Accession to Bologna process does not guarantee reforms in Belarusian higher education
The Belarusian authorities use education to nurture loyalty among younger generation. Despite continuously growing problems with secondary and higher education, the education system and the state’s youth policy have until now allowed control of protest activity among young people. In the next few years, the state is unlikely to conduct thorough reforms within the education system.
The Education Ministry press centre reported last week that Belarus joined the Bologna Process after the decision had been approved by European Education Ministers.
Belarus has joined the integrated European Higher Education Area (EHEA) much later than its neighbors. In 2009-2010, during a thaw in Belarusian-European relations Belarus was very active in pushing to join the Bologna process. Yet in 2012, the Bologna Follow-Up Group postponed the date of Belarus’ accession. According to the statement made by the Group, Belarus’ policies in the field of higher education failed to respect the Bologna process values, such as academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student participation in higher education governance. Consequently, until now Belarus was the only European country excluded from the Bologna process.
Some experts and civil society representatives skeptically assessed the decision to accept Belarus’ accession bid to the EHEA. Experts of the Public Bologna Committee emphasised that Belarus had done little to fulfill the requirements for joining the Bologna process.
Unlike Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which had similar problems in their education system, were granted the up-front access to the Bologna process in 2005 and 2010 respectively. Significantly, there is no exclusion mechanism from the EHEA, which may jeopardise the implementation of reforms in the higher education in Belarus.
The unconditional accession of Belarus to the EHEA has reinforced the Belarusian authorities’ beliefs that Belarus’ problems in education are insignificant. Belarusian Education Minister Mikhail Zhuravkov stated: “Granting access to the European Higher Education Area reflects recognition of the Belarusian education system by the international community, and proves the fact that our national model is competitive and can be integrated into the international educational area”. It is likely that the Belarusian authorities aimed to join the EHEA in order to increase paid educational services for non-residents.
Indeed, Belarus is rated highly by formal indicators of education, although the gap between the qualifications of employees and market requirements is increasing every year. Both independent experts and high-level Belarusian officials acknowledge this problem.
By introducing state ideology studies in secondary schools and universities in the mid-2000s, the authorities have considerably decreased protest activity and support for the political opposition among young people. For instance, Malady Front (Young Front), formerly a very popular opposition youth organisation has completely lost its influence among young people.
In reaction, independent academic community and civil society representatives put forward an initiative to create a non-governmental National University as an alternative to European Humanities University (EHU) and the existing state education system.
Deep structural reforms in Belarus’ higher education are unlikely to be introduced in the coming years. The authorities’ main goal is to preserve loyalty and control in education.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.