most important thing is that it is motivated students, and not just school leavers, who should be accepted in universities,” as one of the interviewees noticed.

  • Avoid rash acting.

It is important to combat plagiarism, but it should be done gradually and prudently. To quote another of the interviewees, “It is necessary to think about the consequences of any harsh measures.” The antidote should not be more poisonous than the poison.

  • Read the full paper in English here.
  • Read the full paper in Belarusian here.



Church split, army bullying and scandalous opera – State Press Digest

Alexander Lukashenka meets Patriarch Kirill of Moscow amid the Orthodox schism between Moscow and Constantinople. Former Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko visits Minsk.

Prime-minister Rumas outlines the key priorities for the new government and calls for an urgent meeting amid the average salary’s decrease.

Vladimir Putin wants to increase Belarus-Russia trade. Russian Ambassador Babich promises the end of “milk wars” in future. Belarus requires new re-industrialization worth billions of dollars.

Lukashenka condemns military bullying, yet suggests students should undergo military training on summer holidays. Scandalous Strauss’s opera “Salome” features in Minsk’s Opera Theatre despite the religious protests.

Politics

Lukashenka meets Patriarch Kirill of Moscow amid the Russian Church’s split from Constantinople, reports Soyuznoye Veche newspaper. On 15 October, Alexander Lukashenka welcomed Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and stressed the importance of the church unity. According to the President of Belarus, the recent Orthodox church’s split would negatively impact all the levels of the society in the Post-Soviet space. “It had a lot to do with politicians”, maintained Lukashenka. Patriarch Kirill, in his turn, praised the Belarusian neutral position and admired “big positive changes” in Belarus over the years.

Prime-Minister Siarhei Rumas outlines the top priorities for the new government’s work, reports BELTA agency. According to Rumas, the increase of the nation’s well-being and the improvement of competitiveness of the state’s sector should remain the key government’s priorities for the next five years.

Viktor Yushchenko visits Minsk, reports Belarus Segodnya newspaper. On 9 October, Alexander Lukashenka welcomed Viktor Yushchenko in Minsk to discuss Belarus-Ukraine relations. Lukashenka maintained that Belarus would always abstain from criticizing Ukraine’s political standing and interfering into Ukraine’s domestic affairs. On the other hand, the President of Belarus disapproved Ukraine’s intention to leave the CIS block and warned about the increase of arms smuggling via the Belarusian-Ukrainian border.

Economy

Lukashenka intends to strengthen the state’s alcohol monopoly in order to combat the unfair competition on the alcohol market, reports Belarus Segodnya newspaper. On 22 October, Alexander Lukashenka held a special meeting to discuss the development of the national alcohol production. Previously Lukashenka strongly criticized the experimental ban on alcohol sales after midnight exercised by the Minsk authorities. At present, the Belarusian state fully controls the production and distribution of alcohol production.

Prime Minister Siarhei Rumas calls for an urgent meeting amid the average salary’s decrease, reports Hrodna News. On 23 October, Rumas held a working meeting to discuss the average salary’s decrease recorded in September – for the first time since April 2018. According to Rumas, this situation happened due to the fluctuations of the Russian rouble and the ignorance of public administration.

Belarus requires a new industrialization, reports “Finance, accounting and audit” magazine issued by the Ministry of Finance. In order to increase the Belarusian GDP from $54 bn in 2017 to $100 bn as planned by Alexander Lukashenka by 2025, Belarus has to re-industrialize its regions. The Belarusian re-industrialization should include the development of energy-saving and electric transport, “smart house” construction, petrochemical and microbiological projects, and production of new construction materials. Such large-scale projects will require at least $4 bn investments.

Mikhail Babich

Alexander Lukashenka meets Russian Ambassador Mikhail Babich. Source: The Press-Service of the President of Belarus

Russian Ambassador Mikhail Babich wants to reload Belarus-Russia economic relations, reports Soyuznoye Veche newspaper. Mikhail Babich views his major task in supervising the duly implementation of the agreements between Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin on petroleum products.

Babich maintained that the“milk wars” between Russia and Belarus sufficiently damaged the relations between the two states. At the same time, the “milk wars” might disappear in future due to the introduction of tight food balances.

Vladimir Putin believes that trade volumes between Belarus and Russia could increase up to $50 bn, reports Belarus Segodnya newspaper. While visiting Mogilev on 12 October, Putin praised the large-scale economic cooperation between Belarus and Russia. Putin maintained that the trade volumes between the two states could increase from the actual $32 bn to $50 bn in the nearest years.

Security

Lukashenka condemns bullying in the military, reports Belarus Segodnya newspaper. On 5 October, Alexander Lukashenka criticized the Belarusian military for the bullying cases. According to the President of Belarus, bullying in the military strongly harms the image of the Belarusian troops and provokes young men to avoid the military service at all costs. Lukashenka urged the Ministry of Defense to eradicate bullying as soon as possible.

Lukashenka’s criticism relates to the tragic death of private Alexander Korzhych and the ongoing trial of his military superiors. The final verdicts on Korzhych’s offenders should come at the beginning of November.

Education

Lukashenka discourages Belarusian students from studying abroad, reports Belarus Segodnya newspaper. On 20 October, Alexander Lukashenka visited Hrodna region and met the students of Hrodna’s Yanka Kupala State University. The President emphasized that Belarusians moving to study and live abroad would most probably remain “second-class citizens” there. The Hrodna region stands among the leaders in terms of students’ migration: many students from Hrodna easily move to neighbouring Poland for work and study.

Apart from that, Lukashenka criticized the introduction of the Bachelor/Master diploma frame to the Belarusian universities. According to the President of Belarus, the Belarusian higher education system should aspire to become more practical-oriented rather than blindly adopt the Western standards.

Belarus opera

The scandalous Strauss’s opera “Salome” features in Minsk’s Opera Theater. Source: https://www.sb.by/articles/vtoraya-popytka-salomei.html

Lukashenka suggests drafting Belarusian students to the military on summer holidays, reports Hrodna News. During his visit to the Hrodna region, Alexander Lukashenka stressed that too many students misused their military service postponing in order to avoid the military service at all.

The President suggested that first-course university students could undergo basic military training during the summer holidays. The second-course students could obtain a military specialization the following summer and continue advancing their military skills during the subsequent summers.

Culture

The Minsk’s Opera Theatre launches the premiere of the scandalous Strauss’s opera “Salome” despite the religious protests, reports Belarus Segodnya newspaper. Opera “Salome” describes the relations between John the Baptist and the members of Herod’s family, very roughly based on the Bible. The Belarusian protesters objected the launch of the opera’s premiere on 9-10 September, close to the commemoration of John the Baptist’s beheading on 11 September. Apart from that, the protesters described the opera as “promoting lewdness”.

The Administration of the President of Belarus carried out the opera’s inspection together with the Prosecutor General’s Office and approved the opera. Metropolitan Pavel, the leader of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, also approved the opera’s staging. Eventually, the opera featured on 18 October.

