Belarus: Payback Time

payback timeIn July 2008, while visiting local authorities in the Kamianiec region, President of Belarus Alyaksandr Lukashenka alarmed many soon-to-be graduates when he remarked on the lack of qualified doctors and other professionals in the southwestern region. Newly trained doctors, he argued, had a serious responsibility both to the public and to the state: “We have taught you, we have trained you, and for that, you should work for the state not just for one to two years – 10 to 15 years should be the period!”

The President’s words have students of medicine and agriculture keeping their fingers crossed that a law also proposed in July to extend their mandatory work assignments from the standard two years required of all new graduates to as much as ten years will not materialize. The new initiative would also make it impossible for them to change location or jobs even upon completion of the mandatory term without the permission of regional authorities. Although it unlikely to be passed any time soon, such proposals keep the entire student community under stress.

Backward System or Brand New Burden?

The system of mandatory work assignments is holdover from the Soviet period, when the constitutional right to higher education was understood as a binding responsibility to pay back one’s tuition by working for the state.

Today, the system receives relatively little support among the younger generation. A poll conducted in 2000 by the Belarusian Students Association revealed that only 19% of student respondents were in favor of the system, and most of them were in fields that were not in high demand by the labour market. The remaining 81% of respondents were against work assignments, supporting the notion that students should receive government assistance in finding a job only voluntarily, instead of on a compulsory basis.

Some recent graduates think the system gets a bad reputation. “Apart from the fact that it guarantees you employment after graduation, the employer can’t lay you off without a good reason for two years,” says Vladzimier, a physics graduate. “In addition, young professionals receive a number of perks, namely a 10% premium on their salary and a month’s vacation after graduation before the job actually starts. Its a trifle, but a pleasant one,” he says.

However, he acknowledges that the binding nature of the system is questionable. “If the binding character of two-year employment was abolished and instead allowed the opportunity to change jobs during the two-year period, I would be completely satisfied,” he adds.

The fact that graduates are legally required to stay put in their assigned workplaces for two years is exactly why many graduating students are increasingly unhappy with the system. The Ministry of Education estimates that approximately 200 graduates failed to report to their assigned places of employment in 2008 and, as of October 2007, 100 criminal cases have been initiated against absentee graduates. In accordance with laws passed in 2006, students who do not complete their work assignments risk being stripped of their diplomas and forced to pay back the whole cost of their studies – a punitive sum which, in the eyes of many students and human rights activists, undermines the country’s continuing claim to free higher education.

In 2008, lawyers working for the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) addressed the Constitutional Court of the Republic with a demand to consider whether the institution of binding employment was constitutional, urging judges to remember that the Constitution entitles all Belarusian citizens to a free education. If students are being forced to pay for their tuition, there can be no talk of “free education”, they argued – binding employment assignments either need to be abolished or the Constitution needs to be amended. As of yet, the Constitutional Court has not initiated any hearings, but the BHC received a formal letter this April stating its opinion that “the institution of binding employment bears no distinction of forced labor.”

At issue is whether or not the system runs afoul of notions of forced labour as defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s 1957 Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labor. Belarus ratified the convention in 1995.

At the beginning of this summer, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee filed an official complaint to the ILO in cooperation with Alaksandar Jarašuk, the head of the Belarusian Democratic Professional Unions Federation. It is too early to tell what the fate of this appeal will be. “The ILO is a highly bureaucratized orgnization and we expect consideration of the case to take a lot of time,” says Hary Pahaniaj?a, a lawyer working on the case on behalf of the BHC.

Pay for Peace of Mind

A young person can certainly avoid having to pay back the state with their labor by paying for their studies from the very beginning. As of 2008, around 40 percent of full-time students are paying tuition fees ranging from $500 to $2000 USD per semester, while part-time and evening students almost all pay their own way.

But not everyone is rushing to pay to avoid future troubles, even among those who can afford to do so. Paying for one’s education is widely perceived to be the last resort of mediocre students. Admission to Belarusian universities is highly competitive, based upon one’s performance on standardized entrance examinations. The number of state-sponsored places has decreased significantly in recent years, adding to the pressure to do well and secure prestigious state-funded spots. Programs such as international relations, design and computer programming are especially difficult to get into, requiring a high score on the exam. It is not unheard of to pay a bribe of about 50-100 USD to successfully “pass”, particularly outside of Minsk. At least according to public perception, free studies are reserved for the country’s best and brightest students.

Most students studying free of charge simply put off the thought of their work assignments until they near graduation, when the consequences suddenly become clear.

The main issue, they say, is that they are given very little say in where they are sent or the type of work they will have to perform. Only rarely does a graduating student manage to secure a placement with his or her current employer (if they are already employed), and these tend by and large to be students whose qualifications are not in demand by state institutions.

