The Belarusian system of higher education consists of universities, academies, and institutes. It comprises 42 state and 15 non-state higher educational institutions (VNU) with a total of 243,700 thousand students. Universities and academies offer graduate and post-graduate programs and are engaged in fundamental research. Whereas universities offer education in a wide variety of areas, academies have a narrower specialization (e.g., medical or management academies). Institutes are also highly specialized and usually have no post-graduate programs. They can function as separate entities or as part of a university. Higher educational institutions offer full-time (day) and part-time (night and correspondence) programs.
The degree that has been traditionally conferred by Belarusian higher educational institutions is Certified Specialist. It usually requires five years of training, success in final state examinations, and defense of a thesis. The study at medical institutions lasts longer and has a different set of requirements. The need to integrate into the world educational community has stimulated the introduction of two other degrees: Bachelor's, after four years of training, and Master's, after six years of instruction. The advanced scholarly degrees include Kandydat navuk (literally "Candidate of Sciences") and Doktar navuk (Doctor of Sciences). The degree of Kandydat is approximately equivalent to a Ph.D. and requires at least three years of post-graduate study, success in qualification examinations, and the defense of a dissertation. The Doktar's degree is highly prestigious and can be obtained after many years of teaching and independent research. A three-year sabbatical called daktarantura leads to the defense of a second dissertation of high theoretical and practical value. The defense is preceded by the publication of several dozen articles and at least one monograph. In 1999, about 54 percent of all faculty members in Belarus had advanced scholarly degrees. The total number of post-graduate students exceeded 2,500.
Teachers of higher educational institutions are promoted to faculty positions through the process of competition. Applicants submit documents, which are expected to prove their professional competence and ability to engage in scholarly research. All the papers are reviewed by a special commission, which conducts an interview with the candidate. Since there is no tenure, all the faculty members have to go through this process every five years. The faculty positions are: Assistant, Senior Lecturer, Datsent (which usually requires a Kandydat's degree), and Professor (usually with a Doktar's degree). The scholarly ranks of Datsent and Professor are conferred to faculty members who have worked in the corresponding position for at least a year and have a number of post-defense publications.
A higher educational institution is headed by the Rector, elected by the Academic Council, which makes major decisions about educational policy, curricula, and staffing. The institution is divided into faculties, headed by Deans. All faculty members are organized according to their specialty into departments called kafedry.
Applicants to higher educational institutions must have completed secondary education. The admissions are highly selective: on the average, in 1996 there were 250 applications per 100 spots in full-time programs. Since some specialties are much more popular than others, the competition in the departments can be very intense. The prospective students have to take three to five entrance examinations. The obligatory subjects for all applicants are the Belarusian language and literature or the Russian language and literature. Other subjects, which have to be connected with the future specialty, are set up by the institution on the basis of the list, developed by the Ministry of Education, which includes: a foreign language, history of Belarus, new world history, humankind and society, geography, physics, information science, mathematics, chemistry, biology, art, music, technical drawing, and other subjects. The applicants who score the highest are admitted to free studies and are even paid a small monthly stipend. Those who have a gold or a silver medal take only one exam and are admitted if they get an excellent grade. Previously, higher education was free for all students. Now a certain percentage of students at state universities (those who passed the examinations but did not win the competition) pay tuition fees.
All the enrolled students are divided into permanent groups of 25 to 30 people. They stay together as a group throughout the period of their studies, which allows them to develop close friendships. The schedule is made for the whole group. The structure of the curricula largely depends on standards developed on the state level. This is done in order to ensure the quality of education in the whole Republic. The main categories included in the curricula are general, general professional, and specialized subjects. The share of electives is comparatively small. The academic year begins on September 1 and is divided into semesters.
Students are graded both for their current work and examinations taken at the end of each semester. The grades used for evaluation are "excellent, good, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory." In case of a failure, students are allowed to retake the examination three times, the last time before a panel of professors. If they fail, they are expelled from the university. Excellent students receive an increase to their stipend. The course of study culminates in a state profile exam and/or defense of a thesis. Students who graduate with honors are awarded a "red certificate."
Under the new socioeconomic conditions, higher education is increasingly charged with the task of restructuring the curricula, diversifying the educational process, and adapting it to the requirements of the market economy. The enrollment figures are steadily growing, mostly because of the emergence of private institutions, as well as paid programs within existing universities. The most popular and competitive programs are in management, economics, law, and foreign languages. The new specialties offered by higher educational institutions include:
- classical languages and literature
- Japanese and Chinese
- commercial activity in commodity and service markets
- standardization and certification
- printing industry technology
Among the most important tasks in higher education are:
- the preparation of a new law on higher education
- development of educational standards that would establish universal requirements for institutions of different types and provide a basis for their accreditation
- a gradual switch to multilevel higher education
- the integration of universities into the world educational community
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