The bill passed by the National Assembly late last month would empower the Armenian Ministry of Education to appoint five of the nine members of the governing boards of all state 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 issued on April 5, Yerevan State University (YSU) and the National Academy of Sciences said the new rules would effectively enable the government to appoint rectors and end their competitive elections. They said this would violate a clause in the Armenian constitution which entitles state-funded colleges to a high degree of autonomy.
Sarkissian’s office likewise said late on Thursday that some of the bill’s provisions seem “contentious in terms of constitutionality.” It announced that the president has therefore refused to sign it into law and chose instead to ask the Constitutional Court to rule on its conformity with the constitution.
The office also said Sarkissian believes the bill does not offer “systemic” solutions to chronic problems facing Armenia’s education sector. “The law does not fully reflect modern trends in the development of science of education,” it said in a statement.
Commenting on the president’s decision, Education Minister Vahram Dumanian insisted on Friday that his ministry, which drafted the law, did not propose any unconstitutional changes.
“We will continue to work within the framework of existing legislation,” Dumanian told reporters. “We will work within the framework of whatever law is in force.”
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his associates, among them young scholars, pledged to give universities more freedom from the government right after they swept to power three years ago. Critics say that the changes pushed by them through the government-controlled parliament are meant to do the opposite.
“They would enable the government to seriously intervene in the management of universities and thereby significantly limit their autonomy,” Menua Soghomonian, a YSU political science professor, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Earlier this month, President Sarkissian also refused to sign into law three other bills drafted or endorsed by Pashinian’s government and denounced by opposition groups.
They would give more powers to a state body overseeing the Armenian judiciary, triple maximum fines for defamation and change the country’s electoral system ahead of snap parliamentary elections expected in June. Sarkissian asked the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on two of these measures.
The bills in question will take effect only if they are validated by the court.