Education policy: The power of old decisions made by someone else

Vladimir Dounaev

Summary

The year 2016 was marked by the ongoing tacit conflict of two strategies for responding to chronic problems in Belarus and the global challenges to education in the 21st century. Moderate reformers in the government and academic circles continued attempts to legislate certain tools for modernization and integration of national education into the international education system without stepping into direct conflict with the conservatives.

Trends:
Introduction

The next education policy cycle ended in 2016. It has been determined for years by a confrontation between two competing strategies that coexist in the Belarusian education sector in spite of the inexorable logic of centralization. The third attempt since 2010 to counter sectoral logic and common sense with the illogical and neurotic reaction of the country’s leadership to the growing crisis in national education ended up in the removal of Mikhail Zhuravkov from office of education minister in December 2016.

The signs of this crisis are obvious:

It is not even about those very problems, but their chronic nature. They have not been addressed for many years due to the populist education policy, ideological instrumentalization of the education system, lack of funding and impaired efficiency of investments. Underlying global crisis phenomena are thus seen behind these already familiar problems.

A regression scenario for Belarusian education

The fact that Belarusian education faces a new unprecedented challenge can hardly be denied. Even President Lukashenko admitted in his annual address to the nation and parliament that changes in education were inevitable to respond to the “incredible, stratospheric leap in the development of society.” 1 However, the strategy for responding to this challenge has distinct features of a regressive perversion: instead of modernization scenarios, the answer is sought in returning to previous patterns.

In order to understand the state of education in Belarus, it is important to reconstruct the education policy promoted by the president. Although it is in the president’s exclusive jurisdiction to determine this policy, we would not find any intelligible description of it whatsoever. Therefore, we only can reconstruct one having in mind a number of Lukashenko’s program statements. He frankly shared his understanding of education threats no less than three times in 2016 and pointed at the necessity to find viable solutions.

Although he admitted that “graduates’ knowledge and the level of educational institutions, regretfully, leaves much to be desired”, he resolutely rejected any attempts to remedy the situation through the adoption of best foreign practices and supranational protocols. He flatly stated that “the copying of foreign practices is inadmissible.” 2

The Bologna Process came under Lukashenko’s criticism in 2016. Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area in 2015 on condition that the standards and values of the Bologna Process set by the Belarusian higher education reform roadmap would be implemented in the national legislation by 2018. This road map could not be accepted by Belarus without approval by the Presidential Administration. However, last year, Lukashenko saw a threat in it. “They will simply ruin the old, normal education system, and nothing will come in its place,” he said. 3

There is also a more distinct indication of the risks of copying western patterns. Above all, it is the brain drain problem. “We are bursting to get there, in this Bologna Process. What for? Graduates will receive diplomas and travel all over the world? Do you really want this?” the president said. 4

The last argument only seems justified at first thought. It is not the openness to the world, but self-isolation of Belarusian higher education that motivates young people to seek better options outside the country. According to UNESCO, Belarus is among Europe’s leaders in terms of the number of students studying abroad, not far behind Ukraine, the population of which is almost five times bigger (35,898 Belarusian and 39,670 Ukrainian students in 2013). 5

The dynamics of the number of Belarusian students studying abroad is even more indicative. From 2005 to 2015, this number increased three-fold from 11,313 to 34,723 and it spikes every time when an attempt is made to isolate the education system of Belarus. So, after the isolationist reform of secondary education in 2008, the number of Belarusians studying in foreign universities doubled against 2007 from 14,835 to 29,772. After the crackdown on protesters in 2010, the number rose to 40,525 in 2011. Vice versa, when Belarus approached the European Higher Education Area, the outflow of young people to foreign universities went down from 41,591 in 2012 to 34,723 in 2015. 6

Reliable statistics on the outflow of graduates and young professionals is not available, but it is well known that they leave not because the national education system is being modernized, but because the country has no decent employment options to offer. So, not the Bologna Process but the conservative policy of the Belarusian leadership is what pushes Belarusians to leave their homeland.

The second threat, in Lukashenko’s opinion, is connected with the penetration of modern digital technologies into everyday life. Given the fundamental trans-border nature of these technologies, the ability of the national education system to control students’ development is very limited. Lukashenko suggests neutralizing these new threats with the help of revived traditional tools of ideological control, patriotic and moral upbringing, and calls for involving “ideologists and constructive public organizations” in this work. 7

Regressive responses to new social challenges are seen in the president’s reaction to a significant deterioration of the situation in the labor market for graduates of universities and other educational institutions. Young professionals face big employment problems. For the first time in many years, the shortage of human resources changed into a shortage of jobs, especially for people with no work experience.

