Belarus’ application to join European Higher Education Area submitted to the Bologna Secretariat a couple of weeks ago trigged a lively discussion not only in member-states of EHEA, but also inside Belarusian civil society. While Independent Bologna Committee set up by a group of experts suggested its alternative report and a road map for reforms necessary to undertake before the country can join EHEA, some argued that “accession conditionality will simply produce no result”. Yauheni Preiherman, Policy Director of Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” and a friend of mine, in his article suggested three reasons why Belarus should be part of the Bologna Process even though our system of education today falls short of the Bologna criteria. Having carefully considered all the reasons provided by the author, I should admit that I cannot but disagree with those and here are my thoughts.
First of all, it seems that “the carrot of the Bologna Process” is not that small and the present government is highly interested in the successful outcome of the application. If we look at the contact person provided by Belarus’ side - Alexander I. Zhuk, the First Deputy Minister of Education, and see who the contributors to the report are - M.I. Demchuk, the National Institute for Higher Education; Yu. I. Miksiuk, the Ministry of Education;I.V. Titovich, the National Institute for Higher EducationI.A. Mitskevich, the National Institute for Higher Education, we can hardly doubt that “hardliners” of the regime will in any way try to block Belarus’ Bologna accession, rather opposite. Moreover, accepting Belarusian education system as it is to be part of EHEA will legitimize the existing model we have and will provide today’s government with another argument in favour of the present system saying that it has been recognized by the Europeans.
Secondly, today young Belarusians who wish to obtain education abroad have numerous opportunities for that. Open Europe Scholarship Scheme, Visegrad Scholarship Programme, Open Society Foundations’ scholarships are just some of those possibilities. Even though we are not part of the EHEA, Belarusians can enjoy ERASMUS MUNDUS student mobility programme, too. If we want to attract young Europeans to come and study in Belarus the situation is very unlikely to change unless real reforms which tackle the essence of the present education system rather than only some of the technical aspects are in place.
When we talk about social exchange and enhancing people-to-people contacts, the problem of high costs of Schengen visas is a much bigger obstacle rather than formal participation of the country in the EHEA.
Thirdly, in order to enhance and develop cooperation with European higher education institutions, provide more opportunities for research and provide academic and administrative staff with a chance to learn about their European colleagues’ experience at first hand, Belarusian universities are welcome to engage in TEMPUS projects, the budget for which has been doubled this year.
So it is very unlikely that any of the negative consequences suggested by my colleague, would be in place, should EHEA Education Ministers decide to choose a more complicated but result-oriented path for Belarus on its way to the European Higher Education Area. On the contrary, it is highly important to understand, that once we are in, we can forget about such notions as academic freedom, students participation and real quality assurance since the goal of the application as it has been submitted, is to join EHEA without implementing any reforms that would undermine the system as it is.
Should Belarus be unconditionally accepted to join EHEA, the present Belarusian government, the officials engaged in the work of interdepartmental working group will be granted awards for the successful completion of the mission designated by the incumbent in July 2010 while Belarusians will be deprived of the first real change that could happen in the country.