Yesterday BSU students held a demonstration near the university to protest against re-examination charges, Vadzim Smok analyzes the factors that led to the “March of love and solidarity”.
The university recently introduced these to incentivize students not to fail exams. The decision to protest was taken after a series of other initiatives which the administration ignored.
While Belarusian State University (BSU) students have not faced any repression so far, the administration of another university, the Belarusian State Pedagogical University (BSPU), managed to stifle the same initiative by threatening students with punishment.
However, Belarus' commitment to the Bologna road map since 2015 may push the authorities to step back from harassment of students which could provoke an increase in student activity. Earlier this year students succeeded in lifting restrictions on night time dormitory access rights.
History of student protests in Belarus
In the 1990s, students were one of the driving forces of anti-government opposition in Belarus. In the beginning of the 2000s, after a period of severe confrontation between the Lukashenka regime and the opposition, student activism virtually disappeared from Belarusian universities. All student organisations had until recently appeared to be under the control of the authorities which repressed any unsanctioned activity. However, 2015 has proved to be a turning point.
At the beginning of the year, BSU students launched a media campaign against entrance restrictions into student dormitories between 11 pm and 6 am. The restriction existed as a Soviet hangover which survived in Belarus due to the lack of students willing and able to struggle for their rights. The activists organised a media campaign, gathered a group via a social network and held talks with the university administration. As a result, the restriction was abolished in most universities.
The current campaign against exam retake charges went even further, as it touches a more controversial issue. Moreover, the students look very determined and appear not to fear confronting university officials and even calling for mass action.
The Chairman of the Belarusian National Youth Council NGO Ales Krot told BelarusDigest that the 2015 student campaigns are indeed unique, because previously students did not dare to do more than put a 'like' on a social network page dedicated to the cause. He also thinks this is partly the result of work of youth NGOs which assist students in advocating their rights.
Protest against re-examination charges
On 2 November news agency BelTA reported that the BSU plans to introduce charges for retaking exams. From 1 January 2016 students will have to pay $2 to re-take a failed exam, $18-34 for a course paper and $156 for a graduate thesis defence. The charges are in place in most Belarusian universities, and BSU remains one of the few which does not have it.
The university administration said that the measure would discipline students and motivate them to be more responsible in studying. “In any case, most students will not notice it as they do not fail exams”, the BSU press secretary said.
All university associations -- which are supposed to protect the rights of students – trade unions, student self-government bodies and the Belarusian National Youth Union supported the measure. This is no surprise since in Belarus these organisations are usually created top-down and implement decisions dictated by university administrations.
The next day a group under the name #studentsagainst emerged onVkontakte, the most popular social network in the post-Soviet space. The group now has 2,200 members. Another group of activists started to gather signatures against the charge initiative and managed to collect 2,500 in just a week, which they passed to the university administration with a petition. Despite their efforts, on 12 November the rector's ordered that the charges be introduced.
The activists say the initiative violates Belarus' education norms and seeks to fill the university coffers rather than stimulate studies.
University administration pressure
Students of the BSPU, where re-examination charges exist already, decided to join the initiative and created their own group on Vkontakte. However, soon BSPU students faced serious pressure.
Only the day after the online activity started, on 12 November someone hacked into the group's account and deleted the information.
The ideology department officials, who operate in each university, invited students to discuss the matter and tried to persuade them to stop the activity. They said the students were engaging in political activity and had some political forces behind them who were paying for these protests. Most students had to stop their involvement. Male students have additional reasons to worry about expulsion - they fear conscription to the army after being kicked out of university.
On 17 November, international students day, the BSU activists led an action of solidarity with their colleagues from BSPU and hung a banner with the #studentsagainst hashtag in the main university building.
In a recent publication the activists announced that they plan a mass rally under the slogan Love and Solidarity March near the university administration building on 2 December. “The university keeps ignoring us, and by this action we will demonstrate how many of us are there”, the student leaders say.
Does Belarus have student self-government?
In May 2015 Belarus joined the Bologna process, which experts interpreted as a sign of good will from the western side. Belarus is now obliged to implement the road map of higher school reform and comply with western academic freedoms and values. However, the Bologna committee, the NGO, which monitors the implementation of the Bologna norms, indicates that violations of student rights remain. University administrations continue to order students to vote early and to participate in official events and political campaigns.
Some reforms that the Ministry of Education is trying to pursue look like façade changes only, particularly those concerning student self-government. In January 2015, Minister of Education Mihail Zhuraukou at a student forum initiated the establishment of the National Civil Student Council under the Ministry of Education.
The Council is supposed to function as an advisory body of student self-government. It includes one representative of each Belarusian higher education institution.
Officials do not hide the fact that the Council was established in order to join the Bologna process. As Minister Zhuraukou said, “we applied for Bologna membership, but our opponents claim that Belarusian universities lack student self-government. I am convinced this is wrong.” Ales Krotopined to BelarusDigest that the Council will become another state-controlled student associations with activity driven from the top.
Although the state attempts to control the processes inside universities, students' struggle for their rights seems to be reviving after more than a decade of inactivity. The warming of Belarus-EU relation and Bologna commitments creates an opportunity for activists to restructure relations between the state and academia.