The Changes and Challenges of the Armenian Higher Education System After the Velvet Revolution6 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics

Walking through the corridors of the Faculty of Physics of Yerevan State University (YSU), Lusine, a friend of mine and postgraduate student at the Faculty of International Relations, points to the recently renovated walls. The last time I visited this building with Lusine half a year ago, the walls were dirty and the plaster was peeling. Now, this part of the YSU building makes quite a welcoming impression to students and guests.

YSU, with around 20 thousand students, is the biggest university of Armenia. I ask Lusine about the biggest changes after the Velvet Revolution that happened in 2018 when the opposition forces under Nikol Pashinyan managed to peacefully oust the reigning Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan and his Republican Party of Armenia (read more about the effects of the Velvet Revolution here). “There are not so many changes. The students are still the same. The lecturers are still the same. The lectures are still the same. However, the level of blatant corruption might have decreased”, Lusine answers.

Many universities in the post-Soviet space are characterized by a high degree of corruption and practices that are not in line with what is usually deemed best practices in research and education. Examples include selling grades (and even full diplomas), the obligation for students to buy books published by their lecturers, plagiarism, and curricula and textbooks that sometimes have not changed for decades.

Amendments to the Law on Higher Education and Science

The Armenian government that came into power after the Velvet Revolution in 2018 realized that there was a lot to do in order to change the higher educational system in Armenia and to prepare it for the challenges of the 21st century. It has introduced an amendment to the Law on Higher Education and Science that underwent its second hearing in the National Assembly of Armenia at the end of February. One of the key aspects of the planned reform is to give higher education institutions more academic freedom and to allow them a higher degree of autonomy.

Somebody who closely follows the overall process of the introduction of the new law is Anna Tovmasyan, former lecturer at YSU, project manager and Vice-President at Armenian Progressive Youth (APY). APY is a Yerevan-based NGO that is active in the areas of youth economic empowerment, active participation, and civic education. Anna welcomes me to APY’s new office on Marshal Baghramyan street close to the American University of Armenia and tells me about the first two hearings of the new law. Generally, she welcomes the hearings in the National Assembly and the possibility of taking part in the creation of the law using the e-draft platform for new legal initiatives. However, she is concerned about the inclusiveness of the whole process as, inter alia, universities from the rural areas of Armenia might not be sufficiently represented.

Critics of the reform project

Interestingly, critics of the reform project come from various political backgrounds. For example, there were harsh protests from conservative student circles, strongly supported by the Armenian Revolutionary Front (ARF) Dashnaktsutyun youth, when the law was just introduced last autumn. The ARF is a socialist nationalistic party that is well known for their demandto take large parts of East Turkey under Armenian control as these areas were mostly inhabited by Armenians prior to the Armenian Genocide by the Turks in 1915. The protest of the Dashnaktsutyun youth is directed against a specific paragraph in the new law that would enable universities to decide autonomously about making classes on Armenian language and history obligatory. These protests also show that Armenia is not immune to a rising polarization in questions of national identity and values. Such a polarization between liberal and conservative forces in society might even intensify in the next few years as progressive movements push for more rights for sexual minorities and women in society, while Armenian conservatives label that as going against traditional values. For example, this conflict became blatantly visible in 2019 when the Armenian National Assembly was about to ratify the Istanbul Convention that aims at preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Anna Tovmasyan goes on with a recent project “Wind of Change. Empowering Student Activism in Armenia”. APY established this project in summer 2018, shortly after the Velvet Revolution. It aimed at fostering student activism and giving students a voice in Armenian universities. During this project, 30 Armenian students got the opportunity to develop projects in their universities and to take part in a study visit to Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

The opinion of activists

I had the chance to talk to Anna Mekhakyan, a graduate from the Faculty of European Languages and Communication at YSU and participant of the “Wind of Change” project. “She goes into raptures about her experiences during a study trip to Central Europe. Immediately she can list a handful of crucial differences between universities in Central Europe and Armenia. Starting from a lack of academic freedom and integrity, continuing with a lack of critical thinking among students, to the absence of independent student clubs and student centres. Anna sees the need for systemic changes in the Armenian education system.”

This is why she developed the project “UniConf”. In the framework of this project, Anna and her teammates organized a conference at the end of December that sought to provide a platform for lecturers and students from Armenian universities to discuss problems in the higher education sector. “Better and more intensive communication between students and lecturers can already solve some of the problems that we face today at Armenian universities”, Anna states. But at the same time she is aware that big changes in the educational sphere take time and not all necessary reforms will happen in a couple of years. Problems connected with the labour market will take an especially long time to solve. For example, a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation from 2016 found that many graduates get their jobs due to family members and other contacts, and not because of their qualifications. Such social mechanisms, passed down over generations, are very difficult to change as this would require a change in everyone’s mindest. Nevertheless, Anna hopes that the new law on higher education will foster many important reforms.

More pessimistic about the implementation of quick reforms, even if the new law is adopted, is Davit Petrosyan. He is a member of the Restart Student Initiative’, which organizes projects with young people in the realm of civic education and educational reforms. In his opinion, the implementation of the law will not be sufficient for a real change within the Armenian higher education system. A successful implementation of reforms can only happen after an assessment of the structures and wrongdoings in the education sector before the revolution. These embrace the politicization of universities, quality of education, finances, and corruption. A thorough public discussion about these aspects are prerequisites for deep reforms at the universities. The main aims of such reforms from Davit’s point of view must be a rise in the quality of education, a change in the overall academic atmosphere, and a restructuring of the student self-administrative bodies.

One thing is for sure – the Armenian government will have to invest a lot of money, energy and effort while reforming the higher education system. The problems are deeply rooted and multi-faceted. Just renovating the façade – as in the case of the Faculty of Physics of YSU – will not be sufficient.

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