The State Press Digest is based on the review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.




Time for Belarus to Implement Real Student Self-Governance?

Belarusian authorities are discreetly preparing a new Education Code, partly to demonstrate to the West that they are making changes. In 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process and is now required to reform the education system accordingly.

So far, the Belarusian education law has completely ignored the issue of student self-governance. Authorities restrict activities of student unions by depriving them of autonomy, placing university staff into student unions, and limiting activities of independent youth organisations in universities.

As Belarus is adapting its education system to the Bologna process, its partners should make it clear that the law should become more student-friendly.

Politicised perception of students

As in many other countries, Belarusian students historically played a major role in the democratic movement. In 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, students were among the initiators of uprisings against the Russian Empire.

Even during the Soviet era, Belarusian students created organisations and wrote appeals to increase the use of the Belarusian language and to expand academic freedoms. This usually resulted in expulsion for the instigators by Soviet authorities. In 1985, one of the expelled students even jumped from the sixth floor of the Belarusian State University in protest.

Since Belarus's independence, student organisations have become particularly close to the pro-democracy movement, comprising a significant part of opposition protests: in 2006, students organised a tent city to protest election fraud during the presidential campaign.

During this time, October Square, where the protests took place, received the unofficial name "Kastus Kalinouski," after the leader of the uprising of 1863-1864 in the Belarusian lands.

Although one can hardly call Belarusian students politicised, they still remain the most active part of society. They are also a huge group, consisting of about 460 thousand people, or 4.7 per cent of the population.

What's more, researches at the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, an authoritative Belarusian pollster, shows that the youth remain the group most exposed to the ideas of democratisation and Europeanisation in Belarusian society.

Fake student government

Many student unions actually do operate at Belarusian universities​. In practise, however, they have very little influence over the university establishment and cannot defend student rights when they are broken. The current Education Code, adopted in 2011, lacks even a single mention of student government. Therefore, internal university regulations subordinate activities of student unions and only one, the Student Union of the Belarusian State University, has an appropriate legal status.

Without legal status, student unions fail to attract money from outside sources, but depend on funding from universities. Belarusian authorities give financial support to only one youth organisation working at Belarusian universities and schools – the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.

This organisation is the successor of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League) and has half a million members. However, the large number of members does not mean that all of them support the current regime. The majority of people are signed up for BRSM forcibly or because it helps them get a place in university accommodation during studies.

Most student unions are openly run by university authorities. At the Baranavichy State University, some members of the university administrative staff belong to the student union. Provisions of the Belarusian National Technical University or International Economic Institute state simply that the activities of student unions are under the leadership of universities’ vice-chancellors.

Aliaksandr Krot, Chairman of the Belarusian National Youth Council “RADA”, told Belarus Digest, that there are numerous cases in which universities interfered in student union elections.

Moreover, university authorities demand that student unions be wary of any cooperation with independent youth organisations. In February 2016, the administration of the Belarusian State Medical University sent a letter to class-leaders that they should conduct preventive conversations with fellow students explaining why they should not cooperate with independent youth organisations.

In the letter, three independent organisations, the Centre for Development of Students’ Initiatives, the Brotherhood of Organisers of Student Self-government and the Students’ Council were called illegal. However, all of them are actually registered in Belarus.

The Belarusian authorities also create fake structures to replace independent youth organisations. As an example, in 2015 the authorities set up a Student Council under the Ministry of Education, which may seem solid, but in practise has no influence. The Council includes representatives of all universities in Belarus, but its purpose remains unclear.

Making student government more genuine

Now is the best time for Belarus's international partners to encourage reform in Belarusian higher education, not only because of a thaw in relations between Belarus and the West but also because the authorities are working on a new code and want to show the European Union that they can introduce at least gradual changes. So far, the Belarusian government has tried to hide certain problems while continuing to restrict youth organisations and even expelling some students.

The new code should state directly that student government will be autonomous and free from guidance by university administration. Also, unions should obtain legal status, as this will allow them to obtain funding from outside the university.

However, even if the law changes, Belarusian authorities also need to change their behaviour towards student groups. Now that Belarus has become part of the Bologna Process, it should stop the persecution of independent youth organisations and student unions with whom they collaborate.

In 2015, the European Union invited Belarus to be part of the Bologna system, trusting that it would eventually implement reforms. Now it's time for Belarusian authorities to live up to their promises.




High-School Graduation Celebrated across Belarus – Belarus Photo Digest

On 30-31 May, some 150,000 Belarusians celebrated the conclusion of their secondary education. Graduation ceremonies, called the “last bell”, took place across the country. Students not only wore festive attire, as is common in Western Europe; they also gave flowers to their favourite teachers and recited poems, in a nod to the traditions Belarusians still associate with the occasion.

Students in Belarus can already graduate after the 9th grade and apply to vocational schools and community colleges. The alternative is to complete eleven school years and apply to a university.

For the graduates, the “last bell” is not really the last bell. The next step is to take final exams in four subjects – Belarusian or Russian language, history, a foreign language, and mathematics. After that come the graduation balls, which offer a brief interlude before students turn to standardised assessment tests in mid-June. Scoring high in these centralised examinations, which test both languages and sciences, is a key prerequisite for attending a top university in Belarus tuition-free. The first standardised assessment test, held on June 13, tests Belarusian language.

Photographer Siarhej Leskiec attended the “last bell” celebration in Zhodzina Women’s Gymnasium, the only single-sex educational institution in Belarus. The gymnasium traces its beginnings to Sunday-evening classes offered to high school girls in the early 1990s. Eventually, it became a full-fledged educational institution accredited by the government, and today turns out some of the highest-achieving students in the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




Building Regime Support Among Youth – Belarus Photo Digest

Older Belarusians nostalgic for the Soviet past rather than youth make up President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s natural electorate.

Since the late 1990s, Lukashenka has put considerable effort into building support among younger people. A key role in the process was played by the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (Belorusskij Respublikanskij Sojuz Molodeži, BRSM).

BRSM was established in 2002 as a merger of the Leninist Communist Youth Union (Komsomol) and the Belarusian Patriotic Youth Union. From the very beginning, the organisation was given opportunities for development and state support unlike pro-opposition youth movements.

BRSM reportedly received 4.5 million dollars in 2013, and 6.61 million in 2011. The organisation’s funding has exceeds the amounts available to the official TV channels. Although the President has repeatedly suggested that the organisation should become self-sufficient, BRSM’s subsidies have continued year after year.

Today the organisation counts more than 500,000 members. It created its own lottery (Unost) and operates a radio channel (“FM Pilot”) as well as several newspapers (“Znamia Unosti”, “Perehodnyj Vozrast”, “Zor’ka”).

The organisation’s information bulletin boards have appeared in every school, college, university, and military unit. Anyone between the ages of 14 and 31 can join.

The majority of BRSM “friends” (i.e. members) are students in 10th or 11 grade who know little about the organisation’s ideological role in Belarus. “Friends” are often recruited collectively in a classroom setting. Some students mindlessly sign on following teachers’ encouragement. In some instances, they do not even realise that they are becoming BRSM members.

