Contradicting Ideas for Education Policy

Vladimir Dounaev

Summary

Education policy is at a crossroads. The former strategies for balancing social paternalism and cost-cutting have now run out of steam. Demographic problems have worsened the funding deficit, and dropping academic standards of education are objectively forcing the system towards inevitable modernisation, yet the authorities continue to hope they can avoid true reforms by applying palliative measures, and limiting themselves to calls for improved economic effectiveness at all levels of education.

The combination of bureaucratic authoritarianism and meagre funding is driving the education system into an impasse from which it is impossible to escape without sacrificing its fundamental principles.

Trends:
Education policy

In 2012, a belated attempt to join the Bologna Process ended in failure for the Belarusian ministry of education. Formally, the decision to include a country in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) is taken at a summit of education ministers from 47 countries, and it depends on the opinion of the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG) in order to be put onto the agenda. At a meeting on January 18–19 in Copenhagen, after studying an official report prepared by the Belarusian ministry of education and an Alternative Report by the Independent Bologna Committee, 1 the BFUG members decided not to recommend Belarus for EHEA membership. On January 24, the Bologna Secretariat sent an official letter to the Belarusian minister of education, explaining why the BFUG had recommended postponing the decision regarding Belarus’ prospective EHEA membership until the next summit in 2015.

In order to be eligible for the EHEA, an applying country has to meet two criteria: (1) it must be a signatory of the European Cultural Convention, and (2) it must undertake to implement the values, aims, and key principles of EHEA policy in its education system. Belarus ratified the European Cultural Convention back in 1993, but the Belarusian authorities have proved unable to fulfil the second condition. In the letter to the minister of education, Sergey Maskevich, attention was drawn to the lack of progress concerning Belarus’ commitment to the principles of academic freedom, the low level of university autonomy, and the absence of any real student involvement in managing higher educational establishments.

It is obvious that the Europeans did not turn a blind eye to the fact that the heads of five higher educational establishments who repressed students in 2011 are present on the list of Belarusian officials banned from entering the European Union. This fact is not just proof of individual cases of lawlessness, but also of a deep rift between European and Belarusian academic values.

The Belarusian education ministry declared the Bologna Secretariat’s decision was politically motivated, yet the past year brought no improvements to guarantee the autonomy of higher educational institutions or the rights of tutors and students. Monitoring of academic freedom in Belarusian higher educational establishments has shown widespread, systematic violations. Unlike in 2011, rights violations have shifted from politically motivated repression to large-scale infringements of the academic, social, and labour rights of students and teaching staff. 2

The postponement of Belarus’ EHEA membership provides some extra time to reform higher education. Although the time remaining before 2015 is clearly insufficient for full reforms, it is enough to come to a national consensus on the essence of the changes required and the plans to develop higher education. Even though the need for change is evident, practical implementation is limited by the president’s anti-reform rhetoric and the short-sighted position of his administration. After hearing a report from the minister of education on July 24, 2012, Lukashenko reiterated that “the education system reforms are complete. If something needs polishing up a bit, that’s fine. No-one should turn education back into some kind of political arena.” 3

Throughout the year, Lukashenko repeatedly reminded the ministry of education that its only role was to implement presidential policy. However, the ministry received a range of contradictory signals. On the one hand, there was a policy to cut state spending on education in 2012, and on the other, the ministry was requested to maintain the price of higher educational courses at the same level. Things reached the stage where Minister Siarhei Maskevich was forced several times to repudiate the president’s populist promises to reduce amounts payable by students for educational services.

The essence of the president’s higher education policy may be summed up thus: higher education should be available and affordable for the state budget. Since any education policy strives to balance three variables – accessibility, quality, and price – the president’s populist rhetoric leaves no chances to improve staff training standards in Belarusian conditions. Cheap, accessible education can only be achieved by sacrificing quality.

