By Irina Hovannisian
Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian vowed on Tuesday to scale back widespread corruption in the selection of students of Armenia’s leading universities which is supposed to be done on a competitive basis.
The pledge came two days before the start of annual admission examinations at six state-run universities that are considered to be the most prestigious in the country. According to the Armenian Ministry of Science and Education, more than 12,400 young people have applied for nearly 10,000 places offered by those universities. The number of applicants, virtually all of them secondary school graduates, represents a 4 percent increase from last year’s level.
As always, there is tight competition for some 4,300 places that are covered by government scholarships exempting their winners from tuition fees which could be as high as $1,000 per academic year. Similar contests have been routinely marred by allegations of bribery and nepotism before, and there are fears that this year will not be an exception.
Paying bribes for enrolling in prestigious programs of state universities is still common in Armenia, a phenomenon that dates back to the Soviet period and has continued unabated in the last 15 years. Mkrtchian, who was appointed education minister two months ago, admitted that he is unable to stamp out the problem at once. But he said his planned anti-corruption measures will ensure that the total amount of enrollment bribes shrinks at least by half this summer. He refused to come up with any estimates of kickbacks collected by university and Education Ministry officials handling the admissions.
“The examination process presupposes competition, but there is also a reality that includes a system of nepotism and other problems. We will try to ensure as much transparency as possible,” Mkrtchian told a news conference.
Mkrtchian, who is a leading member of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation, already served as education minister in 1998-99 and 2001-03, and corruption in the system of higher education did not seem to have decreased at the time.
Speaking to reporters on June 13, Mkrtchian rang alarm bells over what he described as a serious post-Soviet decline in Armenia’s education standards. He accepted his share of responsibility for the problem and pledged to embark on a sweeping reform of the Armenian education sector.