Magna Charta Universitatum Presented in Minsk

Ольга Стужинская, директор ОДБ (слева), Дэвид Лок, генеральный секретарь Обсерватории "Magna Charta Universitatum" (справа)
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Olga Stuzhinskaya, ODB Director, David Lock, Secretary General of the Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory

On 3 November, a delegation of the Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory visited Belarus for the first time. At the meeting, which brought together representatives of Belarusian universities and the Ministry of Education of Belarus, members of the Observatory Council presented potential applications of the Magna Charta Universitatum to foster the integration of Belarus into the international system of higher education. The event was organised by the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels, Belgium) in partnership with the National Institute for Higher Education (Minsk, Belarus) as part of the Belarus-EU Task Force programme supported by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).

The Magna Charta Universitatum was created in 1988 as a European project and is now a key international document for the development of universities all around the world. Magna Charta Universitatum sets out fundamental principles for the development of higher education. The Charta was signed on September 18, 1988 in the University of Bologna, the ceremony celebrating the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna. At the time, the Charta was signed by 430 university leaders, and now the number has increased to 767. Its signatories include higher education establishments from 81 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Observatory Council, or the Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory, was established in September 2001, in Italy. At present the organisation examines the work of higher educational establishments in different countries and estimates the intellectual contributions that universities make to the development of specific societies.
In Belarus members of the Magna Charta Universitatum Observatory delegation presented the main benefits that the Charta provides to modern universities, such as cross-border cooperation between universities, staff exchanges, opportunities for joint research and competitive education in any professional field. The participants of the meeting acknowledged that many of these issues are relevant for Belarus as well. 

Sijbolt Noorda (on the right), President of the Magna Charta Observatory Council

Sijbolt Noorda, President of the Magna Charta Observatory Council: "We have been invited to come here for the seminar. And we are used to accepting those invitations, because we want to discuss the issues of autonomy and integrity of universities more deeply. So we go to European countries, to Latin America, to Asia, to Middle East, to North Africa, and each of these areas has been able to find their own path to a free and autonomous university – that’s why we’re here. And it’s on the universities and the authorities of Belarus to decide their own path of development".

Academic freedom and autonomy principles of modern universities are among the fundamental values laid out in the Charta. Magna Charta Universitatum establishes a connection between research and teaching, as well as the universities' freedom to exchange information in order to strengthen mutual research projects.

Вадим Богуш, первый заместитель министра образования Беларуси
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Vadim Bogush, First Deputy Minister for Education of Belarus

According to Vadzim Bohush, the First Deputy Minister for Education of Belarus, the main issue today is the quality of the higher education. "There are many problems in our future, which can be only solved through joint efforts, through cooperation with other universities, by introducing and implementing such procedures as academic mobility, information exchange and, of course, using best practices of other countries – that is a very valuable experience for us. At the moment we are considering ratifying the Magna Charta Universitatum. One cannot say that we are “conforming”: our educational system is well-structured and recognized by the international community. Speaking about university autonomy etc., surely there are certain decisions that universities take independently", Vadzim Bohush noted.

David Lock, Magna Charta Observatory Secretary General

David Lock, the Magna Charta Observatory Secretary General says: "I think that the ratification of Magna Charta is an important step, and sometimes it comes before the Bologna process. Universities need to be governed and managed in way that enables fundamental values to be delivered".

Participants of the meeting pointed out that the principle of academic mobility for students and teaching staff does not just provide an opportunity for universities to organise staff exchanges, it also allows students to get modern education which meets the demands of employers and companies in the labour market.

Uladzimir Dunaeu, professor

Uladzimir Dunaeu, a member of the Independent Bologna Committee (Belarus): "The Bologna Process spells out a well-designed strategy, the National Qualifications Framework and Professional Standards, which means that their relations between the job market and educational institutions differ considerably from what we have here. The framework of the Bologna Process includes sectoral councils of employers that develop professional standards, i.e. particular requirements for the competences a graduate needs to have within a highly specific field. So, universities should structure their curricular in order to meet the expectations of employers, constantly chasing the labour market demands. Students complain when they skip lectures, miss courses, as quite often the things they are taught are in fact completely irrelevant. That is why they are trying to be rational and to cater for a place in the market they might take in future ".

About 16 thousand foreigners are currently studying in Belarusian universities. Belarusian State University, for instance, has students from Russia, China, Korea, Japan and other countries. According to QS World University Rankings, BSU is now among top 500 world universities; this is the first time the University has made such an index. University administration has set the goal to attract more foreign students. All Master's level courses are expected to be translated and taught in English. At the moment 5-7 Master's courses are available in a foreign language.

Ihar Tsitovich, Vice Rector for Scientific and Methodological Work of the Republican
Institute of the Higher School of Belarus

Ihar Tsitovich, the Vice Rector for Scientific and Methodological Work of the National Institute for Higher Education: "Belarusian system of higher education is an industrial one; it was formed to resolve the problem of personnel training for those industry branches that were developing in the territory of Belarus. However, now that an innovation economy is emerging and the world has entered a post-industrial era, this is probably not the best approach to structuring the whole system of higher education. At the moment a new model is being established in Post-Soviet countries, one where universities function as integration centers for science, education and production. Such a model of modern university will be formed much faster here if we participate in integration processes and cooperate with the Magna Charta Universitatum quite closely”.

According to Uladzimir Dunaeu, a representative of the Independent Bologna Committee, joining the Magna Charta Universitatum is a major step for universities as they thus commit to observing the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy. Some universities, however, are already taking certain steps in this direction. Earlier this year, for example, BSU Assembly was created, which is the highest representative body of the student self-government, and its members will participate in BSU Council meetings.

Teaching staff of Belarusian universities also need academic mobility as a way to exchange experiences and take part in international internships and research. As was noted in the meeting, six out of ten leading h-index Belarusian scientists are also working as university professors.

Participants of the meeting agreed to continue the dialogue and exchange experiences, and recognized that values represented in Magna Charta Universitatum lay an essential foundation for successful development of the modern system of higher education in Belarus and ensuring its compliance with international standards.