Education: Reformers’ successes and failures

Vladimir Dоunaev

Summary

The year 2014 is marked by a deepening crisis in Belarusian education. Failures of the enrollment campaign finally made the authorities and society recognize the catastrophic state of secondary education and a serious decline in academic standards at the tertiary level. The request for education reform coming from the heads of universities and some governmental officials questioned the ability of the presidential chain of command to formulate and monitor educational policies. However, such claims for decentralization of control and revision of the policy framework in the education sector could not remain unpunished. By the end of the year some reformers had to leave the political scene and the rest were taught a lesson.

Trends:
Prerequisites for the reform

2014 began with great expectations of changes in Belarusian education policy. In December 2013 parliamentary hearings on modernization of the legislation were held. The agenda included decentralization of education management and expansion of the autonomy of educational institutions. Calls from universities heads and education officials sounded very unusual and awakened the hope for substantial changes in academic life.

It seemed that we were one step away from the reform of the Educational Code that would give the autonomy to educational institutions in personnel, financial and educational spheres. As it turned out, some thought about almost the impossible i.e. the restoration of the concept of election of university heads cancelled in 1997. This organizational autonomy is supposedly necessary in order to avoid another failure in the admittance of Belarus to the Bologna process.

Indeed, in 2012, the Bologna Secretariat at the request of the Belarusian Ministry of Education to admit Belarus to the European space of higher education explained that the low level of institutional autonomy along with the suppression of academic freedoms and the weak participation of students in the governance of universities made the Europeans postpone the decision until 2015. It should be added that in 2012 the memories of repressions in the universities against students and professors after the December protests in 2010 were still fresh. Therefore, the election of university heads could have become a significant step towards the democratization of the governance of universities, and also to weaken the political instrumentalization of higher education.

It is possible to indicate one more factor that supported the request for the return to the election of the heads of universities. The heads of universities felt their helplessness before the administrative arbitrariness on the part of higher authorities. The dismissal in February 2013 of the head of Hrodna State University showed that the resignation of a head of an institution does not require even minimal legal grounds. Any whim of the Governor would do. In this atmosphere the call for the establishment of at least some of the barriers against tyranny could not but find the understanding and support on the part of university heads. Moreover, it is possible to justify it by the Bologna requirements. But on the part of the presidential chain of command the idea of decentralization of educational management always met with the growing resistance.

It is probable that the reformers and their supporters overstepped the line when the Presidential Administration was forced to agree to a new version of the rules of the enrollment to universities and colleges. A long-term struggle for the abolition of the separate competition for graduates of rural and urban schools seemed to end with the victory of university heads.

On March 20, 2014 President Lukashenko signed Decree No. 130 On amendments and additions to the Decree No .80 of the President of the Republic of Belarus dated February 7, 2006, which approved a new edition of the rules of enrollment to institutions of higher and vocational secondary education. Separate competition not only cultivated the inequality of the requirements for enrollment, but was also one of the cornerstones of the educational policy that had been formed after the presidential elections of 2001. At that time the fear of protest made the government begin to create the system to ensure the loyalty of students. One of the main instruments was the manipulation of the social makeup of students. The privileges for enrollment to the institutions of higher education for rural youth were to weaken the critical mood in the student’s environment, because the rural population was seen as loyal to the President.

The abolition of separate competition in order to improve the quality of entrants meant real claims of the heads of universities to participate in the formation of educational policy, infringing on the President's exclusive powers fixed in the Educational Code. And these claims could not remain without consequences. In March, during the discussion of the new rules of enrollment to universities and colleges, it became clear that the responsibility for the failures in educational policy would be laid at the Ministry of Education instead of the true culprit. Although the draft changes and amendments to the Educational Code, brought up for public discussion by the Ministry in May 2014, had little from the original request to strengthen the autonomy of educational institutions and the decentralization of industry, the mechanism of repressions had already started to work. The occasion occurred pretty soon.

Achilles’ heel of the educational system

Another scandalous failure of the enrollment campaign made it clear what had before been ignored both by the authorities and the society: a challenging low quality of secondary and tertiary education. Despite the reduction plan of enrollment and admission requirements they failed to fill even the budget places. On August 8, receiving the Minister of Education Sergei Maskevich and the First Deputy Head of Administration Alexander Radkov with the report, President Lukashenko threatened to seriously investigate the whole system of education of Belarus. 1 This led to establishing a working group headed by the Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Tozik on the integrated analysis of the educational system.

