Walking a diplomatic tightrope between neighboring Ukraine and Russia, Belarus, a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), is adopting liberal market-led policies to improve the quality of its higher education and to attract more international students. The inclusion of Belarus in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was discussed and adopted at the Conference of EHEA Ministers on May 14, 2015 in Armenia. In its post conference press release, the EHEA pronounced: “The Ministers welcome Belarus as a member of the EHEA and look forward to working with the national authorities and stakeholders to implement the reforms identified by the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) and included in the agreed road map, attached to Belarusian accession.”
Tis move is an important step in an ongoing campaign by Belarus to join the Bologna Accord, a system designed to harmonize qualifications and promote freedom of movement within Europe. Russia is a member of the Bologna Accord but concerns about political freedoms have set Belarus apart. “By joining EHEA we should have achieved a number of reforms. For example, by the end of 2017, there should be a legal basis for the establishment of an independent quality assurance agency, in accordance with European standards and guidelines. And secondly, Belarusian students will finally receive the Diploma Supplement of the European Standard. By 2018, authorities have pledged to develop a plan to provide free automatic issuance of the Diploma Supplement, in a format developed by the Council of Europe, the European Commission and UNESCO, in the common language (in addition to Russian),” says Elena Dostanko, Director of the Centre for International Studies at Belarus State University (BSU).
Although the Russian higher education “five plus one” undergraduate and masters’ model is widely adopted within Belarus, universities are now trying to shorten degree courses to converge with the Bologna process. At the same time degree syllabuses are becoming less prescriptive and more influenced by the views of student councils and employer bodies. The Soviet legacy has been apparent in Belarus, where, traditionally, degree syllabuses needed state approval. There are some issues that still need to be resolved ahead of the Republic’s Bologna bid. “I think it is very important for Belarus (to join Bologna) because we are practically the only European country left out of the Bologna Declaration,” says Dostanko.
The low cost of living and affordable tuition fees contribute to Belarus’s attractiveness, as a destination for international students. Four years ago, by Presidential decree, Belarus started to invest in building student villages, in order to accommodate them. Coming mainly from CIS countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan but also from as far afield as China, Vietnam, Turkey and Iran, Belarus has been host to over 16,000 international students from 98 countries.
A sign of the changes taking place in Belarus, are degrees taught in English. These degrees are putting the republic on the international map. Institutions like BSU, Belarus National Technical University (BNTU), and the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio-electronics (BSUIR) now offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees taught in English.
Teaching in English will boost Belarus’s appeal to international students. In April 2014, at the First European Quality Education Forum in Minsk, the Association of Business Education, a UK awarding body, signed a memorandum of agreement with the Belarusian government, which permitted it to ofer its qualifcations throughout the country’s education institutions. “We welcome educational ties with the UK because it is the motherland of the English language. Being able to study for a qualification that is internationally recognized offers our students the confidence to know that their education is the best we can make it,” commented Sergey Maskevitch, Belarus’s former Education Minister. Maskevitch is now director of the Saharov International Environmental Institute, a body affiliated with BSU. The present Minister of Higher Education, former vice rector of BSU, Michail Anatol’evich Zhuravkov continues to push for a more liberalized university sector.
Of BSU’s 27,750 students seven to eight percent are international, mainly from CIS countries and including China, Turkmenistan and the Russian Federation. Most study one and two year postgraduate degrees. BSU’s four-year degree in business administration is taught in English, as are around a dozen masters’ degrees including in biology, physics and mathematical science, foreign language teaching and business administration.
BSUIR’s higher education diploma in telecommunications networks and its master’s degree in information security in telecommunications, launched in 2011, have helped the university to attract as many as 15,000 more students. A third of all masters’ students and a fifth of all doctoral students are already international. “Teaching in English helps us interact with foreign students and is a lot more successful than trying to teach them the basics of Russian in a single year,” says BSUIR first vice-rector, Dr. Anatoly Osipov. As a result of this policy, the numbers of international students at BSUIR have doubled year after year.
Belarusian universities have also been upgrading quality management systems to meet the ISO 9001 European Kitemark (a service quality certification mark). “We were certified to offer ISO 9001 in 2010, and, in 2014, we started offering a four year undergraduate degree followed by a two-year master’s degree, in order to bring us closer to the European system,” says Dr. Anatoly Osipov.
Deborah Trayhurn, an independent adviser to the UK higher education quality advisory body, QAA, who attended the European Quality Education Forum in Minsk, believes there is still work to be done to help Belarus meet stringent Bologna conditions. “UK universities have the scope to set their own agenda. But in Belarus much more is laid down already and university practice is centrally arranged and administered. Terms like efficiency, effectiveness and quality control are philosophically likely to be different,” says Trayhurn, who is also a director of the Higher Education Skills Work consultancy.
By joining Bologna, Belarus hopes to attract European students and end its era of isolation. Small numbers have started arriving from Italy and Germany to study highly specialized masters’ programs unavailable elsewhere. But outward mobility is far more common, and there are many examples of exchange programs enabling Belarusian students to spend a term studying abroad.
To boost numbers coming from the West, Belarusian universities need to become more international in outlook, which means they have to publish and share research, in order to be recognized in world university rankings. The quality of Belarus’s research and teaching, which is particularly strong in science, technology, engineering and agricultural science is not always reflected in international rankings. However, some Belarusian universities, BSU and BNTU, are in the top 400 and 700 respectively in QS World Rankings. Regionally, Belarus performs much better. “In the QS Emerging Europe and Central Asia University Rankings, Belarus State University is at number 40,” says QS regional director, Zoya Zaitseva.
Zaitseva has noted a positive change in outlook among Belarusian universities, and, specifically, that a younger generation of academics is keener to engage with the outside world: “Some of the main Belarusian universities have joined Scopus, a research index of scientific publications, to which all universities can subscribe. Tis keeps research at the cutting edge, and this is a good sign. Also, academics are starting to visit and play a part in world forums such as the European Association for International Education (EAIE), and the Asia Pacific Professional Leaders of Education.”
She continues, “When everyone has understood that Belarus is an open country, these strengths will become more visible. People will see that Belarus’s education system is excellent. We are especially happy to accept guests, particularly students. Consider this, an American student will pay six to seven times less for education in Belarus than in America, and, at the same time, receive a high-quality European education. Aside from a fantastic educational experience, they will also be interacting with some of the most kind-hearted people in the world.”