The education system does not meet the challenges of the time. What to do about it?

    The Belarusian Free Trade Union and independent experts, together with the public platform “New Belarus: Reforms for People”, have launched the campaign “Reforming the education system together!” Why is it important to do this in “dark times” and what do they offer?

    At the autumn session of the House of Representatives, it is planned to adopt amendments and additions to the Education Code. The first reading of the document took place at the fifth session of Parliament last spring. The Education Code entered into force on September 1, 2011. The draft of the restated version of the document was published on the website of the Ministry of Education on February 1, 2017, since then no amendments have been yet adopted.

    Now that the first reading has passed, there are three months to adopt the amendments before the second reading, said Andrei Lavrukhin, an expert in the field of education, Ph.D., at an online conference on September 7. And this despite the fact that “the problems have been accumulating for years; we were convinced that the special Belarusian model of education has preserved the best from the Soviet model and does not need any reforming”.

    “We think that the innovations proposed by the government do not fully meet the modern challenges that the educational system of Belarus faces. In our opinion, these transformations are superficial and are mainly aimed at addressing the current tasks of the state, rather than improving the quality, efficiency and competitiveness of education”, Lavrukhin said.

    A university is not a university without autonomy

    The experts have prepared their proposals for higher education reform, and they have a plan to discuss the reforms. It is proposed to start with a discussion of the most important, fundamental principle of university education – university autonomy.

    Lavrukhin noted that the university cannot exist without autonomy and academic freedoms, regardless of its source of financing: “If the university does not have autonomy, we are victims of political and economic factors. Autonomy makes it possible to develop education not to please momentary needs, but to work for a strategy”.

    He added: “When we understand that education should be developed for the benefit of society but not in the interests of the authorities or the political class, there is a chance to implement our ideas. After all, the state can change, but society remains”.

    It is impossible to change everything at once, however, it is realistic to introduce the election of rectors, which is one of the experts’ proposals regarding the institutional autonomy of the university. For the first time in independent Belarus, Lukashenko appointed the rector of the Belarusian State University in 1996, and since 2001 the rectors of all universities have been appointed by the Council of Ministers with their approval by the president.

    Non-adherence to the elective principle when appointing a rector gives rise to a number of problems. Now is the time of politically motivated dismissals, when prominent university teachers and researchers are thrown out of universities, Lavrukhin said. And no one can do anything about this, including because there are no institutions that could stop this process.

    According to the expert, organizational autonomy, in particular the election of rectors, would at least complicate this processes: “If a rector is part of the academic community, he/she will be held responsible not to officials from the Ministry of Education, but to the academic community”.

    In other words, the elected rector will not dare to allow the dismissal of an outstanding teacher for disagreeing with the violence happening in the country.

    Associate professor of philosophy, speaker of the public campaign “Reforming the education system together!” Pavel Barkovsky from personal experience knows what the absence of autonomy and election of rectors mean. After participating in a strike in October 2020, he was dismissed from BSU “by agreement of the parties”.

    According to Barkovsky, the problem in the academic field lies in the fact that this very field is extremely bureaucratized, the Ministry of Education tries to control everything and leaves a very small amount of freedom, as a result of which teaching lacks creativity. There is no autonomy in decision making and educational policy.

    Nowadays, the rector for the authorities is the same official as any other, Barkovsky notes: “This is a problem, because universities are becoming a structure for practising politics. De-politicization and de-ideologization are important components of the modernization of education. School is really not a place for identifying political attitudes, for different ideologies to fight”.

    Why is it important to think about education in “dark times”?

    In fact, when discussing the problem of the lack of academic freedoms and autonomy, the experts need to go back ten years in time – when the entry of Belarus into the Bologna process was actively discussed.

    In 2012, the issue concerning Belarus was off the agenda, as the working group of the Bologna Process came to the conclusion that the country was not ready to join the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) due to the failure to comply with its principles – the autonomy of universities, academic freedoms and student participation in education management.

    However, in 2015, the country was nevertheless admitted to the Bologna process, although the situation has changed little in comparison with 2012. Now, when in the academic environment, as in the whole country, there is a struggle against dissent, and 12 people have been convicted in the “student case”, it seems completely pointless to talk about academic freedom and autonomy.

    However, Barkovsky does not agree with this point of view. In his opinion, even in the current conditions it is extremely important to carry out constructive work, to think over the contours of the future, therefore the topic of education is relevant today. After all, “today, using repression and punishment, the authorities are doing everything possible to completely destroy the positive agenda and the desire for change among the majority of Belarusians”.

    “Education is the mental health of the nation, its potential and the main resource that everyone needs, regardless of their political orientation or ideology”, the expert noted in his commentary for “Feeling the main pain points of the existing education system, showing the current options for their solution, hearing the feedback from ordinary people, civil society is a good investment in the future of Belarus”.

    Working for tomorrow

    And yet it is impossible to imagine that in the current political situation, the authorities will listen to experts.

    Barkovsky, however, notes that in this case, the authorities will only show their essence once again, but in any case, when circumstances change, we will have a ready-made plan of actions for reforms.

    According to Barkovsky, the negative results of the education system are not just a lack of some knowledge among university graduates. Among other things, it was the current education system that created the conditions for the participation of teachers in the work of election commissions (despite the fact that the integrity of the vote counting process gave rise to great doubt in many cases).

    Barkovsky emphasizes: the education system is directly related to the fact that those whom it trained suppressed protests, and now they are fighting against dissent in Belarus.

    Barkovsky thinks that using the prepared plan for reforms in education now “will prevent both further degradation of Belarusian education and negative results of education in the future”.