On September 9 the group started to work under conditions of unprecedented openness. On the one hand, the mandate of the working group explicitly intended to optimize budget expenditures on education. On the other hand, it was necessary somehow to explain the depressing decline of academic standards and the quality of education. Although Anatoly Tozik had earlier also complained about the waste and inefficiency in education funding, this time he suggested the saving be done at the expense of the intensification of the teachers’ work and the shifting of costs onto the shoulders of parents.

However, the recommendations of the working group included other measures except for these unpopular ones. Basically, Anatoly Tozik suggested quite a modern strategy of changes of the principles of financing education: “We believe that schools must be transferred into a normative financing on the principle “money follows the student”. Thus the right should be given to the head of the school to reallocate funds from one expenditure to another and to use budget savings for teachers’ higher salaries”. 2 In some countries, this policy has led to a considerable improvement in the quality of education, having made the school administration reckon with the public assessment of the performance of educational institutions. Especially if changes in management and financing are combined with the development of real competition among schools for students. In the heat of a battle against the collapse of the social obligations of the state, the public just didn't notice these innovative proposals of Anatoly Tozik. But they were appreciated by the World Bank that supported the project of modernization of the secondary education in Belarus and contributed USD 50 million.

The working group soundly focused on the problems of the secondary school which Anatoly Tozik called the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the educational system. For the first time since the discussions about the return to the 11-year education, the 2008 reform of secondary education had been so strongly criticized by one of the leaders of the government. The main conclusion of the working group was as follows: due to the 11-year secondary education and a 5-day school week the Belarusian school lagged behind the world leaders in a quality of secondary education. 3 Six years ago a fatal mistake was made, the responsibility for which is laid personally to the president. And although no one dared publicly indicate the person guilty of the disaster in education, the role of the president in pushing this disastrous reform seemed obvious.

The sequence of reforms and counter-reforms is a usual thing. The whole history of the Soviet education is a witness to this. But unlike the fuzzy collective responsibility for the failures of the educational policy in the USSR, the Belarusian exclusive right of the president on the formation of public policy in education turned into a known penalty associated with the concentration of power. Hardly Anatoly Tozik had the intention to discredit the President. But such harsh assessment of educational policy was a real request for decentralization of education management and empowering not only officials but other actors in strategic decision-making as well.

A specific signal, calling employers to connect to the management of the quality of professional education at all levels, was Decree No. 34 of the Council of Ministers dated January 17, 2014 On some issues of the development of the national system of qualifications in the Republic of Belarus. It promised a long-awaited transition from the Soviet system of tariff-qualification reference to the European framework of qualifications. Until recently Belarus was the only country in the region where employers do not have the mechanisms to influence the training system. Although innovation never went beyond the belated pilot project, even this step revealed some prospects of public participation in the management of education.

However, it should be recognized that the chosen model does not encourage the initiative of the unions and associations of employers in the development of the requirements to the quality of education. But, in spite of a tough bureaucratic control over the process of the development of professional standards it is possible to see in the new system of professional qualifications the seedlings of a more active labor market participation in the requirements for university graduates and other professional institutions.

Counter-reform

To share power, even in such an area as education, was not included in the President’s plans. Risks of external threats and the upcoming presidential election did not leave the reformers a chance. The catastrophic situation in education was turned by the President into an argument against those who thought about reforms. The school curriculum is halfway ‘rubbish’, the higher education system is based on the needs of the past, but those are guilty who criticize the educational policy. 4 The fact that our education is no good, does not justify calls for changes. In the Belarusian political dictionary the word ‘reform’ is a strict taboo, because whatever the euphemisms are used by hidden and explicit reformers, they impinge on power.

The Education Minister Sergei Maskevich, and Vice Premier Anatoly Tozik were dismissed at the end of 2014. It seemed that all their critical evaluation and reform plans should have been discarded and forgotten. At the end of the year the President said that the Commission headed by Anatoly Tozik did not cope with the task and the circumstances of its work would be checked by law enforcement. 5 The previous openness and public debate vanished without a trace. Therefore nothing is known about the objections to the Commission and about the work of a new group.

A new working group, headed by Henadz’ Palchyk, the Chairman of the State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles has learned a lesson. But the question whether the secret reformers drew correct conclusions from the signal sent to them by the supreme power, remains unanswered. 2015 will show whether it became possible to free the political scene of education from the ‘frauds’.

Conclusion

The populist policy during the year of the presidential election means that any attempts to reform the educational system will be blocked. Using the fear rooted in the society of radical changes in education (as in other spheres), the presidential chain of command neutralizes the demands of various interest groups to participate in the formation of educational policy.

Some local projects with international participation and the willingness of the European partners to put up with the academic repressions in the Belarusian universities will allow the authorities to cultivate the illusion of a successful internationalization of secondary and tertiary schools in Belarus.