Updated at 18:18,16-07-2018

The 4th annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish conference: education as a human right

Yarik Kryvoi, BelarusDigest

The 4th annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish conference: education as a human right
On 13 December 2016 Minsk will host the 4th Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference. The year the topic is 'Education as a Human Right: Modernising Higher Education to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century'.

The conference will take place three days after International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations general assembly. Belarus, Poland, and the Netherlands – founding members of the United Nations – also observe this day.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education, which shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Improving higher education will be the main focus of the discussion-oriented conference. It will give experts from Belarus, the Netherlands, and Poland an opportunity to discuss what each country can learn from others.

As with other conferences co-organised by the Ostrogorski Centre, it will bring together people with different views and backgrounds to engage in respectful dialogue. The speakers will include representatives of educational institutions from the Netherlands, Poland, and Belarus, as well as Belarusian government agencies and NGOs.

For each topic, the Ostrogorski Centre will prepare a short working paper to focus discussion on real practise. Belarus Digest, Ostro.by, and Ideaby.org will also provide a live broadcast of the event as well as archived videos following the conference.

The conference will focus on three key topics: the challenges of Belarus accession to the European Higher Education Area, improving business education, and making education more accessible through distance education.

Integration into the European Higher Education Area (EHEA)

Belarus occupies a relatively high position on the Human Development Index compared to other CIS countries; about 90% of the population possesses secondary or higher education. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index 2016, Belarus surpasses Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and certain EU countries with regard to access to education, quality of education, and the human potential.

However, Belarus still needs to do more to integrate into pan-European education structures, as it is one of the last countries in the region to join the Bologna process. Its accession has been viewed as an opportunity for authorities to improve the situation.

At a conference of 47 EHEA ministers of education in 2015, Belarus committed to a roadmap for higher education reform as a prerequisite for joining the EHEA. The roadmap envisages modernisation of the professional qualifications framework, thus making it compatible with the European framework by introducing a three-cycle system of higher education.

Belarus has a long way to go to meet all the requirements of the EHEA. For example, students and staff face barriers to international mobility. Students and academics need to undergo lengthy procedures to be 'officially' allowed to attend education events abroad, although in many instances these requirements are not strictly enforced.

Advertisement for activities of foreign universities is strictly regulated by the anti-human trafficking law, developed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Self-governance and student organisations at universities face significant restrictions.

Business education for more dynamic economic growth

The Belarusian authorities have shown interest in the development of business education, as proved by the adoption of the corresponding Concept by the Belarusian government in 2015. Business education can help lift people out of poverty and improve their situation. However, the sector remains probably the most sensitive to the economic climate, which lately has not been ideal in Belarus. In neighbouring Poland and Russia, business education boomed in the early 1990s as the private sector grew.

In Belarus, much of the economy is still state-owned and most Belarusian business educators lack wealthy clients. They often look more like training centres oriented towards small business than fully-fledged education institutions.

These days, those seeking business education opportunities are demanding that training leads to practical skills. The business education sector in Belarus suffers from excessive state regulation, poor integration into the international educational space, and weak representation of business educators in the regions.

Making education more accessible through distance education

Despite the wide penetration of high speed Internet in Belarus and the significant number of higher education institutions in the country, distance education in Belarus is very underdeveloped. Its expansion in Belarus would offer new opportunities to people with disabilities, people who live far from urban centres, or people who work full-time to obtain education. A flexible schedule and the ability to create an individual distance learning plan would allow students to combine education and work.

Poland, Latvia, and Russia, unlike Belarus, have separate institutions for distance education. For instance, over 20,000 students graduated from the Polish Virtual University in Łódź. The Netherlands is one of the world's leaders in distance education, offering hundreds of courses at different levels. Belarus will need to create a favourable legislative regime for regulation of distance education. It will also need to train instructors and encourage cooperation with institutions which use distance education successfully.

Cooperation with more experienced distance educators could create opportunities to provide distance education to entrepreneurs. Training on specific skills required on the labour market, along with creation of Belarus-focused massive open online courses (MOOCs), could also be provided.

These and other topics will be discussed in more detail in Minsk on 13 December at the 4th Annual Dutch-Belarusian-Polish Conference: 'Education as a Human Right: Modernising Higher Education to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century'.