They described as unconstitutional the bill’s most controversial provision which would empower the Armenian Ministry of Education to appoint five of the nine members of the governing boards of the universities.
The boards elect university rectors and make other key decisions. Most of their current members were chosen by university faculties as well as student councils.
In a joint statement, Yerevan State University (YSU) and the National Academy of Sciences said the bill would effectively enable the government to appoint rectors and end their competitive elections.
“As a result, public institutions of higher learning would become fully dependent on political authorities,” said the statement.
“The election [of rectors] is turned into the appointment,” Edik Minasian, the dean of YSU’s History Department, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. University staffs would not have a decisive say in the choice of their chief executives, he said.
Serob Khachatrian, an independent education expert, agreed, saying that board members appointed by the Ministry of Education would almost certainly execute government orders.
“A good thing about democracy is that the authorities may be very bad but you must always have a system of checks and balances. These new rules would strip the universities of checks and balances,” said Khachatrian.
The YSU statement said the new rules run counter to a clause in the Armenian constitution which entitles state-funded universities and colleges to a high degree of autonomy.
Responding to the statement, the Ministry of Education said that only the Constitutional Court can determine whether a particular law is unconstitutional. It did not comment further.
The Armenian parliament controlled by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc passed the controversial bill in the final reading on March 24. President Armen Sarkissian has yet to sign it into law.
Pashinian and his associates, among them young scholars, pledged to give universities more freedom from the government when they swept to power three years ago.
In May 2019, they succeeded in forcing YSU’s long-serving rector, Aram Simonian, to resign. They accused Simonian of placing YSU under the strong influence of the former ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
The university, which is the largest and oldest in the country, has still not elected a new rector. Some critics say this is the result of the current government’s inability to replace Simonian with a figure loyal to it.