How Can Belarusian Universities Achieve Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy?

On November 26-27, 2015, Minsk hosted a workshop for Belarusian higher education institutions "Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy", which was organized with support from Magna Charta Observatory. Participants discussed reforms of the Belarusian higher education system, integration in the Bologna Process and challenges currently facing the international academic community.

The event was jointly organized by Magna Charta Observatory, the Council of Europe, ODB Brussels, Belarusian National Institute for Higher Education and the Council of Europe Information Point in Minsk, with assistance from the Ministry of Education of Belarus  and financial support of the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida). The workshop was aimed at supporting structural reforms of Belarusian system of higher education, which were set out in the Belarus Roadmap for Higher Education Reform when Belarus was accepted to the European Higher Education Area in May 2015.

From left to right: Jürgen Kohler - professor at Greifswald University (Germany), Sijbolt Noorda - President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, Olga Stuzhinskaya - Senior Adviser, ODB Brussels

In her welcoming address to the participants of the workshop, Katia Dolgova-Dreyer, Head of Unit for Regional and Bilateral Co-operation in CIS and Central Asia of the Council of Europe, noted that the Council of Europe followed Belarus' application to join the European Higher Education Area very closely. Even though the country is not a member of the Council of Europe, cooperation between them has progressively developed within the framework of the European Cultural Convention, emphasized Dolgova-Dreyer.

Katia Dolgova-Dreyer (in the center), Head of Unit, Bilateral and Regional Cooperation in the CIS and Central Asia Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation, the Council of Europe

"Within the framework of the European Cultural Convention we cooperate with Belarus, as well as with the countries that are members of the Council of Europe, in the field of education, culture, youth policy and sport; we are also actively involved in the Bologna Process and provide support in certain areas. We welcomed admission of Belarus to the European Higher Education Area, which will strengthen our cooperation and help implement the recently adopted Roadmap", - said Katia Dolgova-Dreyer.

In particular, she reaffirmed the Council of Europe’s willingness to help Belarus organize educational activities on student governance (in cooperation with the European Students' Union) and set up a quality assessment system for higher education. According to Dolgova-Dreyer, Belarus has been quite late to join the Bologna Process, so the country now needs to achieve a lot in a short period of time. At the same time, she thinks, certain countries that launched the process of creating a National Qualifications Framework a decade ago are now just approaching its implementation.

Igor Titovich (second from right), Vice-rector for Scientific and Methodological Affairs, Belarusian National Institute for Higher Education

According to Igor Titovich, Vice-rector for Scientific and Methodological Affairs of the National Institute for Higher Education (Belarus), creation of a National Qualifications Framework in Belarus is regulated by the Council of Ministers' Resolution No.34 of 17.01.2014. Also, changes and amendments to the Education Code of the Republic of Belarus are introduced as European Higher Education Area tools are implemented in the national system of education. At the same time, Belarus needs a team of experts who shall receive training and provide further support with implementation of reforms in their own universities.

David Lock, Secretary-General of the Magna Charta Observatory

Speaking about university autonomy and the significance of the Minsk workshop for Belarusian universities, David Lock, Secretary-General of the Magna Charta Observatory, explained that this event was meant to give confidence to representatives of educational institutions: "'The Magna Charta document sets out a number of  fundamental principles which signatory universities either live by or are working towards. The principles provide a good guide to help the universities of Belarus to operate in a way which will enable them to comply with the  terms of the Bologna Road Map and provide a good quality of experience for university students and staff. The pursuit of autonomy is a journey rather than a destination and I hope that this workshop will enable participants and, through them, others working in higher education, to gain both knowledge of the fundamental principles and the skills and confidence to implement them."

Sijbolt Noorda, President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, President Emeritus of the University of Amsterdam

Describing the challenges facing the international academic community today, Sijbolt Noorda, President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, stressed that no society nowadays can survive by blocking borders and creating obstacles for international trade, or with no movement of human capital and international cooperation. According to him, economies that are now competitive have invested in education for the past 4 or 5 decades. Comparing the experience of Singapore and South Korea, Sijbolt Noorda noted that these countries introduced international components and the spirit of cooperation to the academic competences and qualifications created in their universities:
"All we know about future is that it is going to be completely different. The main competences for graduates must become the ability to learn, to change, and to be able to improve their skills on their own. It is difficult to say what is going to happen in the next 30-40 years. We should not think about students as containers to be filled with good knowledge. We must teach them how to educate themselves. The international context has changed dramatically, and being a key player education must respond to this challenge. Today no country in the world will be able to succeed without introducing changes into their educational systems."

According to Sijbolt Noorda, university professors today are coaches that develop critical thinking in their students — they do it to ensure that their future graduates are competitive on the international market, among other reasons. The process of learning, in his opinion, cannot be “prescribed”: students need to “learn how to learn” and “develop their individual style”. As a teacher, Noorda recommended to “coach” students every term by giving them a serious project or a study to work on, either in a team or individually.

