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Maria Stezhko and Alexander Steinfeldt | 09.09.2016

Kicking Lenin out of the classroom

Everyone has the right to education. But when the university curriculum is dominated by state ideology and the will of the president, what other options are available? The European College of Liberal Arts in Minsk is offering an alternative model that looks set to catch on.

Alexander Adamiants, Director of the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus. (Photo: Alexander Steinfeldt)

Few were surprised when, in 2012, the Bologna Follow-Up Group postponed the date of Belarus' accession to the Bologna Process because "Belarus' policies in the field of higher education failed to respect the Bologna Process values". In particular, the group criticised violations of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and student participation in higher education governance.

But only three years later Belarus was able to join the European Higher Education Area - the last territorial state in Europe to do so, later even than Kazakhstan (2010) and the South Caucasian states (2005). This decision provoked a lot of discussion in Belarusian society. Because obviously the problems with the system still exist: academic freedom is not respected, the rights of students are still violated, not to mention that the quality of education has remained the same.

Based on a humanities and liberal arts tradition, for many years the European Humanities University (EHU) was the only alternative for young people since in Belarus. In 2004, the EHU was shut down by the government and forced to move to neighboring Lithuania. But young people eager to follow a European model of education stayed.

The beginning

One of those students was Alexander Adamiants. After graduating from EHU he launched the online magazine New Europe in 2006, keen to promote European ideas and values among Belarusians. But later Adamiants decided that this was not enough, so he founded the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB).

Adamiants describes the situation of humanities in Belarus as "awful". "The quality of studies is secondary; they still use old Soviet methods of teaching at the universities. All the social sciences and humanities contain elements of Marxism and Leninism", he complains. Furthermore, the professors are old. Thus, his college tries to offer an alternative for education in these subjects. "Creating ECLAB was our answer to the demand of the young people," summarises its founder and director.

Unofficial and happy

Unfortunately, or fortunately, ECLAB is not registered as an official college in Belarus. This helps to avoid pressure from the government on administration and professors, therefore allowing proper academic freedom in practice. Education in ECLAB lasts 8 months. The dropout rate is 50 percent, which is considered good for this kind of project because all students work or study during the day.

Katsiaryna Azhgirey during an ECLAB graduation ceremony. (Photo: ECLAB)

ECLAB was the first institution in Belarus to work on the model of liberal arts education. For one of this year's graduates, Katsiaryna Azhgirey, her studies were "a completely new experience, an alternative education that Belarus has hardly seen". She adds: "In the classroom you feel equal with the teachers." Katsiaryna points out that the main principles of ECLAB are democracy, trust and the ability to learn from each other – students and teachers alike.

Other young teachers take the college as an example for their own business and start small schools with just a few students in specialised disciplines. For example, last year a new language school opened in the same building as ECLAB, offering German and English evening classes. Its teacher is responsible for up to 20 students of all ages and prefers the inspiring environment of neighboring trendy October Street. He tries to impart not only foreign language skills, but also a sense of European values and the joy of travelling.

Graffiti in October Street. (Photo: Alexander Steinfeldt)

This sounds like a modern approach, and one steadfastly opposed to that advocated by President Alexander Lukashenko. The head of the state claims that "we do not need any reforms in education – we just need to improve what we have. We inherited a good Soviet education system and we have transformed it." However the government's reluctance to integrate into the European Higher Education Area doesn't phase the director of ECLAB. He believes that in a few years Belarus will be part of the European Union: "This is our mission and we hope that our students will be the actors of this policy."


Maria Stezhko currently studies New Media at the European Humanities University in Vilnius.
Alexander Steinfeldt is a journalist for treffpunkteuropa.de/thenewfederalist.eu and a member of the Young European Federalists.