Education: Between reforms and nostalgia for the ‘golden age’

Vladimir Dounaev


The collision of the pro-reform and conservative trends in the education policy of Belarus continues to influence the pace of modernization of the education system. The secondary and higher education reform programs reinforced by international legal support have more chances to resist the attempts of a conservative revanche and self-isolation of the national education system.



Certainty has never been inherent to the Belarusian education policy. Its real purpose got lost in the intricacies of conflicting interests of various political actors, who unfailingly and hypocritically swear fealty to the president’s line. Both the reformers and conservatives urged each other with one voice to strictly follow “orders and instructions of the head of state.” The year 2015 was not an exception.

Two events could become symbols of modernization of Belarusian education. The first one went almost unnoticed, although it could clear the path toward a deep reform of the secondary education system. The second one was accompanied by quite a noisy media campaign and was declared the “Bologna triumph” of Belarusian higher education.

Secondary education reform

In early 2015, under pressure of the independent media, the Ministry of Education had to announce the launch of a large World Bank investment project worth USD fifty million.1 The project provided for assistance in the transition to modern methods of collection and analysis of statistical information in the education sector, the use of effective mechanisms of financing of secondary education and more adequate assessment of the quality of secondary education in 2014–2017. This vague wording concealed a significant reorientation of the secondary education policy. This concerns not only the enhanced effectiveness of education in Belarus, which World Bank experts said was a long overdue necessity, but also a greater financial autonomy for educational institutions, certain decentralization of management and, most importantly, a sober assessment of the quality of secondary education.

This refers to Belarus’ accession to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to measure the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 2018. Belarus had long shied away from the threat of what Europe called ‘PISA-shock’, a devastating revelation for many local education systems. PISA assesses the buildup of advanced competencies and skills to apply them in practice, rather than digestion of knowledge received in classrooms. The relation between the assessment results and national economic achievements is extremely close and allows speaking about GDP growth by 1% with every increase in the academic record by 50 points.

Some countries have managed to draw the right conclusions from the test results and rebuilt their secondary education. Others have been less successful in terms of modernization. The connection between PISA results and the quality of human capital is beyond all doubt. For Belarus, this sober and objective assessment of the academic progress can be an important step towards secondary education reform unless this process is neutralized by another wave of nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of Soviet education.

Regressive perversion has already become a usual reaction of the Presidential Administration to the attempts of the reformers in the government and the Ministry of Education to start the process of modernization of the education system. In response to the challenges that require urgent and radical reforms, paralyzing caution is what the Presidential Administration is demonstrating.

The year 2015 ended with a ban on modernization again. Deputy presidential chief of staff Igor Buzovsky said at the wrap up session of the ministry board that the country chose a strategy aimed at building up the statehood and independence that also concerned the education system. Some trends, for example the European strategies, can produce a negative result. “The effect of mindless adherence to these trends on the education system is hard to predict,” he said.2

The rejection of the modernization strategy under the pretext of its incompatibility with the Belarusian national identity was practiced in the recent past. On May 21, 2008, Sovetskaya Belorussia daily published a program article by Academician Anatoly Rubinov, then deputy presidential chief of staff, titled “Teaching Itch of Reformism.” Rubinov explained that considering the distinctive nature of the Belarusian nation, Belarus should keep as far away from Western temptations as possible. “They say one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” he wrote.

Like every political myth, the Belarusian national identity has its own grammar based on (1) the release and recognition of its dissimilarity from the others; (2) archaism and rejection of modernity for the sake of the utopian restoration of the past; (3) disregard for the laws of logic and common sense.

The restoration of the isolationist rhetoric, reference to the value of the past and illogical requirement to develop conceptually new approaches to education strictly following the established traditions in this field, once again return us to the dead-end education policy of 2004–2010. It looks like Igor Buzovsky embodies the spirit of his predecessor, who inflicted serious damage on the education system.

The Ministry of Education has been trying to mitigate the consequences of the notorious secondary education reform of 2008 for years. It finally managed to restore industry-specific training in 2015, but the format of 12-year education, which meets international quality standards surrendered as a result of that reform, still cannot be put back on the agenda of public discourse.

