By Irina Hovannisian
Dozens of former army soldiers enrolled in Armenian state universities rallied on Thursday outside the government building in Yerevan to protest against the abolition of a legal provision that allowed them to study free of charge.
The universities have for years reserved several places in each of their programs for those young men who have served in Armenia’s armed forces. The latter have until now been exempted from prohibitive tuition fees, which could be as high as $1500 a year, for the duration of their four-year or five-year studies.
The government effectively abolished this privilege with the recent entry into force of a new law that obligates university administrations to revise the lists of scholarship recipients every year. The law stipulates that those students who won such scholarships on the basis of admission exams or special privileges will lose them if they fail to perform better than other students paying the charges during the first academic year.
This means that many of some 200 students who got enrolled last year after completing the two-year military service will now have to pay for their studies or face dismissal. They mostly come from low-income families that can hardly afford the hefty sums charged by the universities.
Aram Ojakhian, one of the protesters, got twice admitted to Yerevan Linguistics University after finishing high school but was unable to foot the bill and had to go to the army instead. “They gave me a free-of-charge place after I did my service but are now trying to force me out because of the same tuition fees,” he complained bitterly.
“If we could afford to pay the tuition fees, we would not go to the army in the first place,” said Bagrat Berberian, a medical student. “I personally had scored enough points [in admission exams] to win a place not covered by a government scholarship.”
“After I returned from the army they gave me a chance to achieve something in my life only to again demand a sum which I wasn’t able to pay,” he added.
The protesting students believe that they risked their lives in the military and deserve to get higher education free of charge. They are particularly angry with the fact that they were informed about the change at a very short notice, just days before the start of the new academic year.
Representatives of the protesters were received by Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian later in the day. They said Mkrtchian advised them to submit their complaints in writing and promised to ask the government to meet their demands.