Belarus: academic freedom persecuted

Authorities of Belarus want to join the Bologna process without changing their old-style system of education, and the thing they want the least is academic freedoms

29 Nov 2013

Last summer it was announced that the Faculty of History of the state university in Hrodna, a regional centre in the West of Belarus, ceased to exist. A school of historic science known since 1954 was united with the Faculty of Tourism and Communication. This was the final revenge the authorities took on historians who dared to present the past of their city and their nation in a way that differs from the “official line.”

In the beginning of 2013 a group of historians of Hrodna State University published a book about the history of their city. Andrei Charnikevich, one of the authors of the book, was fired from the university; his sacking wasn’t done according to proper legal procedures and took longer than Siamion Shapira, a local governor, wanted. It ended up with him sacking the rector of the university, Yauheni Rouba. The governor’s instruction to a newly appointed rector was to “pay attention” to other lecturers and professors who were considered “disloyal”; all of them named. Viachaslau Shved was the next historian fired. Ihar Kuzminich, who taught law at the same university and was on that list as well, submitted a resignation letter himself and wrote an open letter to the governor in protest at the campaign of persecution against academia in Hrodna.

That was not the first instance of “ideological clear-up” in Belarusian universities. In 1990s Aliaksandr Kazulin, then a rector of the Belarusian State University, the major university in the country, received similar instructions to prevent teachers and students from oppositional activities. The irony of history made Kozulin an oppositional candidate at the Presidential election of 2006 (and he received no support from his former university during the campaign), and later a political prisoner.
But Hrodna University has not really been a centre of political or civic movements. It has always been one of the best educational institutions in Belarus. It has been quite active in adopting and implementing European standards of higher education. The authorities did not think of its professors as “disloyal” – they liked to show the university to foreign delegations and experts as exemplary to boast of achievements of the Belarusian education system.

To understand what happened in Hrodna, one has to take into consideration peculiarities of the system of higher education and its management in Belarus. Formally, all universities report to the Ministry of Education. The current minister of education, Siarhei Maskevich, is a former rector of Hrodna University; he was the one who launched teaching innovations and consolidation of the financial situation of the university. Can a minister destroy what he himself started? In Belarus, he can.

Belarusian ministers are not independent; they just implement policies as instructed by the Presidential Administration. Just as governors, like Siamion Shapira, and down to university rectors – they are all appointed by the President of the country; all candidates for these positions are carefully chosen and checked by the KGB and other authority structures. Thus, every official in this “power vertical” depends on the head of the state. No one is elected; the institute of self-governance is destroyed as such, it is substituted on all levels by state governance. It is true with any area and sphere of activities, including education.

Universities in Belarus have no autonomy; thus, academic freedom is seriously compromised. In fact there has never been any. Even in the first half of 1990s, when universities were allowed to elect their rectors, they were financially reliant on state subsidies, so they were not independent. But even such a nominal formality as elections of rectors was eliminated. Rectors of private universities are appointed by the authorities as well. Any attempts to protest leads to disastrous effects. In 2004 the European Humanities University had to stop its operation in Belarus after its staff protested against the fact their rector had to be appointed by the country’s president. They refused even after the Ministry of Education suggested appointing Anatoly Mikhailov as the rector, the same person who was elected by the staff – it was a matter of principle, and the principle of academic freedom was the key. The EHU had to go in exile and restored its activity in 2005 in neighbouring Lithuania.

Appointed rectors can stay in their positions as long as they satisfy those who appointed them, i.e. the Presidential Administration. The way to satisfy those “employers” is not by defending academic freedoms and rights of professors and students; it is merely by obeying orders and staying “loyal” to state ideology.

Professor Rouba, a previous rector of Hrodna State University, did not reject an order to “clean up” his university – he was just not in a hurry to fulfil it. And this is how he irritated the authorities, thus losing his job as the head of the university. Because in the end it is not about an alleged “danger” any “disloyal” professor poses to the state – it is about the system that requires orders to be executed, promptly and carefully.

The authorities can see “disloyalty” in anything. Ihar Kuzminich, the law professor of Hrodna University, wrote a textbook on human rights for schools a couple of years ago. The mere topic of the textbook suggested the Ministry of Education could not approve it. The book was used during informal workshops and training sessions on human rights. But it was not the real reason for Kuzminich to end up on the “disloyalty black list” and eventually lose his job. It was because of the fairy tales he writes. Characters of his tales live in a modern city and fight for their rights. Such a metaphor appeared to be more dangerous for the regime than textbooks.

It might seem absurd, but this is a reality in Belarus. Monitoring, conducted by the Agency of Humanitarian Technologies, gives a lot of evidence of persecution for professional activities. We can talk about the employment ban in the system of education of the country. Hundreds of teachers and university professors were persecuted and lost their jobs in Belarus. Such instances cover almost every filed of learning, but most of cases are noted in humanities; the repressed academics are historians, economists, sociologists, pedagogues.

Last year Belarusian Ministry of Education attempted to join the Bologna Process that unites universities all throughout Europe, including post-Soviet region. The authorities decided to take this step as they have started to see the clear economic benefits from joining, through the export of educational services. Belarusian universities have been quite popular with foreign students, especially ones from China, Vietnam, Turkmenistan and some other, predominantly Asian countries. But recent years showed a decrease in interest in Belarusian higher education, because diplomas of Belarusian universities are not recognised in many countries. Joining the Bologna Process is supposed to solve this problem and attract more foreign students.

The Presidential Administration approved the idea, and the Ministry of Education launched the whole programme of bringing Belarusian standards of higher education in line with European ones – for the exception of two of them, namely autonomy of universities and academic freedoms. These two principles are considered by the Belarus Ministry of Education to be “insignificant”.

Infrastructural changes in Belarusian universities were quite vast and intensive; they look quite like European universities — “cheaper versions”, perhaps. But what is clear, is the absence of academic freedom and autonomy, which are the two fundamental features of a university. They distinguish it from other educational institutions, like technical schools, religious or military colleges and extension courses. Rectors got used to obeying orders; the academic community got used to abstaining from disagreeing.

A group of enthusiasts, professors, students, experts, public figures, decided to create a public Bologna Committee in Belarus. Its aim is to promote and protect academic freedoms and an idea of autonomy of universities in the country. The main paradox of the committee is that it promotes the values of the Bologna Process –- but in fact it impedes Belarus joining it, rather than fosters it. There is, however, no other way; a country that fights the dissent and suppressed free speech, and thus violates the main principles of the Bologna Process, cannot be accepted as a member of it.

There is a question if we can call Belarusian institutions of higher learning “universities” at all. A process of education seems to be going on there; this process resembles in a way the one in European universities. But it is an illusion to a great extent. Without a real academic freedom and independence there can be no university. Once this are restored Belarus will be ready to integrate into the European system of education – but not before.

Latest posts by Uladzimir Matskevich (see all)

Comments are closed.