Another challenge to education quality was Lukashenko’s desire to extend the duration of work placements for students. Belarusian higher education lacks contacts with the labour market, but in this case the president’s proposal is comparable to Saparmurat Niyazov’s reforms in 2003, which totally destroyed higher education in Turkmenistan. Thankfully, the ministry of education again tried to neutralise the destructive force of this presidential directive. Unlike in 2008 – when the then minister of education, Alaksandr Radzkou, blindly followed instructions to move over from a 12-year to an 11-year secondary education system – the current minister is attempting to prevent the situation from becoming a disaster.

In 2012, the ministry skilfully used presidential directives concerning the shift to a shorter period of study in order to accelerate the process of adapting Belarus’ three levels of education to Bologna standards. Siarhei Maskevich assured the president that decisive steps had been taken to move from 5-year to 4-year undergraduate courses, and to increase master’s degree studies from one to two years. 4 According to the minister, the reduction in study time would affect 62% of all courses.

To give these reformist intentions their due, one still cannot fail to see that this transformation has not achieved any real modernisation of higher education so far. In 2012, the campaign to cut back on curricula was purely superficial, and did not bring them into line with Bologna requirements for structure and content of education programmes. The automatic shortening of the first level without developing normal professional master’s degree programmes threatens to trigger a serious drop in the quality of specialised tuition in future. In Belarus, such studies have been turned into a pointless appendage to postgraduate courses, and are only beginning to recover now. In Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, 15% of students acquire master’s degrees, but in Belarus, according to ministry of education data, only 1.15% of students are enrolled on second-level courses. 5

The ministry has also played an independent yet cautious role on the education policy scene regarding the strategic development of secondary education. In 2012, the ministry attempted to correct some of the negative consequences of the shift to an 11-year system for secondary education.

Worldwide, 169 countries have a 12-year education system, and 46 countries have a 13-year system. Not one single European Union country has full secondary education that lasts for less than 12 years. It is obvious that the “democratisation” of schools–the banner under which this latest unsuccessful Belarusian reform was introduced – could only lead to a deterioration of education quality. Speaking at a pedagogical conference on August 24, minister Sergey Maskevich admitted that the results of centralised testing showed there were not enough hours of physics, mathematics, and other subjects in secondary school curricula, and that extending the school year would have to be considered in order to rectify the situation. 6

In the hands of the ministry of education, the threat of reducing holidays or extending the study week is becoming an instrument for mobilising public opinion against the reforms to a 12-year school system, which were inspired by the presidential administration in 2008. All the more so because it is becoming increasingly obvious that the main motive for reducing the period of study–to economise on funds–is improbable.

In 2008, Anatol Rubinau promised to raise teachers’ salaries by 20–25% using funds economised from reducing the period of study, thus “buying” their support for the shift to an 11-year system. Teachers only received the promised pay rise of USD 30 before the 2010 presidential elections, however, but it was still far below the current average wage in Belarus. At a ministry of education meeting on February 6, 2013, Siarhei Maskevich stated that the average monthly wage in the education sector was BYR 2,769,000 (USD 332), or 74% of the national average wage. Teachers’ salaries, meanwhile, were BYR 3,279,000, or 87.7% of the average wage.

The financial situation in education

Belarusian education is increasingly becoming a victim of policies designed to minimise state spending. Article 53 of the law on education, which was in force until September 2011, made provision for no less than 10% of GDP to be allocated to education. In reality, state budget funding never reached that level. Moreover, the amount of GDP reserved for education was noticeably reduced: it was 6.6% in 2002, but the minister of education admitted it had dropped to 4.9% in 2012. Even though Lukashenko promised (at the third All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in 2006) that funding would be raised to the stipulated 10% by 2010, the authorities simply removed that stipulation from the new Education Code in 2011.