Secondary school students are often told that their “membership” will facilitate getting admitted to a university, securing a place at a good dormitory, or obtaining some other benefits. In most cases, these are empty promises. Instead, BRSM membership results in additional obligations, such as participating in mass demonstrations on state holidays or competing in state-sponsored sporting events.

 

There are also young people who have joined the organisation intentionally. Some of them support Lukashenka’s policies while others hope that membership will facilitate career advancement, especially in state bureaucracy. Lukashenka has often noted that the organisation serves as a good source of new cadres for the state apparatus.

 

The first secretary of BRSM Ihar Buzouski is a son of KGB colonel Ivan Buzouski. In 2015, 42-year old Ivan Buzouski was appointed deputy head of the Presidential Administration. He also serves in the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, the Council of the Republic, while at the same time continuing to lead BRSM.

 

The organisation also competes for domestic ad international grants and frequently wins, in part due to its large membership and wide coverage. BRSM members pay small membership dues and many obtain help with finding construction jobs in the summer to pay their own bills. For example, BRSM members participated in the restoration of the Augustovsky Channel, the construction of the National Olympic Committee building, and the Astravec nuclear power station.

 

According to the 2010 opinion poll by IISEP (Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies), 64 percent of the Belarusians know about BRSM and 37 percent of them view it positively. As many as 20 percent of respondents said they would agree to participate. For comparison, only 8 percent of respondents knew of Malady Front, the best-known pro-opposition organisation in the same poll.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




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. 

Remaining Obstacles 

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. 




European Humanities University Elects Its Senate and Debates its Future

On 19 November the European Humanities University (EHU), also knows as Belarusian university in exile, held elections for its Senate. Although the Senate is just one of several bodies which govern EHU, the result may affect the direction of EHU's reforms. 

Unlike previous elections, which often went unnoticed by the Belarusian press, this time a group of EHU academics united under a platform called 'For a New EHU' which conducted a vibrant electoral campaign.  The vast majority of the newly elected Senate members supported the platform. The election campaign provoked discussions in Belarusian media about the direction EHU is taking under its current administration. 

The main topics raised during the Senate election campaign included the role of academics in the governance of the university in exile and whether the Belarusian university in exile could do more for Belarusian society.

The Rector of the University responded to criticism by explaining that the university needs changes to improve the quality of its scholarship and teaching and also to remain competitive. 

Academics Want More Involvement

A public debate started after a group of lecturers adopted a manifesto criticising the management style of the EHU administration as being not democratic enough. 

The group 'For a new EHU' consisted of the Chairman of the EHU Senate Pavel Cierashkovich and a number of lecturers including Volha Shparaha, Andrej Laurukhin and Maxim Zhbankou.

According to the manifesto, the university often made important decisions without meaningful consultations with EHU academics. The academics argued that the management excluded representatives of the Senate and labour unions from the decision making process related to the future of the university.

The lecturers also claimed that most Belarusian academics have to work for the university without employment contracts. They called for strengthening the role of the Senate and EHU academics and the introduction of regular rotations for key administrators, including the rector. 

In their view, the university is losing its humanities identity, as well as its ties to Belarusian society. Therefore, the EHU should also develop Belarus-oriented programmes for students and encourage teaching in the Belarusian language and learning the language.

According to the manifesto, co-operation not only with Belarusian NGOs and think tanks, but also prominent Belarusian political and cultural figures, might help to bring the university closer to civil society in Belarus. It also states that the teaching programmes should keep Belarus as a point of focus and involve successful Belarusian academics from around the world. 

The EHU administration promises reforms

On 14 November Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, who has been leading the university since its establishment in 1992 responded and shared his vision of the future of the university.

Professor Mikhailov explained that the university planed to hire a core faculty consisting of permanent lecturers after holding an open competition. The budget for salaries will be doubled. The permanent staff is supposed to reside in Vilnius and could claim all social benefits and will have proper employment contracts, in compliance with Lithuanian law. 

This change would signify a shift from the previous practise of EHU lecturers regularly commuting from Belarus to teach. 

Commenting on whether Belarusian academics will be replaced by other nationals, Mikhailov emphasised that Belarus was and would continue to be at the centre of EHU's focus. He emphasised that the university has always been on the look out for qualified candidates from Belarus.​ 

The rector also explained that to strengthen its focus on Belarus, the EHU is developing a programme of transformation studies. The EHU also wants to revive its Belarusian studies programme which was  closed not that long ago. According to Professor Mikhailov, thanks to generous and consistent donor support, the EHU's financial situation has never been better.

The rector commented also on the accusations that the administration had excluded the Senate and representatives of the University's faculty from the decision making process. In his view, the governing structure of the EHU is a hybrid one and consists of international educational experts, foreign donors, the Senate, which is understood to consist of representatives of the EHU administration, staff and students.

He described this model as being one of “stakeholder involvement, separation of powers, and accountable democratic leadership”. In his view, it allows for the efficient, but also democratic management of the university.  

Competing or complementary visions of the EHU?

Will the newly selected Senate with majority of supporters of reforms, find a compromise with the university management? In fact, much will depend on the position of the administration of the university. Although the Senate is an important body, its powers, when it comes to real strategic decisions and appointments, is rather limited. 

Both the majority of the EHU Senate and the university management think that EHU needs change. On most issues, the positions of the Platform 'For a New EHU' and Rector Mikhailov are not mutually exclusive.

All agree that the University needs to maintain its focus on Belarus, hire Belarusian academics and act as an important platform for debate, research and teaching relevant to Belarus. They also agree that the voice of academics at the EHU should be heard and respected. 

Rector Mikhailov already announced that he would discuss with the Senate and try to get its approval of his reforms. One hopes that EHU's management and the Senate will be able to agree on a viable reform plan. 

The debate on the future reform of the university, widely covered in Belarusian press, shows diverse opinions among those who work for EHU.  The university could benefit from the healthy debates if it makes sure that they lead not to divisions but to improvements and progress.  

This will help EHU to balance its Belarusian identity with the challenges of making the university more internationally competitive and strengthening its relevance to Belarus at the same time. 




Getting To Know Belarus: Impressions of Belarusian Education

Universities in the United States often bring to mind school spirit, frat parties and caffeine-fueled late nights studying at the library. I was not expecting the same situation in Belarusian universities, but I did hope for some semblance of a college lifestyle.

What I found was a somewhat bleak network of university buildings filled with students and teachers alike who expressed disappointment with the educational system and methodology of teaching. Despite their reservations, the students were bright and motivated to learn. I found myself wondering how and why a system that earned so little trust from its participants managed to be so successful in teaching its students what they needed to know.

Diving In

As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, I was assigned to work at the Belarusian State Economic University to serve the English teaching faculties as a reference for native English language and American culture. I worked mostly with the departments of International Business Communication and Tourism and Hospitality Management, where I presented lectures on American life, facilitated communication activities, and taught a class on English reading skills.

