Academic non-freedoms

Uladzimir Matskevich, philosopher and methodologist — for “The Belarusan Magazine”

In order to join the Bologna process in practice, Belarus needs institutional structural changes.

After the launch of the first satellite and Gagarin space exploration a myth about Soviet education as the best in the world was formed. The myth survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and exists till now, though not in its original form. Mythologized image of Soviet education existed not only in the USSR, but also in the West. Soviet ideology announced all Soviet to be the best in the world and didn’t require criticism and analysis. Whereas in the West the successes of the Soviet Union in outer space caused panic, which stimulated the analysis of the Soviet education system.

In reality, Soviet education has never surpassed European and American systems of education. Certain successes were made in training engineers, doctors, and military men. However, education in the sphere of natural science and humanities and social sciences in particular was no good at all.

It became obvious in 1980s-90s, when it was discovered that there is no one who can take care of managing new states that were formed at the ruins of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it turned out that basically all population of these countries is economically illiterate. So we had to eliminate economic, legal, and social illiteracy quickly and learn the easiest things. Feverish and non-system changes, unconsidered reforms of the education system has not only left the flaws and drawbacks of the Soviet system, but have also created new problems.

Soviet education also had its achievements: mass character, availability, standardization, and produceability. But even all of that had its negative side.

Mass character and availability make establishment of an average level education possible. If higher education isn’t mass, admission to universities presupposes selection of the most successful school graduates. Before 1970s universities were available to no more than every 5-6th person with a secondary education. While the proportion remained like this, secondary schools had to keep quite high level of education.

However, in 1980s and especially in 1990s the number of higher education institutions started growing rapidly. Universities started admitting more and more students, whose level not always corresponded to the universities’ demands. That’s where the reverse tendency started to prevail. Being in competition for students, universities started lowering demands to the quality of education. Higher education started to transfer into mass education with an inevitable loss of quality.

Situation has become even more complicated because at that time universities had to compete not only inside the closed system of education inside the USSR, but also with the European and American universities. Relatively open borders and mobility revealed new drawbacks of the Soviet education, such as, for example, language illiteracy and social incompetence. It turned out that methods of teaching languages in Soviet education were of no good. The situation has been even worse with social competence, i.e. the ability to adapt to other social norms and live in a different cultural environment.

New problems and challenges that post-Soviet countries have been facing have put universities into a very difficult situation. Academic community in the post-Soviet countries wasn’t ready to resolve these problems and answer the challenges.

The only positive answer to these problems and challenges was the rejection of Soviet education standards and switch to European standards. That required time, all the more that elaboration of European standards (Bologna process) started almost 10 years after the crisis that blew up at the post-Soviet area.

Bologna process is aimed at standardization of education in different countries and European regions, i.e. at resolving the same tasks that standardization of education used to resolve in the USSR. This global task is resolved completely different in Europe than in the USSR.

Everything was centralized in the USSR; none of the universities were able to oppose the decisions of the Ministry of Education, which it had to submit to. To enable quick implementation of centralized decisions independence and autonomy of universities had to be suppressed. Even in the tsarist Russia before 1917 universities didn’t have that freedom and autonomy that the universities in Europe and America had.

In order to understand what was happening in Belarusan universities after they got independence we need to clarify some notions and categories.

“Academic freedoms”. This notion was barely used in the USSR. Standardization of curriculum left very little freedom for the choice of forms and methods of work both in the auditorium and in the choice of students’ topics for research. Students were unable to influence the content of the disciplines, couldn’t choose them, not to mention self-government. Assignment of young specialists after their graduation made students completely dependent not on their university, but rather on plans of the party and the government.

Special place in post-Soviet countries is given to the Higher Attestation Commission that has monopolized the right for awarding academic degrees and titles. The state, not academic community awards academic degrees. Special academic councils were established in universities and higher education institutions for that; however, long-term practice of such non-free academic councils led to corrupted structures and “filters” of the Higher Attestation Commission. Dissertations are evaluated not by their quality and scientific value, but by compliance with the Higher Attestation Commission or by loyalty to its members.

Democratization during the first years of Belarus’ independence touched upon the system of higher education, but soon degenerated into its complete antipode. A number of universities held chancellor elections. However, the chosen chancellors went out of control of the academic community that didn’t exist, so they quickly started turning into “dictators” in their universities — almost like presidents in post-Soviet countries. Upon getting power and authority they turned higher education institutions into their commercial enterprises. Those, who succeeded in it, became irremovable; whereas private universities were initially established as commercial enterprises, which, however negative, led to their autonomy from the state.