The assignment process has two stages: in the first, all fifth year students are called to their Dean’s office to discuss their placements two weeks before the main meeting in which they are given their formal assignment. If someone has already secured a job, they must produce confirmation of this in writing and the second stage is a mere formality. However, this does not necessarily guarantee that they will not be placed elsewhere, depending on current hiring priorities.

Others receive their placements during the second stage in April. Students with the highest marks receive their assignments first; graduates with the worst marks are taken in the last turn. Students who have been deemed gifted or who hold presidential scholarships are sometimes allowed to secure an assignment of their choosing. Also, they may postpone their work assignments by entering a master’s degree or ‘aspirantura’ (equivalent to PhD in Belarus) for the duration of their studies.

For the rest, the process can be totally arbitrary: depending on the type and number of hiring requests received by faculties, excellent students may still end up in the remote provinces, while less successful students might end up with “free diplomas” because no one wants them. With the best opportunities and highest paying jobs concentrated in Minsk, being sent to the regions amounts to “career suicide” if one is young and ambitious.

Those graduates who have any trace of pedagogical training are regularly assigned to teach schoolchildren in remote parts of Belarus where, despite a declining birth rate, there are not nearly enough teachers. This is due to the exodus of teachers to better paying jobs in other areas and other professions. Rural teachers say they find it difficult to remain enthusiastic about earning an average of the equivalent of 200-250 USD per month when the national average salary is around 400 USD. Newly graduated teachers often receive as little as 150 USD a month.

“The fact that it is compulsory employment is the problem,” says Lera, a Belarusian State University fifth-year student. “If I was told, “Come and work in our school because there are no teachers and it can’t survive without you,” then my answer would be pretty positive. Otherwise I don’t owe anything to anyone.”

“I’ve been working as a tutor for schoolchildren since I was a first-year student. I like working with kids a lot! But I would never go to work in a school for $200 a month – I’m not an enemy to myself. If salaries were higher, I would go without hesitation,” Lera adds.

More alarmingly, the government has begun sending recent graduates to work in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, having removed around 1,000 cities and towns from the radiation danger list in recent years.

Natasha and Alaksiej recently graduated from Gomel State Medical University. They have been assigned to Chojniki, a small town in the Chernobyl zone with a dangerously high level of radioactive contamination. “What else can we do?” asks Natasha. “We were told we would get higher salaries there and may be even provided with free accommodation. A young graduate of a medical university is paid around 100 – 150 USD in Gomel and 170 USD in Minsk without access to any operations. Our friends tell us that in Chojniki we would get twice as much and have more freedom in our work.”

The High Cost of Rebellion

Those who simply refuse their work assignments end up paying more for their studies than in many European countries. The government calculates the cost of 5-6 years of tuition and stipends to be between 3 and 5 thousand USD, depending on the program.

If they are reported missing by their assigned workplaces, graduates receive a letter from their universities suggesting that they “voluntarily” pay back the costs of their education. If no payments are made within the following six months, a legal suit is summarily filed. The court usually rules that the graduates should pay back the sum within a certain period of time and, if this does not happen, stricter penalties are imposed, such as a ban on traveling outside the country, salary cuts, and arresting their property. These restrictions are only lifted after the debt is paid in full.

Students who are asked to pay “tuition reimbursement” are mostly ineligible for discounted fees, especially if they are not members of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM), a state-sponsored patriot youth organization.

Although those students who have excellent marks may qualify for a 20 to 60 percent discount, they must demonstrate that are still “actively participating in cultural, social, and sport life of the faculty,” in practice, through BRSM activities. Exceptions are made for some other categories of students, including those from low-income families or the families of military servicemen, for orphans and disabled students, or those who have suffered from the Chernobyl catastrophe.

“It is nearly impossible to get a discount on tuition fees even if you got excellent marks in all subjects, since the most important prerequisite is BRSM membership. If you are not from the BRSM, don’t even try to apply for a discount,” says Tatsiana, a fifth-year student in the BSU, with outrage.

“And what I don’t understand is: why is it just BRSM? Why not the AHP (United Citizen’s Party – an opposition party)?” she asks. “It’s also a public institution.”

For many, the end result is a catch 22: pay the high cost of choosing one’s own path or spend two years of one’s young adult life in a potentially low-paying, unrewarding, or distant job. The stress caused by trying to find a way out of this predicament meant that many young people panicked at a widely circulated April Fools’ joke this year, claiming that the Ministry of Education planned to ban those who did not complete their two year work assignments from leaving the country for the same period of time. It might have been a joke, but the ministry is unpredictable.




More Posts in Eastern Europe


Share this Post