The Bologna Process is an educational reform and series of agreements between European countries that aims to create a united European Higher Education Area. The main advantages of this system are the establishment a common basis for higher education, and the consequent possibility to move from one country to another for studying or working. The Bologna Declaration was signed in 1999 by 29 European countries. Today 47 countries are involved in Bologna Process; but there is a blank spot on the European educational map – it’s Belarus.
Belarus signed the European Cultural Convention in 1993 and could have become part of the European educational system years ago. Instead, Belarus became the first, and so far only country to be excluded from the Bologna Process, in April 2012. The Bologna Follow-up Group decided that Belarus is not ready to join the European Higher Educational Area, at least until 2015. The decision was somehow not a surprise: already last December the European Students’ Union had issued an appeal, asking to block the accession of Belarus to the European Higher Education Area.
To find out about the nature and the reasons of the exclusion of Belarus, we have interviewed some experts in the field. Professor Vladimir Dunaev, head of the Belarusian Bologna Committee, Professor Volker Gehmlich, German official expert on the Bologna Process, and Professor Elena Korosteleva, expert of Belarusian and European politics, explained to us the situation.
Belarus catching up: technical criteria
The Berlin Communiqué of 2003 established two basic requirements that a country should satisfy in order to participate in the Bologna Process: the ratification of the European Cultural Convention of the Council of Europe and the commitment to the goals and policies of the Bologna Process. More specifically, these goals are indicated in the Bologna Declaration of 1999, and they concern on the one hand the adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, based on two main cycles (undergraduate and graduate) and the establishment of a scheme of credits; and on the other hand, the promotion of mobility, of European co-operation in quality assurance, and of the necessary European dimensions in higher education. Now, where does Belarus stand for these objectives?
“Belarus signed the European Cultural Convention in 1993, – Professor Dunaev told us – so there are no problems under this perspective. Moreover, Belarus is ready to join the EHEA from the point of view of the technical requirements: our system consists of undergraduate and graduate cycles, and other requirements such as the system of ECTS can be easily introduced. So formal criteria were not a barrier to the participation of Belarus in the Bologna Process”.
Professor Korosteleva confirmed that the reaction of Belarusians to their early involvement in the Bologna Process was very positive: she was invited to teach in Belarus in the framework of an international Master’s degree, and she reports that not only was the Belarusian educational system being adapted to the Bologna Declaration criteria; but also the educational community was deeply engaged: students highly appreciated the exposure to international education and teachers were eager to learn and to adapt to European educational practices.
But if the Belarusian educational system is already to a large extent comparable to a European one, according to technical criteria, what was the problem with Belarus?
The real issue: political criteria
Professor Gehmlich reminded us of an important factor for the decision-making in the framework of the Bologna Process: “The Bologna Process has an intergovernmental nature: countries are represented by their Ministers of Education, who are political representatives. For this reason, political judgements ultimately play a crucial role in taking decisions”. The Bologna Process is therefore neither apolitical nor amoral, and during its existence it has incorporated not only technical criteria, but also political ones.
“In the Bologna Process, there are important criteria connected with European democratic values: the autonomy of the universities, academic freedom of students, freedom of scientific research, democratic principles of management of universities”, told us Professor Dunaev. Objectively, the current political situation in Belarus causes grave concern about the state of academic freedom and autonomy.
There are actually several restrictions to the freedom of Belarusian students. Professor Dunaev explained us that the Soviet system of obligatory employment is still in place: if a student studies for free, the state defines his first working place, and can send him to any city in the country. But this is not all. “There were cases in Belarus when students were expelled from university for participation in mass protests”, continued Professor Dunaev. Moreover, Professor Gehmlich reported that, during the discussion for the possible accession of Belarus in the Bologna Process, one of the factors considered was the political difficulties for students coming back to Belarus after studying abroad. “Under the present government of Minsk, Belarusian students faced problems in their country when going back home, there were several cases reported in the press. Formal criteria do not cover this issue, but it was a political argument against Belarus”.
Therefore, Belarus violates to some extent the goals of the Bologna Process, and this was the official explanation of the exclusion. “Belarusian authorities want to see politics in this decision, but in fact there is no politics here, – insisted Professor Dunaev – everything depends only on Belarus: if the reforms are implemented in the next 3 years, there are chances to join the Bologna Process in 2015”.
However, the exclusion of Belarus reminds of a pattern in the relations of the European Union with this country. The Bologna Process does not belong to the EU system, but the EU is represented in the negotiations, and all its 27 Member States are present as well, forming the large majority of countries included in the Bologna Process. Therefore a question is legitimate: to what extent was European politics influential in the decision not to let Belarus join the Bologna Process?
The European dichotomy – punishing or stimulating?
European politics is a factor that should be taken into consideration, says Professor Elena Korosteleva. “The Bologna Process decision had a clear connection to the European Union’s policy towards Belarus; even if it is not part of the EU system, it was somehow a prolongation of the EU policy of sanctioning the Belarusian regime and isolating it, through the action of European Member States”.
However, denying Belarus participation in the Bologna Process was a much disputed issue in Brussels. “Being the EU a composite body, sometimes its policies are not coherently and cohesively accepted internally. Many European officers actually criticised this approach, – continues Professor Korosteleva – because education is a potentially powerful tool of stimulation for the Belarusian civil society, and it was blocked by the exclusion of Belarus from the Bologna Process”. Young generations could have had an opportunity to see how things work in the EU, to make comparisons and open up their mentality; but for the moment, this is not going to happen.
The choice between sanctioning the regime and stimulating civil society is a constant refrain in European relations with Belarus. The EU does provide assistance to civil society in Belarus, also in the field of education, by giving young Belarusians scholarships to study in European universities. However, the scale of this cooperation is not comparable to the effect that the Bologna Process could have had on student mobility in Belarus. Therefore, the exclusion of Belarus from the Bologna Process undermines a potentially active connection of the Belarusian civil society with Europe.
An(other) opportunity missed
The Belarusian system of higher education is on its way to transformation, and being a part of the European Higher Educational Area could make this process faster and more effective. Today, the exclusion of Belarus from the Bologna Process looks like a decision against students and civil society: the majority of students can’t continue their education in Europe or have an internship in a European company because it’s very difficult to have Belarusian diplomas recognised in Europe. Moreover, the impossibility of studying in the rest of Europe for a part of their degree brings many young Belarusians to leave their country, and this is a concern both for immigration in Europe and for brain drain in Belarus.
Professor Gehmlich expressed the wish to see Belarus at least as an “associate country in the Bologna Process, for a probation year”, during which Belarus should prove that students going abroad would not face any disadvantages when going back home. Unfortunately, European decision-makers seem to be firm in their resolution to isolate Belarus; and the Belarusian regime is expressing a position that sounds like “the more isolated from European democratic values, the merrier”. In fact, how could young people appreciate European values if they don’t have a possibility to see how the system works in Europe, and how the relationship between society and politicians is built? The exclusion of Belarus is not an effective measure against the authoritarian Belarusian regime. It makes it only easier to control people who have never seen any different systems and are isolated from their neighbours.
Let’s hope that it was the last postponement to the inclusion of Belarus.
By Irina Peredriy (Belarus) and Marta Palombo (Italy)
For Hands4Belarus an initiative of Belarus Project
We would like to express our gratitude for the support to:
Vladimir Dunaev, Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Belarusian Bologna Committee
Volker Gehmlich, Professor of Business Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Osnabrück, Germany, and national expert on the Bologna Process
Elena Korosteleva, Professor of International Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, UK, and expert on Belarusian and European politics
Feature photo by ЕленАндреа