The last three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union have witnessed corruption infiltrate nearly every corner of Armenia’s educational system. In 2015, a study from Open Society Foundation revealed a widespread tolerance for the unethical purchase of academic papers in universities. In Jan. 2018, a scandal emerged after a Palestinian website revealed students were receiving dentistry diplomas from Armenian universities without even having ever entered the country. And of 200 fake university diplomas, police reported that 56 of them came from Armenia.
In short, the nation’s institutions of higher learning have seen better days.
So it’s no wonder that the major engine of the recent Velvet Revolution has been students—for no one has felt the effects of Armenia’s failed governance more viscerally than they. Fed up with increasing fees, overt corruption, and shameless politicization of the very institutions that should be sanctuaries for objectivity, students have thus far taken a strong and effective stand.
But while many are optimistic that Nikol Pashinyan’s leadership will bring with it many positive reforms, the issues that have affected Armenia’s universities since independence are deeply rooted. The government alone cannot effect change.
To this end, on May 11, students from more than 13 universities gathered at a hall in Yerevan State University (YSU) to discuss some of these challenges and possible solutions. The event was coordinated by YSU Restart initiative, a student movement launched earlier this year.
One of their first organized gatherings in February consisted of a “toilet paper collecting charity event,” in which students drew attention to the university’s numerous problems, and the lack of basic hygiene items there, in particular. The initiative has since spread to other campuses. Its goal is to create alternative bodies at universities which will represent interests of the students.
The May 11 meeting—the first since Nikol Pashinyan became prime minister—offered a safe space for students to candidly voice their concerns and propose solutions. There were over 100 students present. Just one faculty member attended, Arayik Harutyunyan, a professor of Oriental Studies at YSU. Harutunyan is also a member of the Civil Contract political party led by now-Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. In a curious twist, students were pleased to discover that his appointment to the role of Education Minister was announced during the course of the meeting.
“Our primary issue is to depoliticize our university,” explained two students from Yerevan State Medical University in an interview after the gathering. They highlighted the pressure to join the [Republican] party has always been prominent—a fact which has been central to the demobilization of student unions. By pressuring students to join the Republican Party—an institution which is responsible for the corruption in schools in the first place—Armenia’s ruling elites have cultivated a student body that is unable to effectively organize, for it is both complicit with and subject to the same corruption it might organize against.
Ruling party politics also infiltrates education at an organizational level. The Youth Foundation of Armenia, for example, receives 130 million AMD annually to distribute scholarships to students. It should be independent, but there is little transparency about where the money actually goes, and during elections, it became a source of propaganda and was known for promoting Republican candidates among students.
In addition to creating a less politicized environment, students also targeted more specific concerns. One student referenced an instance in which YSU students asked the university to make its facilities more accessible to students with disabilities. The request was rejected by administrators, who stated that the school “could not afford to make changes for 30 students.”
Maria Hareyan, a student at YSU, explained that while each semester, her department’s tuition increases by about $100, the quality has either stayed the same or declined. Currently her yearly tuition is around $1,200 (USD), and while to many from the West that may not sound like a lot, for reference, the average monthly salary in Armenia hovers around $400.
“Either they should decrease the amount, or raise the quality,” Hareyan said. “We are already in our second year, and yet we are still studying materials that we had from high school. Basically, we are reviewing what we have already learned.”
But the event wasn’t just a platform for problems—students brainstormed solutions, as well. One idea included the implementation of an independent audit of the Youth Foundation. Another called for the adoption of laws that would keep student unions immune to political interference in the future, while another suggestion was made to implement online ratings of professors, to hold them accountable for quality. Students also emphasized the need for other student groups to start their own Restart initiatives at their universities to act in a more decentralized and autonomous manner.
The most prominent discussion point of the day, however, centered around the controversial law introduced in 2017, which abolished the temporary exemptions from compulsory military service for men above 18 who were in university. In this scenario, anyone pursuing their bachelor’s degree has to postpone academic pursuits until after their military service. The law was highly unpopular amongst students, who staged a number of protests in opposition, which have had little success. During the Restart meeting, students revisited the law, hoping the new administration might provide more flexibility.
“Before this revolution I know many students, including me, had one purpose,” highlighted Maria Hareyan of YSU, “to finish studies here and go abroad to continue studying there and get some quality education. But now it is a crucial moment to give solution to our problems and since students are now actively engaged in bringing changes in this sphere, I would like all of us to have our investment and create our brighter future ourselves.”