Education: Sovereignty and security above all
In 2021, the extensive and intensive indicators of education continued to deteriorate. Legislative changes, first of all those connected with the new wording of the Education Code, were not basically intended for a real transformation or development of education in Belarus, but only for the final legalization of the existing administrative practices and punitive tools.
Education quality assessments were increasingly shifted to the tasks of securitization, i. e. patriotic education and full external control of faculties and academic aspects of activities of educational institutions, response to information threats that might affect students, and reorientation of international relations from the West to the East.
- Securitization of education at all levels, from kindergartens to universities; shifting of the threat to national security from the streets to classrooms;
- Making of education part of the national security system, and reorientation of internal practices and international relations of the education system toward this task;
- Ideological monopoly of the state, and the ousting of all other stakeholders from educational processes by means of total administrative control.
- In 2021, the oases of academic culture that have existed covertly for the past decade suddenly surfaced in explicit or tacit support for protests in 2020, and were suppressed with unprecedented vigor. Administrative control and the ideological monopoly of the state have been hastily asserted. However, this was uneasy because of the system’s inertia, departmental incoherence, and the poor motivation of a significant part of the academic community and some of the stakeholders.
Education fits into the general trend of depopulation and a gradual deterioration of intensive indicators in 2021, i.e. the number of students on all tiers of education per 10,000 population.1 The number of educational institutions and the number of students of all types of institutions from kindergartens to universities has been decreasing each and every year. The relatively stable number of secondary school students is the only exception.
For many years, intensive indicators have been a source of pride for the authorities and an argument for justifying their educational policy. With 619 students per 10,000 population and the 87% higher education rate in 2013, Belarus was among the top countries, staying behind a small group of leaders like South Korea and the United States. As of today, this figure dropped to 282 students per 10,000 population.
Comparisons with other countries are no longer comforting to the authorities. However, as before, these figures do not indicate the quality of the national education system, but only the availability of higher education, which has also been in decline for quite a while. Over the past five years, the specialized secondary school enrollment rate decreased from 42.6 to 40.6 percent in 2021, and university enrollment rate from 71.9 to 63.8 percent.
As concerns the quality of higher education, its structure, i. e. the ratio of students at different levels of higher education (undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate studies), is also an important indicator. The already small number of master’s degree and doctoral students decreased in 2021 even more.
The number of secondary schools continued to decrease, mostly in rural areas, with a small overall increase in enrollment. There were 2,967 schools in the 2021/22 academic year to compare with 3,009 in the previous year. This reduction is justified economically. It follows European trends, and, ideally, makes it possible to enhance the quality of education of the young rural population. However, the catastrophic gap in the level of education of rural and urban students demonstrated in 2018 by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and the student – teacher ratio, which is far from the European standard, show that the reduction in the number of schools has solved neither educational nor economic problems.
The process of russification of secondary schools continues. In the 2006/06 academic year, 23.3% of pupils were taught in the Belarusian language, while there were 10.2% in 2020/21. This is also directly related to the closure of schools in rural areas, since it is precisely such schools that use (often nominally) the Belarusian language.
New version of the Education Code
Shortly after the Education Code came into force in 2011, it became obvious that it needed a substantial revision. It took ten years for its new version to become law.2 Unfortunately, the latest version of the Code (like the previous one) is not intended for a real transformation and development of education, but only legitimizes the established practices.
In some rare cases, the Code approves something new and long overdue, such as the combination of school-leaving exams and university entrance exams after the 11th grade, but the innovations are still disappointing due to their half-heartedness and inconsistency. For instance, the combined centralized examination is introduced only in two subjects, leaving the rest unchanged.
The Diploma Supplement in accordance with the common European model adopted after more than a decade of promises can be mentioned among positive changes. This is the only Bologna obligation that has been almost completely fulfilled.
The three-step Bologna architecture has still not been adapted to the structure of higher education. Despite the Education Ministry’s attempts of late to include postgraduate education in the higher education system, it is not enshrined in the Code. There has been no progress in the legislative adoption of such a Bologna instrument as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). Without it, neither international mobility, nor elective courses, nor individual academic paths have a guaranteed basis.
There is no progress in the field of independent education quality assurance. Instead of a promised independent quality monitoring agency, the Ministry of Education got a new departmental branch – the National Agency for Quality Assurance in Education.