Getting acquainted with my students was the first challenge; some of them had never met a foreigner before, let alone a native English speaker who also happened to speak some Russian. When I introduced myself to the classes the students who, before class, had seemed so garrulous were at a loss for words and had trouble working up the courage to ask me questions.

When I introduced myself to the classes the students who, before class, had seemed so garrulous were at a loss for words

Over time, they warmed up to me, but they still skipped class frequently (some groups only had two or three students attending class each week) and rarely did their homework. Though it was discouraging, I realised after some time that this was just one of the idiosyncrasies of Belarusian student culture.

How Things Work

My understanding of Belarusian student life became clear through my full immersion in the environment. Belarusian students enter the university by passing state-run exams in three subjects that determine their eligibility to enter various departments in the public universities. Once they enter their university and their department, there is virtually no flexibility in changing courses or studying topics outside their curriculum. They have their classes with the same group of approximately eighty students for the entirety of their five years in the university.

Because the government values the statistic that labels Belarus the most educated of the former Soviet republics, most of the adult population of Belarus is literate (99.6% according to the UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report). Furthermore, there is ample opportunity for Belarusians to study free of charge at the public universities, on one condition: that they complete two years of “service” in their field as assigned by the Belarusian government after graduating.

Some of my friends and younger colleagues expressed their plan to get out of the field of education as soon as their assignment was over, because it is nearly impossible to live on the salaries that teachers earn, even at the university level. Such systems seemed reminiscent of Soviet times to me, yet I could not help but feel a bit envious that the government paid so much attention to recent university graduates, something that doesn’t happen in the United States.

One on One

During the spring semester, in an effort to get to know my students better on a personal level, I implemented a tool that I called “Lunch with Monika” (coincidentally, this is also the name of my personal blog), where I would meet with my students outside the classroom to eat lunch, drink coffee, or simply to take a walk and talk. It was during such sessions that I learned about my students’ dreams and plans.

Some of them already worked (which is why many of them did not manage to come to class), and, as third year students ranging in age from 18 to 22, were reconsidering their plans for life. Because most of them were on scholarships, they were on track to finish their studies and to complete their post-graduation assigned service work, but were already taking part-time courses at private technology firms or language schools to develop skills that would be useful in spheres other than hospitality management. 

In essence, the students, while unhappy with the university system, decided that it was worth it to finish their studies because they weren’t paying for the diploma that they would eventually get. They supplemented their studies and satisfied their curiosity by engaging in other educational pursuits outside of the university. Some students even tried to start their assigned service work early, so that they could cut short their duty to the government.

Brighter Horizons

Against all odds my students were motivated to learn and bright enough to pursue what they wanted to. Many of my students communicated in English impeccably, having started their study of the language in early childhood. They reached out to native speakers through the Internet, and some had even traveled abroad through programs like Summer Work and Travel. It was their own initiative, and not their commitment to their university studies, that predicted their success.

In some cases, this motivation exceeded the amount of patience that the students had. Fearing their Belarusian degrees would be worthless in other countries, several of my students expressed their desire to leave the university system altogether, abandoning their studies to travel abroad or to pursue work. Some students sought ways to become eligible for European citizenships or long-term visas, hoping to enter a “real” university beyond the borders of Belarus.

Alternative educational institutions, such as the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania, welcome such students to study in Europe, but at a price higher than they would pay in Belarus, and with the occasional bit of trouble from the border patrol officers.

On the one hand, the university system in Belarus left much to be desired. Due to low salaries and scarcity of materials (one printer shared between twenty teachers and a constant shortage of chalk) at the university itself, teachers were often unmotivated, and this lack of enthusiasm was passed on to the students.

On the other, the students who managed to work through these difficulties and maintained a strong sense of drive and motivation could identify the university’s weaknesses. The deficiencies of the system motivated these students to succeed, and, as long as they keep that perspective, there is hope that Belarus will make some progressive changes to its current educational system.

Monika Bernotas

Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.




The European Humanities University Responds

The European Humanities University (EHU) certainly welcomes the attention of the Belarus Digest team (including the Centre for Transition Studies) and any and all constructive discussions about EHU’s ongoing mission.

Regrettably, the recent Belarus Digest article EHU: How Belarusian is the Belarusian University in Exile? rehashes a number of myths and stereotypes that persist despite clear evidence to the contrary. It’s also unfortunate that the author declined our invitation to visit EHU campus while in Vilnius. We think it would have helped her to better assess how Belarusian EHU really is.

Even more disappointing “EHU: Optimising Impact on Belarus”—a paper by Belarus Digest Editor-in-Chief Yaraslau Krivoi and Alastair Rabagliati that promises to “look at the impact of the European Humanities University (EHU)…on Belarus-related studies, teaching and public discourse”. Instead, the authors deliver a superficial analysis that disregards information provided to them upon request on a range of issues (e.g., research, recruitment, labour contracts, communications, and others). This results in recommendations many of which are either already in progress or miss the mark in terms of the university’s character and mission. Even worse, the paper creates the erroneous impression that EHU does not consider educating Belarusian students its top priority (it does), that the university somehow lacks proper oversight (it has an international Governing Board and an independent Trust Fund administered by the Nordic Council of Ministers), and that Belarus-focused research and teaching is not the rule but the exception (more on this below).

Perhaps it’s best to begin with the general claim by the author of the first article that EHU “is struggling to find its identity” and is “torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a ‘normal’ European university based in Lithuania”. There is absolutely no question at EHU that our university exists for the sake of Belarus and Belarusians. It is by no means a “normal” Lithuanian university and it never will be. It is Belarusian, belongs in Belarus, and only operates in exile because it refused to put up with violations of its academic freedom. These included the Belarusian government’s demand to allow it to determine who may or may not lead EHU.

EHU is always striving to improve its offerings to students. Naturally, this entails regular reviews and evaluation of faculty and department performance as well as the changes necessary for improvement. Change is never easy, and not everyone is happy about every change. But the changes at EHU have nothing to do with any intent to “shift focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university” (to quote the article). The notion that EHU is “torn apart” by a “struggle to find its identity” is hyperbole.

The claim that EHU has “started to replace dismissed Belarusians with Lithuanian academics” is unsubstantiated. There are, in fact, no such cases. Some fact-checking of a claim like this by the author (or the editors) would have been appropriate. In reality, over 90% of EHU’s full-time faculty is Belarusian, as is the majority of non-academic staff. Of the more than 200 faculty, only 12 are Lithuanians. There is only one department that is led by a non-Belarusian: the newly-created department of social and political science. All others are led by Belarusians. That said, it has never been the policy of EHU to employ only Belarusian nationals. Faculty and staff are chosen for the contributions each of them makes to an enriching experience for students.

