At the Summit of the European Ministers of Higher Education of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) held in May 14-15, 2015 in Yerevan, Armenia, Belarus signed the Yerevan Communiqué assuming the obligations to support and protect students and teaching staff in exercising their academic freedom and to ensure their fully pledged partnership in autonomous management of the higher education institutions. In order to incorporate key EHEA principles into the national educational system the Roadmap for Higher Education Reform was elaborated. The Belarusian Ministry of Education adopted a number of documents indicating their intention to implement some of the EHEA principles into the higher education system: continuing the development of the national qualification system and its implementation, creating conditions for establishing multilevel higher education system (bachelor-master-doctorate/research), establishing independent quality assurance system, introducing a new more
informative annex to the higher education diploma, developing student and faculty academic mobility, etc.
The implementation of these plans may indicate an important milestone in the modernization of the higher education in Belarus and intentions to meet the requirements laid out in the Roadmap. However, the terminology used in the ministerial order and guidance gives us evidence that, out of all the EHEA principles, the Ministry of Education prefers to limit itself to organizational and instrumental implementation leaving aside the more sensitive issues of fundamental academic values implementation.
Unfortunately, the steps taken in implementing the EHEA principles do not come together with the process of increasing the openness and transparency of the Belarus higher education system: the majority of documents that concern the education reform, as well as key EHEA documents are not available for public access or are not available in translation; there is no information available about the majority of HEI Councils, their Charters and other establishing documents as well as about their budget and other information that is supposed to be public.
The censorship has been enhanced with new force; forced labor in the form of obligatory assigned placement for their first job is used. The assignment system not only violates the rights of those students who study for free to freely look for work after finishing their education but is also ineffective in conditions of a growing deficit of working places. In accordance with the on-line survey conducted by Gemius company, only 10% of respondents consider that the system of assigning work places is effective and guarantees employment to young specialists. The practice of forcing students to vote earlier in the Republic of Belarus Presidential elections, the use of the student workforce at agricultural and construction works during official classes as well as participation in political campaigns and public events still continues at the same pace.
In November-December 2015, the students’ campaign against introducing fees for re-sitting failed exams became especially poignant. Students collected thousands of signatures against the newly introduced fee and expected a dialogue with the universities’ administrations as well as that their views on the situation would be heard and taken into consideration by the decision makers. However, the university’s response to the campaign was to increase pressure, intimidation and repressions against its participants. Later the demand aiming not only for the abolishment of complementary fees but also for holding free and fair election to the student self-government was added. In this conflict, the official students’ structures demonstrated its dependence and accountability to university’s management. Such assessment matches the on-line students’ survey respondents’ opinion where majority either couldn’t describe the official student organizations and students’ self-government bodies position or regarded that they just comply with management orders (75%).
Although there was no open violence from the side of the authorities, human rights organizations noted a number of rights violations at this peaceful march. Three participants of the march were brought to court and fined, for instance. The repressions against the participants intensified especially after the
Minister of Education Mikhail Zhuraukou’s statement that called for more aggressive reaction on students’ demands and which claimed that “Students Against” movement is not a students’ movement at all. Student monitoring organized by independent student organizations, recorded 113 cases of pressure on students and their harassment. Two active members of the movement have already been expelled from the Belarusian State University. Based on the monitoring results, some of the students’ protest leaders could also be shortly expelled from the university. According to the victims, faculty members are under pressure from the university’s management to prevent them from sitting exams and based on the fact that they didn’t meet academic requirements, to expel these students from the university.
There are reports about the threat of using Article 193.1 of the Belarus Criminal Code against independent students’ organizations that appealed to ESU for support. These organizations may not have state registration because it was denied to them in the past. The leaders of these organizations may face imprisonment for up to 2 years according to Article 193.1 for appeal on behalf of unregistered organization. There are reasons to believe that currently, prosecutor’s office is looking into these organizations appeal to ESU.
In reality, unregistered students’ organizations, in particular “Students Against” movement, are well known to Belarusian students. 5% of respondents consider this movement destructive. A significant part of the respondents is afraid to participate in it. Only 27% of respondents heard about the pressure on students by university management or have encountered it themselves while 90% of respondents are positive that movement’s activists are in real danger of being prosecuted for their demands and actions.
The experts of the Ad Hoc Commission a number of recommendations to the international Advisory Group “Support for the Belarus Roadmap”.
Students and Faculty academic freedom:
- closely monitor the situation with academic freedom rights violations in Belarusian HEI and to undertake necessary actions to reinstating students and faculty rights
- to take much needed steps leading to the abolition of Article 193.1 of the Belarus Criminal Code as a prerequisite for legislation and educational policy modernization aimed at students and faculty rights use to establish and register organizations.
- to assist the Ministry of Education in widening real autonomy of Belarusian HEI through such changes in legislation and educational policy that will lead to HEI Rectors’ activities transparency and their accountability to academic community, in particular, to reinstall free and independent Rector’s elections.
- to contribute and to assist the Belarusian Ministry of Education in opening access to all information about the Ministry of Education and HEI activities for HE stakeholders where it doesn’t constitute state or military secrets.