The social dimension of higher education has not been enriched by either a renewed system of post-graduation employment assistance or inclusion tools. Belarus just solidified and expanded the obligatory post-graduation job placement. The Code provides a very narrow concept of inclusion, limited to persons with disabilities. The most important goal of educational policy – ensured accessibility of higher education for all vulnerable groups – has disappeared from strategic documents. There is no such thing either in the Education System Development Concept of Belarus for the period to 2030, or in the Code.
Any progress in terms of academic values was hard to expect. Among the principles of state educational policy, there is still no room for preservation, dissemination and development of national culture, autonomy of educational institutions and academic freedom, or social partnership in education. Instead, the repressive mechanism of legislation on education has been significantly reinforced. Paragraphs on the persecution for any manifestation of protest, and repeated punishment or restriction on rights of those who have already been punished administratively or criminally were added to the Code. On the one hand, the Code limits the rights of parents to influence the education process or to choose a school. On the other hand, it makes them responsible for the behavior of their children.
The only small consolation is that the Code is not a directly applicable law, and there is no reason to hope for an eased or liberalized regulatory framework of education in bylaws.
Internationalization of education
The Education Ministry reported around 27,000 foreign students in Belarusian universities, although the National Statistics Committee (Belstat) only counted 20,936. Almost half of them were citizens of Turkmenistan. As before, the inbound mobility is inferior to the outbound mobility.
A fundamental change in the vector of outbound mobility is noteworthy. For a long time, most Belarusians (more than 70% of those who left to study) went to Russian universities. Last year, the attractiveness of Poland was almost equal to that of Russia. According to the Gromyko Association for Foreign Policy Studies, the number of Belarusian students in Russian universities in 2021 stood at 10,600, whereas Poland alone accounted for 9,700 Belarusian students, as reported by the Perspectives Educational Foundation. Russia has ceased to dominate this market despite all efforts of the authorities of the two countries to promote the Common Education Space.
The attractiveness of Belarus to Russian students did not grow either. Five years ago, 1,700 Russians studied in Belarus, while there were 1,400 in 2021. Russia significantly increased the quotas for free education of Belarusians in 2021 from 200 to 700 student spaces, and recommended its universities to accept them not only on the basis of the uniform state exam results, but also based on the Belarussian centralized testing.
Simultaneously, the number of direct interuniversity agreements increased to over 1,500. The number of joint events was growing rapidly. Associations and forums of sectoral universities were strengthened and expanded. However, the result was very modest despite the crisis of the Western vector, i. e. the curtailment of institutional interuniversity cooperation with European partners, which took place due the large-scale violation of the academic rights of Belarusian students and teachers on the one hand, and the expulsion of the Goethe Institute, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Polish educational organizations, etc., from Belarus on the other hand.
Meanwhile, cooperation with Chinese universities is developing quite successfully. China significantly increased the number of its students in Belarus: 3,634 in the 2020/21 academic year against 1,435 in 2019/20. Today, more than 2,800 Chinese citizens are studying at the Belarusian State University (64% of the total number of foreign students). Previously, Turkmenistan was the uncontested leader in this respect.
The number of Belarusians in all educational programs in China is about 1,000 people. The Ministry of Education reports around 500 direct cooperation agreements between educational institutions of the two countries with more than 20 joint educational programs of the first level of higher education and around a dozen of the second level. Belarus and China have two joint educational institutions and four research laboratories. There are six Confucius Institutes at Belarusian universities, which go far beyond the learning of the Chinese language. For instance, the Confucius Institute in Sweden was accused of restricting academic freedom, monitoring Chinese students abroad, and promoting ideas and goals of the Chinese Communist Party.
The policy of self-isolation from Europe and curtailment of official contacts between European universities and Belarusian partners switched academic cooperation and support for student mobility to the more targeted assistance to repressed students and teachers both in Europe (U4Belarus Scholarships – SALT, etc.) and inside Belarus (Polish scholarship programs NAWA “Solidarni z naukowcami”, Kalinowski Program, German DAAD scholarships, Hilda Damin Program, Czech, Norwegian, Lithuanian and other scholarships). Despite the unprecedented international academic support, the effectiveness of many endeavors is lower than expected due to formalism and bureaucratic obstacles. Afghanistan got much higher on the agenda of scholarship programs than Belarus since the middle of the year.
The Belarusian Ministry of Education tried to maintain a semblance of participation in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). However, in December 2021, even the very tolerant highest executive body of the Bologna Process – the Bologna Follow-up Group (BFUG) – removed Belarus from the presidency by a majority vote in 2022 at the request of the European Students Union. Apart from the reputational damage, this decision does not particularly threaten education in Belarus, but it is noteworthy that the BFUG for the first time decided to resort to voting to choose between fundamental academic values and to choose values by consensus.