As for EHU’s recruitment priorities, currently 95% of EHU students are Belarusian. Belarus is and will remain the focus of EHU’s recruitment efforts. At the same time, EHU’s leadership has decided that students and the university would benefit from a somewhat more diverse student body. So a decision has been made to increase recruitment of non-Belarusian students, with an upper limit set at 20%. Since non-Belarusian students would not be eligible for the financial support provided by most current donors, they would be full-fee-paying students who would help the university sustain itself financially, particularly when the number of high school graduates is falling dramatically throughout the region (due to the drop in birth rates following the fall of the Soviet Union). Non-Belarusian EHU students are subject to the same academic requirements as Belarusians. Attending EHU is an opportunity for all of our students to learn about Belarus and meet Belarusians while receiving a European education.

Being an international and a European university while maintaining a focus on Belarus are not mutually exclusive goals, and EHU has always done both. When it was in Minsk, EHU cultivated copious international connections and provided an education to Belarusians that was truly international in scope. This, in fact, was one of the reasons the university fell into the regime’s disfavor. At the same time, a Belarusian spirit permeates EHU. Programs are taught in a way that closely relates theory and general knowledge to the Belarusian experience. So it should be no surprise that:

  • More than half of all student theses are Belarus-focused
  • More than one-third of EHU’s scholarly events either focus on Belarus or take place in Belarus
  • More than one-third of EHU courses focus on Belarus
  • 44% of EHU publications are published in Belarus (16% in the Belarusian language), and academic journals like EHU’s Belarusian Historical Review focus primarily on Belarus
  • EHU regularly hosts and participates in Belarus-related cultural events, including Belarus Freedom Day celebrations, concerts, workshops, excursions, and the like
  • Students, alumni, and faculty participate in Belarus-focused events, including photo exhibitions, guest lectures in Belarus, competitions, and others
  • EHU’s student newspaper, the EHU Times, is published entirely in Belarusian
  • EHU’s new core curriculum includes a course called the History of Belarus in the Context of European Civilization that is required for all students entering undergraduate programs (starting this year)

Thus, the observation that ”it appears that [students] cannot learn much about Belarus at EHU” because “only one specialisation appears to have the word ‘Belarus’ in its title” is superficial, to say the least. And the idea that students at universities in Belarus can study such subjects as international law in the same way they learn it at EHU (with our strong focus on human rights and their ongoing abuse in Belarus) simply beggars belief.

As for the observations about EHU’s Founding Rector Anatoli Mikhailov, he is currently serving his second and final five-year term. It will end in 2016, in accordance with the university’s statute. EHU was registered in Lithuania in 2006, following its forced closure in Minsk in 2004, and Professor Mikhailov was asked to continue to lead it in exile. He was elected by the university’s Governing Board, as required by the statute, and governs in accordance with its regulations.

We are, of course, pleased that the authors of both pieces agree on the importance of supporting EHU. We agree that EHU is unique in what it offers to students and scholars from Belarus and is a vital alternative that is worthy of the support it has been fortunate enough to receive from an international community of donors. We take very seriously their trust and expectations and are continually striving towards excellence.

European Humanities University




Analytical Paper: Optimising EHU’s Impact on Belarus

The European Humanities University (EHU) was forced into exile in 2004 when the Belarusian authorities withdrew its licence. This followed the EHU’s refusal to acquiesce to government pressure to change its leadership. The exiled University found its new home in Vilnius, which is less three-hours by train from Minsk.

The current rector of the EHU should step down soon in line with the requirements of Lithuanian law, having served two terms. The Centre for Transition Studies publishes a paper authored by Yaraslau Kryvoi and Alastair Rabagliati which aims to launch a constructive public discussion on the direction of the EHU under the new leadership, to deal with the challenges facing both the EHU and Belarusian society.

The authors interviewed by e-mail and by telephone over 20 individuals related to the EHU, including its alumni, lecturers, administration, donors and well as representatives of Belarusian civil society who worked with the University in the past. Many agreed that an open discussion would benefit the university.

The EHU is an important and valuable institution for the future of Belarus. However, public information and debate about the direction of the university has been limited. Most media coverage has focused on the story of the university going into exile rather than its effectiveness. This paper intends to fill this gap.

The EHU is at a Crossroads

With no change in Belarus on the horizon, the university needs to prepare itself for continued exile. Ten years after the EHU established itself in Vilnius, many donors continue to support the EHU as they have taken natural sympathy for their struggle. However, they are now paying increasing attention to the impact of the funding, and considering in more detail whether the University could increase its self-funding.

Most media coverage has focused on the story of the university going into exile rather than its effectiveness.

As this paper demonstrates, the university has recently shifted its focus from Belarus-related courses, publications, staff and the Belarusian language towards an institution aiming to cater a broader group of students from the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Belarusian component was more prominent during its early years in exile. Now the vision of the University mentions Belarus primarily as a source of students, among other students from the region rather than as the main target of its activities.

The internationalisation of the University, which features prominently in the description of the University’s vision for the future, is likely to lead to a decrease in Belarus-focused studies, staff and students. The EHU risks losing its distinction from other regional private universities, which raises the question about why it should continue to be eligible for donor’s support.

For example, Polish universities (especially private ones, like Lazarski University) have neither specific donor support, nor a special focus on Belarus. However, their prices are affordable and Belarusians are ready to pay for the benefits of an EU education. Perhaps ironically it is Lazarski University that has organised a series of conferences on historical and political perspectives on Belarus that observers argue should be the EHU’s trademark.

Another concern is that joint programmes with other universities are liable in reality only to amount to subsidising Belarusian students to study at regular regional universities rather than creating a specific Belarus focused environment.

Therefore to fulfil its role as a university in exile and centre of academic development for a new generation of Belarusians, the University should retain its Belarusian character and focus on areas of “added value” for Belarus. Rather than becoming an ordinary “internationalised” university, the EHU should learn from other successful émigré universities, notably the Ukrainian Free University in Munich, which educated generations of Ukrainians.

Towards Greater Sustainability through Focusing on Belarus

With its location away from the restrictive political climate of Belarus, areas where the EHU is well positioned to provide “added value” include political science, Belarusian history, human rights, Belarusian language and literature as well as journalism.

The EHU with its new concept of internationalisation risks losing its distinction from other regional private universities, which raises the question about why it should continue to be eligible for donor’s support.

The EHU has the potential to become the main scientific hub for Belarus, both for research and academic studies. In this way it would be ideally placed to obtain further funding (such as through EU university research programmes) or donor support (linked to democratisation in Belarus).

The EHU could work on meeting the need for high quality research on Belarus, especially linked to developing concrete plans for reforms in Belarus. Currently there is a lack of organisations that are able to perform this role.

To increase interest among young Belarusians in programmes such as political science, history or Belarusian studies the university should not only offer scholarships but also recruit and retain high calibre academics working in these areas providing them with job security guarantees typical for EU universities.

The paper suggests establishing a robust disclosure mechanism of research, teaching and policy impact based on measurable indicators. This mechanism could take the form of expanding existing oversight bodies to ensure that relevant donors, implementers, Belarusian civil society, Belarusian diaspora and the Lithuanian government all have a chance to review reports and be consulted on the most important decisions.