Under these conditions, the system of compulsory placement of graduates inherited from the Soviet Union has turned into an obvious anachronism. Its preservation became possible mainly due to manipulation of statistics, direct pressure on the management of educational institutions and intimidation of students. Under government pressure, provosts and deans have to compensate the shortage of employment proposals for graduates with coercion of students, who do not pay for education, to provide fake proposals from potential employers to make the statistics look nice. Even after admitting the problem, President Lukashenko denied the necessity to reconsider the employment system. 8

Belarus needs an employment strategy for young people and a comprehensive program for increasing the employment of graduates by strengthening the link between higher education and the labor market, encouraging the creation of jobs for young people, training, retraining, internships, job quotas for young professionals and other instruments, which have proved effective in Europe, but the president is willing to sacrifice social and economic efficiency for the sake of the Soviet ideological mirage. However, government officials are not always willing to cultivate such myth-making. The frequent replacement of ministers and heads of line agencies in the past three or four years shows that Alexander Lukashenko still fails to impose his mythology and education policy despite the intimidating messages that he sends to the government. 9

Education modernization strategy

Moderate reformers try to mitigate consequences of the regressive scenario for Belarusian education by implementing modern international tools for updating it without directly conflicting with the ‘bright past’ myths. On the program level, the discrepancy between the two strategies (modernization and ‘rescue’) of general and vocational education is easy to notice, firstly, because moderate reformers localize best education practices not in the Soviet past, but abroad, in OECD member states. Secondly, the future of national education is seen not in isolation from the West, but in a global harmonization and internationalization of approaches to its development.

There is a set of globally recognized tools for the effective integration of national education systems in the common education area: university ratings, programs for evaluating educational achievements and supranational protocols like the Bologna Process. All these integration tools can be found in program documents and legislative acts that determine the development of Belarusian education. In 2016, one can trace the chain of program texts from the conceptual article by Minister Zhuravkov titled ‘The Tasks of National Importance’ through the Government Program ‘Youth and Education Policy’ to the draft Code of Education. 10

It is indicative that the conceptual design transits to legislative implementation, the reformatory creative impulse in these documents is going down, and the number of concessions to the pressure of conservative censorship is increasing. Nevertheless, requirements of the roadmap for higher education reform as related to the three-level Bologna architecture of higher education, tools for ensuring the transparency of learning outcomes and recognition of diplomas are transferred to the draft Code of Education. The government program Education and Youth Policy reflects such internationalization tools and criteria to evaluate successes of secondary and higher educational institutions, as global university ratings and international programs for assessing educational achievements of schoolchildren.

Many requirements of supranational protocols are blocked by regressive educational ideology and political prejudices. Active resistance of the Presidential Administration does not allow implementing European academic values and non-discriminatory instruments of social policy in education (primarily all obligations to reconsider the policy of employment of graduates of universities, colleges and other institutions of professional education) in the legislation.

The development of such an important tool for the harmonization of education and the labor market, as the National Framework for Qualifications encounters inconsistency and lack of cooperation between different ministries and departments. Sometimes, even right decisions are devalued by the contradictory nature of laws, legal nihilism and conservatism within academic circles.

The pace of reforming of the education system is so slow that it can bury hopes for change among the most optimistic of its supporters. In 2016, it became clear that the implementation of the roadmap for higher education reform by the 2018 Paris Summit is unlikely to be over 25% or 30%. Carrying out the World Bank recommendations for enhancing the efficiency of funding secondary education in 2016 has not yet gone beyond an expanded experiment on the prescriptive financing of 183 schools. The equalization of the rights of educational institutions of different forms of ownership resulted in allowing non-governmental organizations to access local budgets under pre-school education programs.

And yet, despite strong regressive trends and blocking of reforms, the year 2016 did not deprive us of the hope that the reformers will not suffer a complete defeat in the confrontation of educational strategies, and the vector of changes will be preserved.

Conclusion

There were no significant changes in the Belarusian education policy last year. Advocates of reforms in government and academic institutions had to put in overproportionately hard efforts to neutralize the regressive dynamics. The end of 2016 was even marked by an event that the public perceived as a revenge of the conservatives: moderate reformer Minister of Education, Professor Zhuravkov was replaced by Igor Karpenko, a communist and bureaucrat, and a proponent of the president’s retro-ideology. However, the logic of the educational sector can make adjustments to the position of the new minister.

At the same time, despite all the differences, the reformist and conservative strategies are united by the common way of dealing with the future, which carries threats, to which neither society, nor the country’s leadership is ready to respond. The answers are based on the belief in the wisdom of old and someone else’s decisions. There are those who are seeking survival in the restoration of the Soviet past, while others are looking at Russia’s president as a model for their own future. There are virtually no attempts to capture the long-term trends in the development of education, and if there are any, they are still weak and local, and remain outside the area of formal education.