The ministry of finance plans even more cuts in the social sector, claiming they are necessary to increase the efficiency of spending on education. Higher education is particularly hard-hit by such savings. According to figures provided by the Belarusian ministry of education for UNESCO reports, funding for higher education was cut from 1.1% in 2007 to 0.7% of GDP in 2009. This goes against the trend of increasing the amount of GDP spent on education, which is prevalent in developed countries. 7

Over the past 20 years, the authorities have made higher education more widely available by increasing the amount of paid tuition. That was the main method which allowed them to increase the number of students in Belarus by 2.3 times – from 189,000 in 1989–1990, to 430,000 in the 2011–2012 academic year. Currently, over two thirds of Belarusian students are paying for their studies. The worsening demographic situation is reducing the potential to apply this strategy, however.

At a ministry of education meeting to discuss the results of the 2012 admissions campaign, 8 it was mentioned that 15% less pupils had left general secondary schools in 2012 than in 2011 (63,000 versus 75,500). By 2015, the number of secondary school-leavers will be around 58,000, approximately 10% less than in 2012. Furthermore, the planned intake for higher educational establishments in 2012 was 91,100 school-leavers for all types of study (but only 88,000 were admitted), which was 10,000 less than in 2011.

In 2010, when 99,000 pupils left secondary schools, the planned intake for higher educational establishments was 94,200, whereas in 2009, which saw 107,000 school-leavers, the intake was about 90,000. If the number of places available in the first year of higher education is 1.5 times higher than the number of secondary school-leavers, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain academic standards for educational quality.

Speaking at the meeting, deputy minister Alaksandr Zhuk remarked that, following the 2012 admissions campaign, state higher educational establishments had not managed to fill around 5,600 places for first-year students in paid tuition, and 198 places in free tuition. Private higher educational establishments were approximately 3,000 students short – they only admitted 34% of the planned number of school-leavers for normal courses, and around 80% for extramural studies. 9 If these figures are correct, then the actual planned admissions for higher educational establishments were approximately 97,000. This means that, despite the reduced number of secondary school-leavers, the planned number of admissions hardly dropped at all. Such a strategy would be justified if there were plans to fill the vacancies by increasing the proportion of other types of students, e.g. foreign or mature students.

One noticeable trend in developed countries is the increased numbers of mature students in higher education. This is related to a new philosophy in higher education – lifelong learning. The “2020 Strategy,” which defines EHEA (Bologna Process) development, requires each country to elaborate special measures to support the most vulnerable categories of the population, guaranteeing the availability and possibility to complete every stage of education. Thanks to this strategy, the study process now involves people who never took the opportunity to gain a higher education before, and more importantly, attitudes are changing towards the value of work experience acquired before entering higher education.

According to data from the Education at a Glance report (2012), 20% of students from OECD countries who enrolled in 2010 were aged 26 or over. 10 According to ministry of education figures, however, only 13% of Belarusian students were aged 26 or over. 11 Before 2012, the number of students from this age group was increasing slightly, but too slowly to be considered a priority for the education system. The pledge to reduce extramural studies may take its toll on the availability of higher education for older people, since the quantitative growth of that age group was mostly related to extramural education.

Hopes of compensating for the funding deficit by internationalising higher education are also rather unrealistic. The state programme for higher education development in 2011–2015 foresees a threefold increase in visiting student mobility. It is planned to raise USD 186.71 million in five years through what the programme terms the export of educational services. According to preliminary calculations aired at the ministry of education meeting on February 6, 2013, the results for 2012 compared to previous year were: no less than 121.9% (or USD 22.8 million) for export of services, instead of the planned 115%, while the services foreign trade balance was USD 20.6 million, instead of the USD 9 million planned for 2012.

In the academic year 2012–2013, the total number of foreign citizens studying at all types of Belarusian educational establishments rose by 1,786 to reach 13,922, or 114% of the 2011 figure (12,136 people). 12 In 2011–2012, the total number of foreigners in higher education was 10,700.