While the aim of a sustainable EHU, less dependent on donors’ funding, is supported, this paper argues that donors should continue to firmly back the EHU as a valuable institution, which could play a unique role in the future of Belarus. External support, however, should be targeted at the “added value” areas while other EHU programmes could be paving the way for self-funding.




EHU: How Belarusian is the Belarusian University in Exile?

The European Humanities University, also known as Belarus's university in exile, is struggling to find its identity. It is torn apart between being the Belarusian university in exile and a "normal" European university based in Lithuania. Some say, it has lost its Belarusian character and gave up on its original mission. Others say that moving away from the Belarusian language and Belarus-focused curriculum is a sign of a truly international university, which the EHU should be. 

If the EHU is to remain loyal to its original mission as a Belarusian university, it should seriously think about offering what is not available in Belarus or at Western universities. In addition to greater academic freedom (which some say exists in Belarus too), it should keep Belarus-focused courses and language at the forefront of its activities.

A Lost Belarusian Component?

The European Humanities University had a promising start. Professor Anatoli Mikhailov established the university in Minsk 1992. The university had very good connections with Western academics and foundations and enjoyed a reputation as a more liberal university compared to state-run institutions. In 2004, Belarusian authorities put pressure on the EHU management and demanded that its rector Professor Mikhailov steps down. He refused and the Belarusian authorities closed down the university.

The university began a new chapter in Vilnius, 180 km from Minsk.  One EHU political science graduate has identified two periods in the history of the EHU in Vilnius: Belarusian and Lithuanian. The Belarusian period of the EHU lasted until the group of Belarusian political scientists, which included Andrei Kazakievich and Dzianis Melyantsou left the university accusing its management of authoritarianism. The Lithuanian period began when the EHU started to replace dismissed Belarusians with Lithuanian academics, who often had little knowledge of Belarus and "did not know the tradition of the programme".  

The same EHU graduate told Belarus Digest that the political science department was very important and symbolic to them – Belarusian students could freely discuss the political mechanisms of Belarus with their lecturers. To him, other student activities, which the EHU is so proud of, were an added value to the whole political science and history programme. But without quality Belarusian academics in "sensitive" areas, the task of the EHU to retain its identity has become more difficult to accomplish. 

without quality Belarusian academics in "sensitive" areas the task of the EHU to retain its identity becomes more difficult to accomplish

The Belarusian or International University in Exile?  

Today the EHU seems to be looking for its own place. Darius Udrys, the ​Vice-Rector for Development and Communications, explained to Belarus Digest that "the EHU exists for the sake of Belarusian students". He adds that they would like to maintain the main focus on Belarusian identity, but not to isolate EHU. The question is whether making the university truly international conflicts with its mission, which according to Udrys is, "to provide Belarusian students with that which they cannot obtain in Belarus''.  

Vadzim Smok, another EHU graduate in political science and a Belarus Digest author says that in his experience the university stimulated the critical thinking of the students and remained open and supportive to students’ initiatives. In the words of another EHU graduate, "the EHU remains an alternative for many young Belarusians". The Soviet educational system persists in Belarus and does little to encourage the critical and creative thinking of students.

Many young Belarusians choose to study in Vilnius because of its proximity to Minsk. The newly introduced frequent express trains between Minsk-Vilnius and affordable ticket prices, makes commuting to Vilnius even more attractive. The students also like the idea of getting EU-recognised diplomas at a cost lower than at the Western universities. 

Darius Udrys underlines that ‘'we are always trying to balance national identity against what is necessary for us to be an international university'’. However, the university appears to be switching its focus from Belarus-oriented programmes to a more universal curriculum.  Although around 95 per cent of the student body are Belarusian nationals, it appears that they cannot learn much about Belarus at EHU. Only one specialisation appears to have the word "Belarus" in its title – "Belarusian Studies" within the Cultural Heritage programme. In the past, Belarusian Studies was a separate programme. 

This may not fit well with the university's original mission of offering what is not accessible in Belarus. This year the EHU closed its Social Science and Political Philosophy programme altogether. The new program will be called World Politics and Economy Studies and will be conducted jointly with Vytautas Magnus University, a Lithuanian university. Young Belarusians can study visual design, international law and many other EHU courses free of propaganda also at Belarusian universities, closer to home and at a lower cost.

The university's attitude towards the Belarusian language has recently received press coverage in Belarus. Today only a handful of courses are taught in the Belarusian language and a number of Belarusian-speaking lecturers left the university over the last couple of years. Former EHU faculty member Aleś Smalianchuk in his interview for Radio Liberty, argued that the EHU demonstrated contempt for the Belarusian language and history with its current policies.

Others, like both the EHU graduates whom Belarus Digest interviewed, argued that the Belarusian language did not suffer discrimination at the university. Another question is whether the university is taking seriously the task of supporting the language which faces serious discrimination back home. 

The EHU Future: More Belarusian and More Democratic? 

Transparency and democratic governance within the EHU itself is another area where the EHU could improve. According to Vadzim Smok, there is plenty of room for improvement here. When asked what he would like to change at the EHU, he says "the management system – to make the EHU more democratic, in a way, to have more social consensus there between the administration and the academics".

Others are concerned that its founder and rector, Professor Anatoli Mikhailov, has been ruling the university for over twenty years. This seems like a long time. Perhaps the EHU management could follow examples of other European universities which require rotation of management to improve efficiency.

Instead of shifting focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university, it should try to find a balance between being Belarusian and internationally competitive

With all its problems and struggles, it is important to preserve and support EHU. It has infrastructure and a potential to offer a unique environment to Belarusian students. Perhaps the biggest challenge the EHU faces today is how to remain faithful to its original mission. Instead of shifting focus from Belarus towards becoming an ordinary Lithuanian university, it should try to find a balance between being Belarusian and internationally competitive.

Preservation and introduction of courses related to Belarus or at least taught in Belarusian language should be a priority for the university.

Making the university more democratic and Belarusian may also make it more attractive to Belarusian students and those who want to support the university.




Four Western Myths about Belarusian Higher Education

The Minister of Education Syarhei Maskevich announced on 3 May 2013 that “Belarusian universities enjoy a high level of autonomy”. Considering the fact that Belarus remains the only European state outside of Bologna process precisely because of its lack of academic freedoms, top Belarusian officials may not be completely honest.

However, many myths about Belarusian higher education exist in foreigners’ minds as well. For example, the government neither owns all the universities, nor educates people free of charge. Political expulsions happen only very rarely and usually students can travel abroad without any problems.

Myth No 1: Government Provides Free Education for Everybody

Although the methods employed by the Belarusian government in higher education management retains many Soviet traditions, the state approach to financial issues seems more capitalistic than in even some Western countries. 

For instance, in Sweden, Germany, Finland and Czech Republic students enjoy free higher education. Only foreigners, students of private universities and, only in certain exceptional cases, nationals have to pay.

The Constitution of Belarus entitles everybody to free higher education on a competitive basis. And around 50% of all the students indeed study for free. But their “day of reckoning” comes later with the mandatory placement for a two-year term at an assigned working place. 

