On November 18, 2014, Minsk State Linguistic University welcomed representatives of the Ministry of Education of Belarus, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the European Student's Union and the Bologna Process Follow-up Group, who discussed key problems and prospects of international higher education system at the seminar "Structural Reforms in the European Higher Education Area: Challenges and Opportunities".
As was noted by the participants, today European higher education area and Belarus are dealing with similar issues: how to improve the quality of qualification training for university graduates and to resolve key job placement challenges that graduates face after leaving university or college. There is a gap between the level of training and employers' requirements both in Belarus and in EU countries. According toEuropean statistics, representatives of 74% of educational institutions are confident that their graduates are prepared for work, while only 35% of employers agree with that. According to Bartlomiej Banaszak, a member of the Bologna Follow-Up Group and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of Poland, today European graduates often have to answer two questions:
"How do I use my diploma and how do I get a job? The percentage of graduates who cannot find a job is high. There are two reasons for it: first, there is a lack of jobs in the market, and secondly, graduates are, in fact, underqualified and underskilled. One of the main goals of the higher education is to prepare students and graduates for their future job. And the problem is that the system of higher education is not really up to the challenge. The Bologna process gives us certain tools we can use to improve our employment process. For example, the qualification framework which is based on results, on what the students actually know and what they are capable of upon completion of the curriculum. With the new approaches, curricula are focused on practical skills and the competences that will be in demand on the labour market."
The Bologna Declaration of 1999 proclaims academic mobility, competitive education and employment issues among the main priorities. The issue of employment was raised in Bucharest in 2012 at the Conference of Ministers of Education and was included in the agenda of the Working Group on Structural Reforms of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
According to Vadim Bogush, First Deputy Minister of Education of Belarus, Belarusian system of higher education faces the same goals and challenges that the global one does. As Mr. Bogush stated, Belarus already implements some elements of the Bologna process in the state 2011-2015 Programme of Social and Economic Development, with the Ministry of Education of Belarus being primarily interested in academic mobility of professors.
"Changes in the economic development determine that we do not require a static model but one that would be constantly developing. As part of structural changes in Belarus, specialties at the first and second levels of higher education will be revised in accordance with international classifiers. We will take advantage of the opportunity to join the Bologna process."
Vadim Bogush noted that the Ministry of Ecucation of Belarus intends to bring the "share" of curriculum content determined by the universities and colleges independently up to 50%. He stressed in his statement that "universities should bear in mind that increased autonomy will entail increased responsibility as well." Participants of the seminar studied the Lithuanian experience of reforming the system of higher education and the working principles of international agencies assessing the quality of teaching in universities and colleges.
According to Aurelija Valeikiene, Deputy Director of the Centre for Quality Assessment in Higher Education, 95% of education quality research in Lithuanian universities is currently performed by international experts. Lithuania started reforming their system of education after they became independent in 1991, and they used experience of European countries and the United States in their structural reforms. As Valeikiene noted, a key role at the earliest stage of reforms of the system of higher education was played by international organizations, especially the Council of Europe which assisted the dialogue on national level reforms.
Belarus has a "special status" in the Council of Europe, says Katia Dolgova-Dreyer, representative of Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation of the Council of Europe. On the one hand, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, while on the other hand, it ratified the European Cultural Convention, where all the programmes on education, culture, sport and youth include representatives of Belarus. In Ms. Dolgova-Dreyer's opinion, student self-government as one of the Bologna principles is the quintessence of the modern approach to education:
"Of course, the aim of the reforms must be to ensure inclusion of students in the educational process. It is one of the main ideas of the Bologna process: the student should not just receive knowledge and be the "object" of education. Rather we are talking about a "student-centric" education, i.e. the students should be in the center of it, they should be involved."
Earlier this year Belarusian State University organized the first higher representative body of student self-governance: BSU Student Assembly. In 2014 the university for the first time was included in the world's top 500 universities, according to QS World University Rankings. Issues of student self-government in Belarus are very important for theEuropean Student Union (ESU). At the moment interests of Belarus are represented in the ESU by a "Belarusian Students' Association".
As noted by Maximas Milta, member of the 2014-2015 ESU Executive Committee, European Student Union also maintains contact with the new initiatives:
"The situation with student governance, representation of the interests of students in Belarus is a highly challenging one. We do our best to keep in touch with various emerging initiatives. An important and interesting phenomenon is that a lot of Lithuanian, Polish, Norwegian, Ukrainian members of our organization help Belarusian initiatives implement "capacity building" programmes. They are the Center for development of students' initiatives (CDSI), Brotherhood of Organizers of Student Self-Governance (BOSS), "RADA" Youth Council, the Association being formed in the Belarusian State University. I see that there is certain progress, and clearly there are different factors why this progress occurs."
Maximas Milta says that ESU's position on Belarus is still the same: students' interests need to be represented in a transparent and autonomous way, in accordance with the values that underpin the Bologna process.
On November 27-28 Belarus application will be discussed at the Rome meeting of Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG). The meeting will also make a decision on the agenda of the upcoming Conference of the Ministers of Education to be held in Yerevan on May 14-15.
Marta Touykova, a representative of the European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture:
"The Bologna process is an intergovernmental one that involves 47 countries, the European Commission and advisory members. Belarus has submitted an application to join the Bologna process. Quality of the application will be assessed by a special committee which will then give recommendations to the ministers. The decision on the application will be made at the Conference of Ministers of Education in Yerevan in May 2015.
The EU supports modernization and reforms of the system of higher education of Belarus which were presented at the seminar "Structural Reforms in the European Higher Education Area: Challenges and Opportunities." The EU has developed two major instruments for capacity building and international academic cooperation: special programmes to fund projects and student mobility, and the 4th Platform of Eastern Partnership, which is a space to exchange experience and skills in the defined cooperation priority areas. So this is good, we are now gathering all the parties interested in future cooperation."
According to Marta Touykova, new EU member countries have managed to carry out reforms and modernize their systems of higher education. Modern opportunities provided by student mobility are very important:
"Students in Europe can travel freely. Only 20 years ago this would have been unimaginable. It is probably one of the major modern achievements of the European Union", said the European Commission representative.