Being President Emeritus of the University of Amsterdam, Mr. Noorda cited an example from the history of his own university, saying that in 1970 95% of students taking part in career prospect surveys could name their most desired first job, so the survey would result in a top 10 list of most popular companies in the Netherlands — today, however, about 70% of students say that they want to create their job themselves. In the opinion of Sijbolt Noorda, a university degree should be the foundation for the graduates’ further development, providing them with competencies, so that in the following 40 years they continue to learn and improve, maintaining their level of expertise and the ability to work as part of international team, all the while responding to the challenges of time. Today’s problems are not monodisciplinary, said the President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory — he thinks this aspect needs to be considered when curricula are designed. Since the majority of current problems are cross-boundary in nature, the mobility tool within the Bologna Process also aims to prepare graduates for meaningful competitive work in future.

Drawing attention to the profile of the national system of education, Noorda noted that Belarus should define its priorities independently. For example, in Bavaria you can get high quality biological research training, in Switzerland you can take up a course on mountain mining. In his opinion, the country's system of education must take account of the talent and national ambitions. At the same time, he pointed out the mistakes made by South Korea and Japan when they decided to focus primarily on developing business schools and engineering, but then faced internal intercultural, social, ethnical and religious conflicts after 2005. The President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory emphasized that in Belarus, just like in other Eastern Europe countries, higher education system is dominated by traditional universities and lacks professional higher education institutes. According to him, it is impossible to ensure full-fledged success of the higher education system if you do not start at a very early stage, such as primary school, college, etc. 

Successful economies attract students from abroad, he noted. 10 years after graduation more than 50% of students, as a rule, are still in the country where they studied. At the same time, modern university applicants have varied social, ethnic and national backgrounds, which universities have to take into account.

Sijbolt Noorda (on the right) – President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, Viktor Gaisenok, (on the left) - Rector of the National Institute for Higher Education (Belarus)

Speaking about integration of Belarus in the Bologna Process, Sijbolt Noorda noted: "The road-map is a serious thing, and 2018 is very near. The Bologna Follow-up group is starting to have its meetings already in 2016. So, my advice would be to choose the priorities and carefully work on them in 2016 and 2017 to show the results."

Such priorities, he thinks, can include: setting up a quality assurance system; inclusion of students in the decision-making (on the level of their class, faculty, university, in the design of curricula); compliance of the system of education to the needs of the society, regional context, economic development, etc.

Jürgen Kohler, professor at Greifswald University  (Germany)

According to Jürgen Kohler (Greifswald University  (Germany), the syllabus must be devised to include a “mobility window” as its integral part. According to Kohler, the concept of mobility must be integrated within the curriculum design. Speaking about the level of motivation of his own students, the German professor of civil law pointed out: "In the first 68 weeks of studies it is necessary to give students a chance to “feel the taste” of learning programmes. If we talk about legal studies - this would be linguistics, logic, sociology, psychology, history and other. Give students the time and chance to try these disciplines out and show the examples of how they can be interconnected, how to use the competences hidden behind taught subjects in the future" .

Aleksa Bjelis, Professor at the Department of Physics and former Rector of the University of Zagreb (Croatia), member of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory


Curricula may include “mobility” as part of bilateral agreements on cooperation between universities, said Aleksa Bjelis, member of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory. Professor at the Department of Physics and former Rector of the University of Zagreb (Croatia) noted that 100% of the curriculum is independently designed by the university. For a student of physics, 75-80% of the curriculum is mandatory, while the rest is optional and is selected by the student. Speaking about student government in his University, Bjelis emphasized that the students are normally not very active. In his opinion, the question is whether they are active and whether they can veto the decisions that affect them, such as ones regarding curricula, conditions of learning, terms of exams, etc.

Katia Dolgova-Dreyer, Head of Unit for Regional and Bilateral Co-operation in CIS and Central Asia of the Council of Europe

For reference: Starting January 1, 2016, Belarusian State University will charge students a fee for retaking tests or examinations. Most Belarusian universities have already introduced similar fees, and BSU was one of the few institutions of higher education where students could retake tests or exams free of charge. According to the press release by the University’s Information Department, the goal of this measure was to “discipline and motivate students to take their studies responsibly”. However, at first the issue did not receive enough coverage, for example, in terms of the amount of suggested fees, which raised serious concerns among students, who collected more than 2,500 signatures against the decision made by university administration.

 In the course of discussion, Katia Dolgova-Dreyer, Head of Unit for Regional and Bilateral Co-operation in CIS and Central Asia of the Council of Europe, noted that it is crucial to have students with a “proactive approach to life” who know what they want to achieve in future, develop their professional competences and are actively involved in the process of learning. In particular, the Council of Europe representative noted: "It is being discussed at the European level that the demands of BSU students, who opposed the introduction of fees for retaking tests and exams, were not met.  We heard from the European Students' Union that 2,5 thousand students signed the petition. From the point of view of the Council of Europe, student engagement is a very positive development which demonstrates that they are actually socially active."