In other words, one half of all students have to pay and the other has to work without being paid much for two years. The Belarusian educational system appears to be totally commercialised rather than socially-orientated.

Moreover, the government owns many but not all universities in Belarus. 10 out of 55 Belarusian higher education institutions do not belong to the state.

Myth No 2: All Political Activists Get Automatically Expelled

Authoritarian regimes often resort to expulsion of politically active students from universities. But in Belarus over the last several years these cases have become very rare.

One of the most famous political expulsions took place in 2009. Tatsiana Shaputska, spokesman of unregistered oppositional movement “Young Front”, after a three-day visit to EU-hosted civil society forum in Brussels, was expelled from Belarus State University. Its administration relied on “missing lectures” as an official reason for the expulsion.

Many statutes of Belarusian universities contain special provisions that allow expelling students for “administrative offences”, which may include crossing the road in an unauthorised place or taking a bus ride without a ticket. Insofar as many political activists often face detention for alleged “administrative offences”, it becomes an easy task for university administrations to expel them if necessary.

But even opposition figures show that the number of students expelled for political reasons stably decreases year by year. An NGO “Solidarity” keeps a record of political expulsions.These figures require further explanation. After the first wave of political expulsions in 2006, with the assistance of European officials and several universities from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Czech Republic, “Solidarity” launched Kalinouski Programme, the goal of which was to provide free places in European universities for Belarusian students expelled for political reasons.

Many students tried to benefit from this opportunity. Emigrating using Kalinouski programme became a kind of trend those days. Nobody could distinguish between those who were expelled because of political activity from those who were expelled and happened to be politically active or pretended to be an activist.

The failure to make this distinction cast a shadow on the figures provided by “Solidarity”. But their figures now show that universities punish students for politics in exceptional cases, not as a general rule.

Myth No 3: Belarusian Students Live Behind the Iron Curtain

This stereotype, unlike the other ones, has a bit more substance behind it. According to the law, to leave the country during their studies, a student has to get permission from the university administration and the Ministry of Education.

The old Russian saying perfectly describes the situation with such legal provisions: “The severity of our laws is mitigated by their lack of enforcement”. In reality, thousands of students travel abroad annually without asking for any permission. Hundreds of them visit politically-orientated trainings and seminars. The seriousness of consequences very seldom goes beyond an unpleasant conversation with a dean.

Moreover, Belarusian universities cooperate actively with foreign universities. Hundreds of students participate in academic exchange programmes such as Erasmus Mundus or Tempus. Many foreign lecturers work freely in Belarusian universities – for example tutors from German DAAD-programme in Minsk and Hrodna Universities. Many young Belarusians travel for work during summer holidays, particularly to the United States and then return to continue their studies.

Although some formal barriers exist, the “iron curtain” myth sounds like a serious exaggeration.

Myth No 4: Belarusian Higher Education is Based on Propaganda

This myth remains one of the most viable ones precisely because of propagandistic informational coverage of some oppositional and Western media.

In fact the views of lecturers and professors vary just as much as the opinions of the society: some support the ruling regime, some firmly oppose it. In the vast majority of cases the ideological preferences of their teaching and methodology depends on their own beliefs rather than anything else.

At the same time most lecturers prefer to avoid politics in their classes. Even the special course Belarusian Ideology, introduced for brainwashing as many had thought, in reality turned into simple historic overview of political ideologies. The intellectual atmosphere of political indifference and frustration cuts both ways: nobody wants to either criticise the government nor to glorify it.

The author of this article, a full-time law student in Minsk, during his first two years of study witnessed himself that many of the Belarusian State University lecturers openly described the political system in Belarus as an autocracy.

Although Belarus has serious problem with academic freedoms, in practise the situation is better than many people in the West think. With occasional exceptions, university lecturers have freedom to teach what they want and how they want although most of them prefer not to politicise their classes.

As for students, they lack several attributes of free university environment many of them are free to engage in civic or political activities without fear of serious consequences.

The best evidence of this is the author of this article, a full time law student at the Belarusian State University and a regular contributor to Belarus Digest and other independent news outlets. 

 




Belarus Needs A Strategic Vision in Higher Education Management

On 26 February 2012, Minister of Education Syarhei Maskevich announced a substantial increase of a minimum passing grade to Belarusian universities.

The government wants to decrease the number of poorly performing students and to redirect young people to technical colleges instead of universities.

Belarusian officials seem not to care that much about the quality of an education. On the contrary, in every possible sphere of higher education's regulation they exercise rather utilitarian approach. Instead of making cosmetic reforms the government must have a strategic vision of educational reform.

Statistics Show Some Peculiarities

All in all, more than 428,000 students study at 54 institutions of higher education during the 2012-2013 academic year in Belarus. Approximately 377,000 of them get their degrees at 45 state universities, while the others study at 9 private institutions.

The number of students per 10 000 people
 
Country Poland Finland Russia Ukraine Belarus Hungary Kazakhstan Austria
Number 564 556 493 465 453 397 378 334

 

There are three forms of higher education in Belarus: full-time (49% of all students), evening (less than 1%) and part-time (about a half). Full-time education means attending lectures and seminars, while part-time students attend the university only for short periods of time and pass exams there. Evening education means studying at evenings after work. 

The higher education in Belarus is either free or paid. To become "state-financed" an entrant must pass his or her exams substantially better than his fellows. However, following the Soviet tradition, a lot of students study for free – 49.4%.

The annual number of enrolled and graduating students is practically even and comprises approximately 80,000 – 90,000. Only 700 students study in the Belarusian language, while the overwhelming majority get their higher education in Russian.

It may look surprising, but even with plenty of free-of-charge places and simplified entering process only 18% of all men (above 15 years old) have higher education. Among women of the same age this figure is 20%. 

The Low Quality is Evident

Generally, officials in such anachronistic systems as Belarusian tend not to admit their mistakes. But, the decline in the level of intelligence of Belarusian students becomes manifest and alarming even for governmental officials.

On 26 February 2013, Belarusian minister for education, Syargei Maskevich announced the decision to raise the minimum passing grade for entrants into universities. Till now it has been enough to get 7 out of 100 points at all the entrance tests to be entitled to pass. Starting this year this figure will vary from 15 to 20 (depending on the subject).

As Syargei Maskevich himself explained, this measure will leave 30% of entrants out in the cold. At first glance the decision is positive. But an utterly appalling conclusion follows these figures: for now every third school leaver cannot get 15-out-of-100 result during his or her tests. By the way, recent research shows that such a result can be reached by a simple random filling in the testing form without any preparation.

The declared purpose of the reform is to improve the educational level of students and to "exclude accidental people among the entrants", as the minister said himself. Another goal that he announced was the popularisation of technical schools and colleges.

The idea between the lines is the lack of technical specialists in the country. Belarusian authorities bet on industrial branches of the economy and therefore do not need more lawyers and financiers, but instead – workers and engineers.