Securitization of education
Securitization of education means an interpretation of problems of this area as an existential threat to national security and a right of emergency action, bypassing standard legal and political procedures. This is how the authorities assessed the situation in educational institutions after the 2020 protests. Participants in the Republican Pedagogical Council held on August 23–24, 2021 outlined objectives and mechanisms of securitization. It was established that there is a direct ideological monopoly; education cannot stay out of politics, and the only policy is that of the state; there must be total administrative control over all aspects of education.3
Education is subordinated to the priority task of promotion of patriotism based on the Program of Patriotic Education of the Population of Belarus in 2022–2025 approved by the Council of Ministers on December 29, 2021 (resolution No.773). The program is meant as a response to geopolitical challenges and the need to strengthen the national sovereignty and security. The authorities appointed the National Interdepartmental Coordinating Council for Patriotic Education chaired by Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Igor Lutsky. The curricula and textbooks are being updated in accordance with the patriotic education tasks.
Alexander Lukashenko tasked to work out a standard for schools based on various aspects from the classroom management to the personal appearance of students and teachers. Updated internal regulations prohibit any unauthorized actions or statements. The statements that can be interpreted as discrediting Belarus are criminalized, and the Ministry of Education is now among the entities responsible for countering extremism (the new version of the law on countering extremism).
The Ministry of Education issued resolution No.146 on July 15, 2021, which revises the model personnel establishment and staff size standards in secondary education institutions. It introduces the full-time position of one person in charge of military-patriotic education in institutions (except for elementary schools, special needs schools, evening schools, specialized institutions) with 351 or more students and cadet schools, and one half-time position in institutions with 50 to 350 students, 2,000 staff positions in total.
Vice rectors in charge of security and human resources were appointed to universities. Information about them is not available in the public domain. According to the documents somehow obtained by journalists, the tasks of the vice rectors are to oversee activities related to state secrets, ensure information security, coordinate interaction with security and law enforcement agencies, detect, prevent and suppress actions that threaten university employees’ safety, etc.
A staff rotation in university administrations and faculties continued. The state tightened its control over the Belarusian Republican Youth Union. The updated Education Code significantly limits access to education for civil society organizations and parents’ influence on educational processes.
The securitization policy principle is that “only a patriot can educate a patriot,” which, as the authorities declare, primarily concerns the teaching staff of universities. BeSSA documented 3,234 cases of various kinds of pressure and harassment of university teachers, ranging from threats, fines, and dismissals to imprisonment.4 This is, certainly, an incomplete list of victims of purges of disloyal educators. But even these figures show that the repressions affected a sizable part of 19,000 teachers. In contrast to universities, secondary school teachers look more trustworthy to the authorities,5 and they have even more tasks ahead, primarily to bring discipline to schools by any means.
Adjustments to the social composition of the student community through the stimulation and expansion of the targeted enrollment of those from the loyal population groups were a quite logical step in securitization policy and a ‘reloading’ of the education system. So far, the targeted enrollment attempts have not been very successful, and employers have showed little support for that. New measures largely focus on the political aspect (“loyal staff”). Graduates of sports, pedagogical and military-patriotic orientation classes, children of servicemen and policemen, who died or were disabled in the line of duty, enjoy priority rights of admission to universities now.
The Republican Pedagogical Council also identified the socio-professional groups that pose a threat to national security, in particular, large technology companies that are suspected of using internal commercial management systems for subversive ideological activities.
The IT industry and digitalization come as a serious challenge to the system, requiring a rapid response. With this in mind, the authorities prioritize the creation of a unified information and education resource base, aggressive penetration into social media, and control over professional training for the IT sector, feeling uncomfortable and suspicious of advanced information technologies. As a consequence, there is a perverse desire to fence off the new with old educational myths.
Combined with the post-election depression in Belarusian society, the Russian-Ukrainian war rendered forecasts of education development inside and outside Belarus irrelevant, and significantly increased the uncertainty. Belarusians, who have left or stay in the country can no longer count on unconditional sympathy and international support as victims of academic repression. Both the official education system and independent educational institutions of Belarusian diasporas are approaching a bifurcation point. At the moment, it is hard to predict the trajectory of future events. Unfortunately, little will depend on Belarusian educators, so one can only expect a reactive behavior of all Belarusian education actors in 2022.