The bill passed by the National Assembly in March would empower the government to appoint most members of the boards of trustees that elect university rectors and make other key decisions. Most of their current members were chosen by university faculties as well as student councils.
Yerevan State University (YSU) and the National Academy of Sciences strongly oppose those changes, saying that they would violate a clause in the Armenian constitution which entitles state-funded colleges to a high degree of autonomy.
President Armen Sarkissian likewise suggested that they are “contentious in terms of constitutionality” when he decided in April not to sign the bill into law. He also asked the Constitutional Court to rule on its conformity with the constitution.
The court sided with the critics of the legislation in a ruling handed down on Monday. It backed their view that the new mechanism for the formation of university boards is unconstitutional.
The Armenian Ministry of Education did not comment on the ruling as of Tuesday. Education Minister Vahram Dumanian said earlier that he will accept any decision by the court.
The government kept trying to control YSU and two other state-run universities even after Sarkissian’s appeal to the Constitutional Court. An executive order issued by it in May stipulates that they will have new boards consisting of 20 members mostly appointed by the government and the Ministry of Education.
A senior ministry official defended the measure, saying that it is needed to address a “management vacuum” within the universities. She claimed that their current boards have failed to properly perform their duties.
Vahe Hovannisian, an YSU professor, said on Tuesday that the ministry itself has contributed to the turmoil. He argued that his university, which is the largest and oldest in Armenia, has not had a rector for more than two years.
YSU’s last rector, Aram Simonian, resigned in May 2019 under strong government pressure. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his associates accused Simonian of placing YSU under the strong influence of the former ruling Republican Party.
Critics say the post of YSU rector remains vacant because of the current government’s inability to replace Simonian with a figure loyal to it.