The absence of tangible shifts in the quality of secondary education was once again demonstrated during the centralized testing. In 2015, a reaction to this already chronic failure showed the presence of a latent conflict of interests among the ruling groups. Debate in the National Assembly demonstrated that not everyone was ready to put up with the president’s policy of sacrificing the quality of education for manageability and political loyalty.3

It would seem that economic difficulties will definitely expedite the transition to the modern mechanisms that increase the efficiency of funding of the education system. The Education Ministry leadership has been talking about that for a long time, but no visible dynamics is observed here either. Last year, neither the attraction of private investors to support pre-school education, nor the transition to the normative funding of higher education went beyond modest experiments.4

Roadmap for higher education reform

The conservatives cannot completely block the processes of reforming, though. The most impressive breakthrough was made when Belarus joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). At a conference of 47 education ministers of the EHEA held May 14–15 in Yerevan, Belarus had to commit itself to follow a roadmap5 of the higher education reform. For the first time in the history of the Bologna process, a country-candidate made a formal international commitment to modernize higher education.

The roadmap envisages:

The roadmap is a unique political achievement. Firstly, it is the first and so far only program of modernization of the most important social relations sector in Belarus compatible with European standards.

Secondly, as the experience of the development of the roadmap shows, civil society (Public Bologna Committee, Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum) can actively influence the process of modernization of higher education in Belarus in collaboration with EU institutions (European Commission, European Parliament), the Council of Europe, European student and academic organizations and governments of the EHEA member states.

Thirdly, the program of Belarusian higher education reform provides a mechanism for international monitoring and verification of the fulfillment of obligations until 2018, when a ministerial conference in Paris will consider the final report on the implementation of the roadmap.

Despite the reasonable skepticism regarding the ability and willingness of the Belarusian government to fulfill its obligation to carry out modernization of higher education, the first steps taken by the Education Ministry inspire some optimism, especially because of the declared intention to implant the roadmap provisions in the national legislation. In the report to the international group of consultants engaged in the supervision of the roadmap implementation, the Education Ministry referred to three documents, which are supposed to ensure the meeting of the international mandatory requirements:

In mid-2015, the Education Ministry leadership repeatedly announced their plans to update the legislation, including such radical steps as restoration of elections of university rectors. The government promised to submit an updated version of the Education Code to the House of Representatives by the end of 2015.

Unfortunately, the steps taken to implement the EHEA elements were not accompanied by greater openness of higher education. Until the end of 2015, none of the said documents went public, so it is impossible to estimate the profoundness of the legislative innovations offered by the Education Ministry. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the legislation update process has slowed down frustratingly.

Buzovsky’s statements at the wrap up session of the Education Ministry board can signify a revanche of the conservatives, the more so as no signs of liberalization of higher education have been observed. As before, university students are forced to vote in early voting in presidential elections. They are used as cheap workforce during school hours at farms and construction sites. They are driven to official political campaigns and public events. Some other violations of the rights of students and teachers are being reported.

November and December 2015 saw a wave of student’s protests against charges for retaking failed examinations. Started in the Belarusian State University, the student movement spread to other universities. The students collected thousands of signatures against the re-examination charges hoping for a dialogue with university administrations and due account for their opinions. Regretfully, the administrations chose to demonstratively ignore their appeal that contradicts the roadmap commitment to promote students’ involvement in university management. Moreover, the campaign activists were subjected to pressure and threats. Two students were expelled from the Belarusian State University for the participation in the campaign.

The modest scale and peacefulness of the student campaign did not stop the conservatives in the government from blackmailing the reformers in the Education Ministry with a loss of control over the industry, for the sake of which the quality of education and common sense have been sacrificed for many years now. By the end of the year, the future of the roadmap and the entire education modernization program was thrown into question. However, this is likely to just delay the implementation of the plans for the education reform, rather than completely stop the process.


Despite the permanent oscillation of the Belarusian education policy between the reformist plans and a conservative revanche, it was not possible to bring the national education system back to the ‘golden age’ of isolation and stagnation. On the contrary, the reformers enlisted legitimate support of reputable international organizations that increases the chance for the modernization of secondary and higher education in Belarus.

The poor transparency makes it impossible to exhaustively estimate the balance of forces between the advocates and opponents of changes in the education sector. At the same time, the consistent and resolute intervention of foreign stakeholders and Belarusian civil society can significantly strengthen the reformers this year.