Schools and Universities: Education policy deformations

Vladimir Dounaev

Summary

A fundamental defect of state education policy–the increasing social inequality in terms of access to quality education and, consequently, poor career perspectives – clearly manifested itself in 2019. The leadership of the ‘social welfare state’, including the Ministry of Education, chose to ignore this challenge.

The Ministry of Education defiantly excludes the social dimension from its strategies. At the same time, abandoning the inclusion policy, the ministry does not make decisive efforts to ensure high quality of secondary and tertiary education. Instead, it manipulates with the quality control tools, engages in political illusionism and pushes other stakeholders out of formal education.

In 2019, the Ministry of Education neutralized the attempts of the IT sector to steamroll vocational education reform and implemented a conservative strategy to minimize obligations to foreign donors.

Trends:
PISA shock that went unnoticed

In 2018, for the first time, Belarus took part in the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to PISA, the national secondary education system can be assessed based on the tested ability of 15-year-olds to apply the acquired knowledge.

Participation in PISA was part of the World Bank’s Secondary Education Modernization Project in Belarus. Tests were taken by 5,803 tenth graders of 236 educational institutions (176 schools, 27 gymnasiums, 6 lyceums, 13 colleges and 14 vocational schools). Contrary to expectation, the results of PISA testing published in December 20191 were not that shocking, and Education Ministry functionaries said they were quite satisfied with them. Belarus was rated 36th out of 79 countries that participated in PISA-2018, which can be regarded as a satisfactory result, but only at first glance.

The picture of this country’s average does not show the huge gap between education provided by elite and rural schools: a 106-point difference in reading literacy, 112 points in mathematical literacy and 113 in scientific literacy. Considering that 40 points is equivalent to 1 year of study, this gap means that rural schoolchildren are almost 3 years behind lyceum students.

A no less striking difference of 102 points can be seen between the results shown by schoolchildren from wealthy families and students from families with low socio-economic status. If there was a question about tutors on the questionnaire, perhaps, the success of the children from wealthy families could be attributed to the extra tuition, rather than the effectiveness of education at lyceums or gymnasiums.

Belarus is not the only country with striking inequality in terms of access to quality education. In most cases, this is a reason for alarm and significant education policy adjustments. Commenting on the PISA results in Belarus, World Bank expert Tigran Shmis tactfully remarked that the policy of coaching the top leaves those at the bottom forgotten, which means that education ceases to be a social lift that a social welfare state is supposed to provide. Well-balanced education policy and particular attention to those having lower grades gives better results and ensures prosperity, Shmis said.2 However, this opportunity gap neither surprised nor alarmed the Education Ministry. “In my opinion, we have normal conditions for everyone,” said Director of the Republican Institute for Knowledge Control Yuri Miksyuk.3

This understanding of what seems to be normal is clearly seen in the Education Ministry’s policy guidelines. The document ‘Conceptual Approaches to Development of the Education System of the Republic of Belarus for the Period to 2020 and the Outlook for the Period to 2030’ approved by the minister in 20174 does not set the task to ensure equal access to secondary or higher education for vulnerable groups of the population. The authors understand inclusive education as physical accessibility of school buildings for people with disabilities, and the authorities ignored all other social groups that need preferential support.

A similar approach is seen in the World Bank’s Belarus Higher Education Modernization Project5 and in the Strategy for the Development of State Youth Policy in the Republic of Belarus for the Period to 2030.6 None of them even mentions facilitated access to quality education.

There was no need to wait for PISA results to see this problem. Social deformations are also vivid in the official statistics on the availability of higher education, which declined from 85.6% to 64.8% in 2011–2018. The share of graduates of rural schools among university students was three times smaller than their share among schoolchildren. And 90.6% of those who study in the Belarusian language are rural schoolchildren, i. e. social discrimination goes hand in hand with cultural discrimination.

Even in those rare cases when care for inclusiveness is proclaimed, the effect is the opposite: the proportion of people with disabilities among university students is steadily decreasing. Besides, gender balance is being failed to achieve in higher education.

Quality vs availability: neither

The government has been accused for years of neglecting the quality of education for the sake of its accessibility. The accessibility as a fundamental principle of modern education is off the agenda now. Efforts to improve the quality, however, turn into political illusionism. Inflation of the results of centralized testing continued in 2019. A new approach to scoring made it possible to report the improved quality of secondary education.

But the declarative focus on the quality and modernization of secondary and higher education, for which the government takes foreign grants and loans, in fact, appears to be a mirage. Obligations taken under the Bologna process are not fulfilled even in the most reduced variants. The Education Ministry’s extremely diluted work plan for 2019 was not even half executed.7

Education authorities’ delusion manifested itself in the ban on cell phones in classrooms and regular coercion to vote early during elections, which students do not resist anymore. This universal conformism was slightly disturbed by the Youth Bloc during the 2019 parliamentary elections, but the reaction of both teachers and most students to the attempt of few bold spirits to unveil the administrative coercion to vote early rather indicates a mass adaptation to such manipulations and reluctance to challenge official results.