Moreover, many students today means many educated people tomorrow. The latter tend oppose the authoritarian system. So to have the obedient population, the regime needs more uneducated people than self-dependent professionals.

Foreign Students as Lavish Sponsors

The Belarusian ministry for education exercises rather utilitarian policy towards foreign students. While the prestigious universities throughout the world do their best to attract young foreign talents, providing them with scholarships and benefits, Belarusian higher educational institutions raise foreigners’ fees two- and even threefold comparing with nationals.

In figures this looks like $1,100 – $1,700 for Belarusians (paid in roubles) and $2,500 – $4,250 for foreigners paid in U.S. dollars. The currency of payment matters a lot in Belarus because of frequent and unexpected devaluations. The gross currency inflow via foreign students’ payments during the 2012-2013 academic year will reach $20m.

Belarusian government concludes specific "educational" treaties with other countries in order to increase the stream of entrants from these states. Among them – Cuba, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Lebanon, Ecuador, Vietnam, China, Kyrgyzstan etc.

The essence of these treaties is mutual recognition of the diplomas and relieved entrance procedure. In practice it means becoming students of top-rated Belarusian universities without any entering tests except for basic Russian (in order to communicate with their fellow students).

Current number of foreign students (by the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus)
 
Country Turkmenistan China Russia Azerbaijan Nigeria Sri Lanka Iran Lebanon Other Total
Number 6469 1476 1435 263 245 244 234 155 1582 12103

 

Except for favourable entrance conditions, practice shows that foreign students never get expelled even in case of an utter academic failure. All the facts bring to a conclusion that these students are used as a mere financial resource for the government. The fashionable "educational services export" has become an intentional policy of the authorities.

Meanwhile, the problems of low educational level, universal accessibility and the lack of academic freedoms remain untouched while the ministry for education does its best to absorb additional revenues from foreign students. 

Belarusian government claims the desire to reach the European quality of higher education and to enter the Bologna process. In order to do it, officials should handle the multiple problems of domestic higher education with a strategic vision. But for now they choose performing merely cosmetic reforms and self-enriching measures.




Mandatory Placement: A Soviet Remnant of Belarusian Higher Education

May is always a hot time for students in their final year at Belarusian universities. They have to prepare for their final exams, finish their papers and start thinking about graduation ball dresses. But besides that, nearly a third of the graduating students around the country have to worry about their first-job mandatory placement. These are the so-called “budget students” who study free of charge. The state demands that they work for two years wherever the authorities may send them after graduation.

Mandatory placement is supposed to give the state powers to distribute young labour force effectively. In reality, it fails to accomplish this goal. Mandatory placement breeds corruption and produces serious collateral damage. As a result, more and more young Belarusians decide to study abroad. The situation can hardly improve unless the government liberalises education and the labour market.

What is First-Job Mandatory Placement?

Belarus inherited the system of mandatory work placement from the Soviet Union. Then it served as an organic part of the command economy with central planning. Communist ideologues wanted to plan and control all economic activities in the country. For that they also needed to educate a certain number of professionals in different fields and distribute them according to the general plan. Thus, all young specialists had to start their careers where the government sent them upon graduation. 

the main argument was the need to tackle the huge deficit of professionals in small towns and rural areas

After the collapse of the USSR, first-job mandatory placement survived in Belarus as optional for university graduates but the authorities did not enforce it everywhere. However, at the beginning of the 2000s they decided to restore the system. In those days the main argument was the need to tackle the huge deficit of professionals in small towns and rural areas. The absolute majority of university graduates chose to stay in Minsk or other big cities after they received their diplomas. The supporters of the idea believed that a revived mandatory placement would help solve the problem.

However, there is one major difference with the experience of the USSR. In the Soviet times all universities taught their students free of charge. But after Belarus gained independence more and more universities started to introduce “commercial places” for students alongside with “budget places”. A number of private universities also emerged: today there are 45 state and 10 private universities in Belarus.

Despite the myth of free education in Belarus, the majority of Belarusian students now pay for their education from their own pocket

Despite the myth of free education in Belarus, the majority of Belarusian students now pay for their education from their own pocket. In 2011, out of the 107,000 first year students about 70,000 were self-funded. And their number is growing. Of course, the state cannot dictate to such students where to work after graduation. That is why the  system of mandatory placement applies to “budget students” and only in exceptional cases to self-funding students.

Mandatory Placement Proves Ineffective

A decade after the reintroduction of mandatory work placement it is obvious that the system is highly ineffective. The depopulation of rural areas, which mandatory placement aims to prevent, continues at a bewildering pace. According to the National Statistics Agency, in the last 10 years the population of almost all rural areas and small towns has decreased, while the population of cities and big towns has grown.

The main reason is the difference in the living standards. And the system of mandatory work placement is unable to break the trend. In the majority of cases graduates who go to work in rural areas leave after two years of obligatory work there.

the system of first-job mandatory placement contributes to breeding corruption

Besides, the system of first-job mandatory placement contributes to breeding corruption. As no one wants to work in rural areas, graduates and their parents try to find ways to stay in Minsk or, at least, in one of the regional centres. Sometimes the only way to do that is to bribe officials or employers.

Employers also suffer from this system. Under Belarusian law, once they offer jobs to recent graduates it is very difficult to fire them even if they manifestly fail to properly perform their duties. Therefore, most employers try to avoid hiring such young specialists. One of the collateral effects of this avoidance is that it is extremely difficult for young people to find a job without a previous two year-long professional experience.

Young Belarusians Simply Leave

A growing number of Belarusian families choose one of the two pragmatic options to avoid the communist-style mandatory placement. The first option is to pay university fees from their own pockets. However, this option has become problematic for a large part of the population as the universities increased fees after the dramatic devaluation of the Belarusian rouble in 2011.

The second option is to leave Belarus and study abroad. According to the Global Education Digest 2010, in 2008 around 15,000 Belarusian students preferred not to study in their own country. Most of them – nearly 8,500 –  went to Russia. Other popular destinations included Germany, Poland and Lithuania. About 1,500 students from Belarus went to each of these countries.

Unfortunately, very few programmes provide Belarusian citizens with full scholarships to study abroad

For the same economic reasons this option is also burdensome for most families – not only do they have to pay their fees, but also living expenses in a foreign country. Unfortunately, very few programmes provide Belarusian citizens with full scholarships to study abroad. 

Liberalisation of Education and the Economy Is the Answer

The authorities are now trying to alleviate the problem of mandatory placement. Last year a new Education Code entered into force. One of its novelties is that upon graduation “budget students” can pay back the money that the state spent on their degree. In this case graduates are free to work where they want. The government also decreases the number of “budget places” in certain programmes that, in its opinion, are not needed in the labour market. For example, this year they cut the state financing of economic and legal programmes.

But these are all superficial measures. They really need to do away with the remnants of communism in Belarusian education and the labour market. Graduates should be free to work where they choose and employers to hire whom they deem suitable and without excessive paperwork. Otherwise, the gap between the universities and labour market in Belarus will only grow bigger.