Turkmens have been the most numerous foreign students in recent years. Out of the 10,700 foreign students in 2011–2012, 5,055 (or 47%) were citizens of Turkmenistan, 13 yet only five Turkmen students graduated in 2012. There are obvious political reasons for such explosive growth of mobility from that country. Following Lukashenko’s visit to Ashgabat in 2010, Belarus received a flood of student applications from Turkmenistan. Since president Niyazov had destroyed secondary and higher education in his country, it became impossible to guarantee minimum education standards there. In many cases, even studying in Belarus cannot remedy the situation, but higher educational establishments dare not fail unsatisfactory students, both for political and economic reasons. Belarusian higher education, which is not of especially high quality anyway, is losing out even more from this Turkmen internationalisation.

Currently, no more than 2.4% of students are foreigners, which is much lower than during the Soviet era. This is insufficient to make up for financial losses caused by demographic factors. The growth in the number of foreign students is being held back because Belarusian higher education is isolated from common European processes. Unless it is modernised, higher education cannot count on a large influx of foreign students. However, the current authorities have no real plans to modernise education. Within the mandate given to the ministry of education by the presidential administration in 2010, Belarusian higher education is limited to superficial imitations of certain elements of the Bologna model. The shattered illusion of gaining simple, unimpeded EHEA membership, and the deteriorating financial situation in higher education both mean that answers to these challenges must be sought.

In the current situation, the state is still banking on further price increases for study courses. The minister of education forecasts continued price rises for educational services, without offering the standard preferential student loan programmes that many countries do. Loans available from the Belarusian state are subject to much worse rates than in Europe.

The main problem for the authorities, however, is still secondary education. 66.7% of all budgetary funds are spent on preschool and general secondary education. But, according to the minister, the school education system is in a very bad way from the point of view of economic efficiency. The main indicator of financial efficiency in education is the student–teacher ratio, which has remained unchanged in recent years at the level of 8.5–8.6 pupils per teacher. Considering that this figure is somewhere between 13–16 pupils per teacher in Europe, the Belarusian situation seems economically unjustified.

International experts have pointed at the surfeit of teaching staff in the past, but the authorities have long turned a blind eye to it. Such inefficient spending was justified by using teachers to perform non-educational tasks: ranging from staffing polling stations to making people pay their debts for public utilities. The worsening economic situation forced the authorities to resort to such measures.

The ministry of education meeting on February 6, 2013 demonstrated that the authorities are now prepared to sacrifice their army of unpaid assistants. Deputy Prime Minister Anatol Tozik called for a 20–25% cut of budgetary funds, which could theoretically be used to provide incentives for the remaining teachers. 14 Time will tell how these funds will be used, but it is already clear that Tozik’s demands will require sacrifices, although the education system will gain the chance to modernise.

In addition to eliminating evening classes and professional training facilities, closing small schools, and setting strict limits on class sizes, the ministry announced an experiment to test a new school funding system based on a fixed budgetary provision for each pupil being taught. This is essentially an attempt to shift to voucher-based funding for secondary education, which has allowed the school education system to be optimised in certain countries. However, other countries have shown that this model only works if educational establishments are truly autonomous and there is competition among private and state schools, but Belarus has neither of these factors. Out of the 11 private schools set up in the mid-1990s, just five started a new academic year in 2012.

The Education Code makes no legislative provision to give educational establishments more independence. We will be seeing how far the authorities are prepared to go with modernising secondary education in 2013, when the experiment begins.

Conclusion

2012 was marked by a heightened crisis in education policy. The authorities are no longer capable of guaranteeing either the quality of education, or its social orientation. The combination of bureaucratic authoritarianism and meagre funding is driving the education system into an impasse from which it is impossible to escape without sacrificing its fundamental principles.

Since there is no chance of political liberalisation and decentralised education management under the current regime, we must hope for a semblance of economic liberalisation. In the Belarusian situation, liberalisation is understood to mean increasing the efficiency of the dwindling budgetary funds, and placing the burden on non-state funding sources. The authorities are willing to sacrifice social paternalism and available, affordable education, but will not allow education to be co-managed by the social groups that provide the bulk of its funding – parents, students, and employers.