Such situation in universities was even more complicated because the Education Ministry and the state ruled them, which in no way satisfied the regime that was established in Belarus in 1994. By the beginning of a new century the elections of university chancellors was eradicated — first in the state universities, and by 2003 in private ones, too. The rudiments of the student self-governance were also eradicated.

Thus, in terms of political, social, and administrative frames, the system of higher education in Belarus is restored to the state it used to be in the 1960s-70s. A lot of changes happened in universities’ functioning caused by the borrowed norms and standards of the Bologna process: periods of education, stages of preparation (Baccalaureate and Master’s degree), workflow, and rules of hiring the teaching staff.

Belarus is trying to build in in the processes of European integration; is trying to follow the dynamics and changes in the world. However, these attempts bring no result. In order to really join the Bologna process institutional structural changes in different spheres are needed.

Actors of Bologna process are universities and states; whereas in Belarus it is only the state that is the full actor, while universities can’t and won’t be full actors until their status is changed. Neither the rector of the university, nor professors or academic community can make independent decisions or, all the more, take responsibility these decisions.

Belarus has a lot of students. University education is available for the public at large. Some universities are able to provide their students with quite decent qualification.

But! Academic community has no rights; it is discriminated and repressed.

The conditions of lawlessness and discrimination mean absence of universities’ autonomy and academic freedoms.

Below are the major factors of this discrimination and weapons of repressions:

  1. Short-term contracts with teachers, which makes them powerless in the eyes of the administration;
  2. “Professional disqualification”  (Berufsverbot) — a custom used against dissident teachers. Hundreds of professors and teachers in Belarus are deprived of the right to teach for political and ideological reasons. Recently Yanka Kupala Hrodna State University suffered from it the most. Last year something similar happened in some institutes of the National Academy of Sciences.
  3. Support of continuous illiteracy in universities; first of all, legal and language illiteracy in order to complicate migration and mobility of students and teachers.

“Professional disqualification” (Berufsverbot) is a phenomenon that is almost forgotten in our days, but is widespread in Belarusan education system. Often some particular professors are dismissed, while others got a warning that the similar fate might happen to them, too. According to the public monitoring, there are about 500 cases of professional disqualification in Belarus, and this is not the complete information, since often information about such cases in hidden not only by the administration of the universities but also by the suffered teachers themselves. They are not interested in publicity since they hope to find a job in private universities. If the information about “professional disqualification” (Berufsverbot) cases becomes available to media, its victims mostly get ban for work in every university of the country and either have to emigrate or change profession.

Until recently EHU — the Belarusian university in exile — could have received such teachers. Now several teachers, who fell under repressions in Hrodna University, are working there. However, negative processes of autonomy limitations and academic freedoms revealed themselves there, too.

The main task that the higher education in Belarus faces, the regime sees not in training qualified staff, but in securing loyalty among youth and intellectuals. All transformations and changes in Belarusan universities are aimed at resolution of this task.

“The Belarusan Magazine”


  • Civil society in Belarus 2015-2021: from stable development to new challenges

    East European Democracy Centre, Centre for European Transformation

    We present a collection of articles “Civil society in Belarus 2015-2021: from stable development to new challenges”.

  • A usual circle. No sanctions, no changes

    Andrei Yahorau — for “The Belarusan Magazine”

    After the abolition of the sanctions, the EU and Minsk will further expect from each other for the steps that no one is going to take. The situation in the country will not change; only the third force can affect it. If the Belarusan civil society doesn’t become this third force, then Russia will become it.

  • Letter from Minsk

    Andrei Yahorau — for Carnegie Europe

    Strategic Europe continues the second phase of its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by six countries in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood. Carnegie Europe asked contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of the EU’s policies toward their country, with a ranking on a scale from “miserable” to “excellent.” The spotlight is on Belarus.

  • The Year of Belarusan thinking in the Flying University

    Tatiana Vadalazhskaya, Flying University

    We publish the speech of Tatiana Vadalazhskaya, a coordinator of the Flying University, during the first session of the university seminar in the 2015-2016 academic year.

  • Academic non-freedoms

    Uladzimir Matskevich, philosopher and methodologist — for “The Belarusan Magazine”

    In order to join the Bologna process in practice, Belarus needs institutional structural changes.