Promotion of academic freedoms is still a problem spot for Belarus on the way to fulfilling the Roadmap of the Bologna process.
Belarusan students, mainly those studying at the BSU faculties, held a demonstration called a “March of love and solidarity”on December 2. There are no results of the demonstration as such – basically, the university’s administration didn’t react to the students’ initiative in a proper way. On the other hand, the organization of the demonstration can be indirectly connected with the Bologna process, which Belarus has recently joined.
Uladzimir Dunaeu, professor of philosophy, a former Vice Rector of the EHU, the member of the public Bologna committee recounted whether Belarus is approaching the realization of the terms of the Roadmap of reforms in the interview with the EuroBelarus Information Service.
- Introduction of payment for retaking credits and exams served as the reason for holding a demonstration. Do such financial demands to students exist in world practice or is it a Belarusan innovation? Can it solve some problems in funding of particular Belarusan universities?
- The practice of paid exam retakes isn’t rare. It is used in many countries where paid education exists. There are certain limits of free of charge education even if the education is generally free. Sometimes in the form of vouchers, which define the temporary duration of free education. If a student fails to keep within this limit, then he or she will have to pay extra.
On the other hand, if we proceed from fundamental principles of academic culture and values, such issues should become part of universities’ autonomy. However, universities’ autonomy doesn’t mean the autocracy of the universities’ heads as in case of Belarus, but self-government of academic corporation which includes both students and teachers. In such system an administrator also has voting authority but should be a part of coordination process. In case of Belarus, university is not a place for discussions.
Besides, students suspect that the money they’ll give for exam retakes won’t be used for teachers’ salaries. These suspicions are connected with non-transparency of universities’ budgets.
The students’ distrust is explained by restricted information about the universities. Unfortunately, the universities haven’t become any more open that they were two years ago. Moreover, some journalists draw attention to the fact that the Ministry of Education has become even more closed, which is a serious problem. Even the membership of university councils as well as their gender composition is classified.
The attempt to make such information secret arouses suspicions that something is wrong with it. Thus, students’ distrust of the universities’ governing bodies is caused by unjustified secrecy of the information.
- Was the demonstration a forced step? Was it impossible to reach an agreement with the universities’ leaders at all?
- I don’t think that it was a march of despair, all the more that it had a form of a flash mob and had an air of irony and self-irony. I think it was one of the steps taken by the students in order to draw attention to the problem of neglecting students’ votes, common practice of academic despotism, when the decision is taken by the administration, while all the rest are deprived of the possibility to take part in the decision-making process.
On the other hand, it was important to demonstrate that in reality the so-called student self-government bodies that the BSU rector Siarhei Ablameika refers to are in reality only manipulated pseudo-public formations that don’t voice students’ opinion and are completely subject to the administration’s will.
- Why does the university administration ignore students? Is it a habit?
- It’s both a habit and lack of experience in working with students. The thing is that the university administration isn’t responsible to the academic community – neither to the teachers nor to the students. Rector and other administration are appointed either by the president or by the Council of Ministers, thus being responsible only to their bosses.
As to the academic community, they are only subjects, who can be commanded but not listened to. Besides, there are no real mechanisms for influencing the decision-making process. All decorative self-government bodies have no real power, only an advisory vote which can also be ignored.
As a result, the normative base and culture don’t presuppose that the universities’ administration listens to students. It is only important what their bosses think of them. That was the reason of students’ demonstration.
- Will the universities’ administration have to change anything for fulfilling the Roadmap of the Bologna process?
- I would like to think that not only the behavior of the administration changes but also the normative base. For now the need to listen to students and teachers is not one of the rector’s duties at all.
How does the rector comment on these decisions that he made? He allegedly consulted with these pseudo-public formations. The masquerade will exist until the normative base changes and until reforms that will make a rector dependent on the assessment of his work by the academic community are introduced.
To do that, we need such instrument as rector elections which will be accessible for students. This mechanism could change the situation. For now it’s more of a good-will gesture.
Frankly speaking, no one can present any formal claims to the rector; it is a part of Belarusan academic culture, even though an academician has to abide by the academic norms and it is unbecoming to simply ignore students.
- Do you see any steps towards reforming the higher education in Belarus?
- There are six directions of reforms, which are written down in the roadmap. Not all of them are directly connected with the implementation of fundamental academic values, such as academic freedom, university autonomy, which is interpreted as rector’s autocracy.
In certain directions the work is going on. I think we’ll see some results; at least, some formal steps will be taken. We’ll see whether it will be a substantial modernization of the higher education.
As to the fundamental academic values, the situation is quite the contrary: over the last month we witness the worsening of the situation. The Independent Bologna Committee in its statement mentioned the censorship in the form of the destruction of books by the political scientist Vital Silitski following the instructions of the Information Ministry. Students are forced to vote early at the presidential election, used in agricultural, construction works, official political campaigns, and mass events continue.
We have all that. And recent events showed that there are no positive changes. The only thing that can be estimated as a positive shift (which doesn’t concern academy as such) is that the march took place without arrests and violence on the part of the authorities.