By Ruzanna Stepanian
Hundreds of students in Yerevan were boycotting Friday university classes for the second consecutive day in protest against government plans to scrap military service deferments and exemptions enjoyed by those of them who continue their studies on the post-graduate level.
Under a new draft law on compulsory military duty approved by the government earlier this month, students will be able to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree only after serving in the Armenian Armed Forces for two years like other young Armenian men. They would only be allowed to complete their four-year undergraduate program before being drafted.
The Defense Ministry and other government agencies argue that the existing law is creates fertile ground for bribery among university officials in charge of graduate admissions. Many male students are believed to enroll in the state-funded programs to delay their draft or avoid it altogether. The current legislation provides a full service exemption to individuals with a doctorate.
Senior academics running Armenia’s leading state-run universities warn, however, that the planned change would lower educational standards in Armenia and discourage young men from pursuing an academic or scientific career.
This view was ardently articulated by nearly a thousand students that gathered outside Yerevan State University, chanting “Science! Science!” Many of them were undergraduate students.
“We say yes to science and education, yes to defense of the homeland, but say no to the new draft law on military service,” said one of the organizers of the protest, Armen Avetisian. “If they are going to draft us, why do we need to attend lectures and get high marks?”
“You can’t strengthen the army with a thousand people,” said another protester.
Female students could also be seen in the male-dominated crowd. “Don’t deprive us of our boys!” read one of the placards carried by them.
Leaders of the disgruntled students were scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian on Friday. Avetisian said they refused to turn up for the meeting because Sarkisian agreed to talk only to seven persons most of whom are affiliated with the pro-establishment National Youth Council. Avetisian claimed that he had earlier promised to receive as many as 50 protesters.
But several. According to one of the Council members who met with Sarkisian, Aram Sukiasian, the powerful minister argued that the number of graduate students has nearly doubled since Soviet times despite a steep decline in government-funded scientific work and that virtually all of them are men. “As the minister put it, that means our girls have stopped thinking,” Sukiasian told RFE/RL.
According to the Armenian Ministry of Science and Education, some 630 students are admitted each year into the state-funded graduate and post-programs covered by the existing military service privileges. About 200 of them study for a doctorate.