Even when actions of the authorities affect the vital interests of the people, as it happened when accreditation of five educational programs at the Minsk Innovation University was denied, the timid attempt to protest (the student strike on November 11, 2019) died out shortly after the Prosecutor’s Office issued an official warning. Society has got used to the arbitrary application of quality control tools so much that few believed that nothing but politics were behind the decision that put the university on the verge of closure.

Neither the academic community, nor civil society is willing to publicly protest against this quality control instrumentalization. And this passiveness contrasts markedly with the reaction to the closure of the European Humanities University in 2004, which caused massive protests. And now, 15 years later, there are just few unheard voices.

Corporate university instead of education reform

In 2019, the IT sector initiated a discussion of education reform in Belarus. The outwardly restrained dialogue between High Technology Park (HTP) residents and officials of the Ministry of Education, including rectors of several universities, could not but spill over reciprocal claims and grudges into the public domain.

HTP companies pointed at the inadequate skills of graduates resulted from poor academic education as a reason for refusal to hire. In turn, the minister and rectors said that potential employers did not generally apprehend the fundamental nature of educational programs, and required just niche specialization. In response to complaints about the quality of training, the minister spoke about the number of Belarusian universities and 24,000 students majoring in three dozen IT disciplines. In the absence of ‘fresh blood’ in the faculties who have long been obsolete in terms of the modern labor market requirements, university managers are inclined to blame the IT sector for poaching young specialists.

This kind of dialogue has no future and hence there is no hope for real higher education reform. Furthermore, according to President Lukashenko, “We have never initiated education reforms and we never will.” “We must improve what we have today and what we obtained yesterday,” he said.8

The attempts to push the system toward change come to naught. Similarly, in 2009–2010, HTP residents tried to find common language with the state regarding an improvement of IT education in universities. Round-table conferences were held, and a cooperation program was announced to combine efforts of the business community and government agencies for training personnel for IT companies.

With a view to comprehensively address IT education, the Council of Ministers of Belarus appointed a standing inter-agency ad hoc group headed by the first deputy minister of education (resolution of March 31, 2010), but the results were discouraging.

Similar attempts were made more than once later, but the interests of employers and education officials continued to diverge. The IT industry did not trigger changes in the higher education system.

The only thing the rectors and employers agreed on was that the legislation in force did not contribute to modernization of education. While the universities were determined to obediently wait for a new version of the Education Code, IT companies tried to obtain at least partial legal immunity for the implementation of the local corporate university project.

On October 14, Alexander Lukashenko held a meeting, after which then-Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Turchin announced the establishment if an IT university before the beginning of the new academic year.9 The legal status of this university is yet to be clarified, but it is already clear that it will be uneasy for its founders (IT companies, Belarusian State University and Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics) to align their interests. The administrations of these universities do not conceal their negative attitude to the new establishment, believing that they would provide better education to the future IT personnel than a corporate university.

The history of previous attempts to set up an advanced university in Belarus gives reason to doubt that this can be done now. For instance, there was a plan to open an international university “like Cambridge or Harvard” in 2010. The prime minister formed a task group to work on the project that, sabotaged by the Ministry of Education, died quietly after a while. The new IT university has enough opponents in the formal education system, and the president’s support cannot guarantee success. The failure to establish a Belarusian language university can be mentioned as an example.

Conclusion

The apparent and comprehensive deformation of state education policy manifested itself in 2019 as vividly as never before. The demonstrative neglect of the availability of quality education cannot be disputed after the PISA results were published.

Social obligations of the state are no longer included in the policy documents of the Ministry of Education, although the leader of the pro-president Communist Party of Belarus has been heading the ministry for three years now. On the other hand, the populist rhetoric of the highest political leadership, which, by law, is responsible for the content of state education policy, does not whatsoever influence the antisocial strategy of the Ministry of Education, which is strange.

The ministry, rectors and other education officials explain themselves, saying that there is no progress in legislative reform; employers are reluctant to contribute to financing education, etc. And yet they are suspicious when it comes to alternative strategies aimed at improving the quality of general and professional training.

It is unclear whether the World Bank will be able to railroad education reforms in Belarus in exchange for a quarter-billion loan. So far, the education system has managed to avoid pivotal changes, minimizing obligations and delaying their fulfilment. It is quite possible that the next stage of modernization of the state education system will be futile. The IT sector’s attempt to make a difference failed, and now, there is only hope for international stakeholders and efforts of the business community to work out an informal alternative to vocational education.