Workshop participants were introduced to advantages and disadvantages of different models for electing university rectors — in particular, the risks and benefits of inclusive election processes, which engage the whole academic and student community, and restricted ones, when the rector is appointed by a Board.

Student participation in the decision-making processes and their representation in the institution’s governing bodies, both on the level of faculties and on the level of universities, says Sijbolt Noorda, President of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, is not a specific democracy decision but a pre-requisite for further creation of crucial educational competencies — in his opinion, students should take ownership and share it with the teaching staff.

The workshop, which was held on November 26-27 on the basis of the Belarusian National Institute for Higher Education, presented experience of international experts and group work with their Belarusian counterparts. More than 30 representatives of various universities from Minsk, Vitebsk and Grodno took part, all planning to join Magna Charta Observatory in the nearest future. The event was organized with support from Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

SEE PHOTOS here and here.


Professor Aleksa Bjeliš, PhD
Full Professor at the Department of Physics, Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb
Since 1971 to 1988 he was employed at the Institute of Physics, and in 1988 he joined the Department of Physics at the Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb. Since 1990 to 1997 he was Vice-dean and since 2000 until 2002 Dean of the Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb. From 2002 to 2006 he served as vice-rector for research and development, and from 2006 until 2014 as the rector, at the University of Zagreb. 
From 2002 on he has been continuously the member, firstly of Steering Committee for Higher Education, and then of the Steering Committee for Educational Policy and Practice of the Council of Europe. Presently he is the member of the Bureau of the Committee. From 2006 he has been also the member of the Council of Magna Charta Observatory.
His research activity is of theoretical character, and covers different problems in the condensed matter physics, mostly in physics of dimensionally reduced systems. He has about 70 scientific publications, published mostly in international open journals. He was visiting professor and/or scientist at about twenty universities and scientific institutes in France, U. S. A., Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia and Hungary. He is a member of the European Physical Society and the Croatian Physical Society.

Professor Dr. Jürgen Kohler
Jürgen Kohler is professor of private law and private litigation (Bürgerliches Recht und Zivilprozessrecht) at Greifswald University, Germany. He was one of the founders of the re-established faculty of law and business management of Greifswald University after German reunification in 1990. He was rector of Greifswald University between 1994 and 2000. He represented the German institutions of higher education in the CDESR of the Council of Europe between 2001 and 2013 and was a member of its bureau twice. He has been active in quality assurance for a number of years both nationally and internationally, inter alia, as chair of the German Accreditation Council from 2005 to 2007, as chair of the Appeals Board of EQAR, and as an evaluator for various European and German organisations. He is active in the Institutional Evaluation Programme of the European University Association, both serving in peer-based evaluations across Europe. He co-edits the Journal of the European Higher Education Area (previously EUA Bologna Handbook) and the Handbuch Qualität in Studium und Lehre, both published by Raabe-Verlag, Berlin.

David Lock
David Lock is Secretary General of the Magna Charta Observatory and International Adviser to the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
He has had a varied career in international higher education and university leadership. As Director of International Projects at the UK’s Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, David was responsible for instigating and delivering projects with over 30 different countries, some at Governmental level. Projects have included major programmes for Rectors and Ministry Officials to implement national HE reform and autonomy strategies over several years and building partnerships between universities in different countries.
Until October 2007 David was the founding Registrar and Acting Chief Executive of the British University in Dubai where he structured, built and then led the University following its legal creation by the Ruler of Dubai as a not-for-profit provider of Higher Education to UK standards.
Prior to going to Dubai David was Secretary to the University of Huddersfield and Registrar and Secretary to the University of Hull in the UK for a total of 14 years. A teacher and Chartered Secretary by background, David has served on a number of international bodies and undertaken a range of consultancy assignments including international development and UK HE governance projects. He is Chairman of the Gulf Education Conference and served on the International Advisory Committee of the British Council.

Dr Sijbolt Noorda
Dr Sijbolt Noorda is president of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory.
He is president emeritus of the University of Amsterdam, past president of the Association of Dutch Research Universities and a former board member of the European University Association.
He has served or serves on various executive and non-executive boards in the domains of Higher Education & Research, Public Radio & Television, Performing Arts & Moving Image, Health Service, High Performance Computing, Not-for-profit Publishing and Social Services.
 At present he chairs the Academic Cooperation Association (Brussels), is an expert in the IEP (Institutional Evaluation Program) of EUA and is an advisor to various Austrian, Dutch, German, Romanian and Turkish universities.
His academic field is cultural history of religions in Europe. He holds degrees from Free University Amsterdam, Utrecht University and Union Seminary/Columbia University, NYC.

See also:

Council of Europe: Belarus Has Joined the Bologna Process, So We Can Now Work More Closely Together

Sijbolt Noorda: Belarus Roadmap for Higher Education Reform is a serious thing, it is really time to start to change

First Belarusian University Joins Magna Charta Universitatum

ODB Brussels