Over the past couple of years informal education has witnessed remarkable growth in Belarus. It offers Belarusians possibilities missing at the nation’s over-regulated state-run universities. New grass-roots initiatives such as the European College of Liberal Arts and the Flying University are organising innovative and inspiring courses in Minsk. Although functioning within a certain limitations peculiar to Belarus, they still manage to appeal to the nation’s youth. Belarus Digest interviewed representatives of the Flying University and the European College of Liberal Arts about what it is like to organise non-formal education in Belarus.
Paula Borowska’s article was announced a winner in the Beginner category by the Jury members of Belarus in Focus 2014 competition.
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Education in Belarus: a Sensitive Area?
Many people in the West often have a distorted view of the educational system in Belarus thinking that nothing is impossible in Belarus living under a non-democratic regime. Despite its relatively strong standing in international rankings for education, academic freedom in Belarusian universities remains rather limited.
Belarus remains the only country in Europe outside the common European educational space, also known as the Bologna system. The educational system, largely unchanged from Soviet times, is reacting very slowly to the demands of the market. The stagnate system fails to promote Belarusian civil society and often remains out of touch with the new realities of Belarus.
However, the emergence of projects like the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, the Flying University, the Belarusian Collegium, and a number of Belarusian language courses show a real demand for new modern forms of education. They also show that education no longer exclusively the domain of the state.
The first serious non-formal education initiative, the Belarusian Collegium, dates back to 1997. Its founders gathered a few Belarusian intellectuals and started running evening courses for adults. Despite financial difficulties it continues to function. Aliaksei Lastouski from the Belarusian Collegium told Belarus Digest that they have around 125 students at the moment who study topics such as history, philosophy and journalism. In the 2000s several new institutions emerged.
The Flying University: Responding to the Need for a National Belarusian University
The Flying University (Liatučy Universytet) was established in 2010 by Uladzimier Mackievich, a civil society leader. According to Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja, a project coordinator, however, the idea to establish an university emerged back in the 1990s. Then many argued for a proper national Belarusian university with a clear mission of raising future generations of the Belarusian intelligentsia and future leaders as well as strengthening Belarusian civic identity. “Then it was absolutely clear that without a [truly national] university neither a nation nor a country could exist”, she pointed out.
Much has been changed in education in Belarus since the 1990s. “We can observe the process of squeezing out critically thinking people from academia and education”, Vadalazhskaja told Belarus Digest. Belarus’s traditional universities teach, educate, issue diplomas, but they do little to encourage students to contribute to civil society with their own ideas.
The name of the University relates to the underground “Flying University“ (Latający Uniwersytet)that organised courses to promote the self-education of people in communist Poland. The Flying University offers its courses for free. It does not issue any diplomas and Vadalazhskaja emphasises that the education that the University provides remains largely non-formal.
This year around 300 young Belarusians applied for its courses, and on average around 15 students are attending each course. The University offers 20 different courses and seminars. The most popular courses include the study of the Bible, the “European choice” of Belarus, methodology and design.
34 years old Alexey Konstantinov has been attending courses and seminars at the Flying University already for three years now. Originally from Ukraine, for over 20 years he has been living in Minsk. He told Belarus Digest he was attracted by the unique learning environment at the University, but also its strong principles of encouraging critical thinking.
Liberal Arts: Belarus Today
Another initiative, the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB), launched its courses only this past October. Currently more than 40 Belarusian students are attending various courses at the European College. The most popular courses are in popular culture, media, but also social problems and collective values.
Aleksandr Adamianc, a project director, explains that the liberal arts remain an underdeveloped area of education in Belarus. The idea to establish the College came about as a result of an existing niche in the education market. “Our programme of Liberal Arts is the first in Belarus”, he proudly notes.
Adamianc believes that Belarusians should have the opportunity to obtain a modern European education inside the country saying that “many young people neither have the possibility of studying abroad, nor do they want to”. He points to “the conservatism of state education organisations” as the main factor impeding the development of liberal arts education in Belarus.
Predominantly young people attend their courses, with ages varying between 19-35 years old. The vast majority of them have already received degrees from higher education institutions, with a third currently enrolled in other university programmes.
Presently, ECLAB offers a free programme of education and issues certificates for its students. Aleksandr Adamianc told Belarus Digest that they plan to introduce tuition fees at some point.
Non-formal vs Formal Education
Achieving success with new non-formal education initiatives can be challenging in Belarus. The biggest challenge for the Flying University was to find rooms for classes. “First, we rented some space, but in a month we were asked to leave. From there we went on “flying” from one place to another”, Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja explains, suggesting that not everyone welcomes their work.
Aleksandr Adamianc from the European College of Liberal Arts told Belarus Digest they did not have difficulties with finding space in Minsk.
The informal nature of these initiatives appeals to many Belarusians, particularly to young people. Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja from the Flying University notes that the project has managed to attract a number of prominent Belarusian public figures, intellectuals and social activists, such as Aleś Smalianchuk, Ihar Babkou and Iryna Dubianieckaja. Another important aspect is maintaining the right atmosphere, or as Aliaksandr Adamianc puts it: “an atmosphere of free, non-hierarchical communication”.
Both the Flying University and the European College run attractive and informative web sites and a have strong presence on social media networks, an item that is crucial nowadays. The European College also has ambitious plans to expand and start to co-operate with other European universities so that Belarusian students could obtain dual degrees that would be recognised in Europe.
Non-formal Education’s Enormous Potential
Both Belarusian and Russian languages are used for instruction at the Flying University and the European College. Their representatives emphasised that the language of instruction depends entirely upon the instructors themselves.
“For example, the course on “Mathematics as the Language of Thinking” is taught in Belarusian on purpose, because the instructor, Mr Liavonau, wanted to develop this topic in the Belarusian language”, Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja told Belarus Digest.
The European College and the Flying University prove that these kinds of education projects have great prospects in Belarus helping to unleash Belarusian civil society’s own potential. They also suggest that new education initiatives inside Belarus are possible despite the grim political situation.
With very limited resources, especially when compared to state-funded universities, the organisers of informal courses already managed to make attractive education outside the bounds of state-run institutions. With the organisers’ mix of idealism, pragmatism and professionalism, their student numbers and the geographical prominence of their activities is likely to grow further.
This article was first published on Belarus Digest
Paula Borowska is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre and a contributor to Belarus Digest. She was born in Bialystok and studied at the University of Gdansk and obtained an MA in Eastern European Studies at the University of Bologna. Paula also completed an internship at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw where her work primarily focused on Belarus.