Armenian Universities’ Lost Applicants

Thousands of places remain vacant as students fail entry tests due to low quality education and fewer applicants.

Armenian Universities’ Lost Applicants

Thousands of places remain vacant as students fail entry tests due to low quality education and fewer applicants.

Thousands of university places remained vacant as Armenia recorded unprecedented low results in the admission exams.
Thousands of university places remained vacant as Armenia recorded unprecedented low results in the admission exams. © Dato/Wikimedia
Wednesday, 31 August, 2022

When she sat her entry exam at university, Sirush Isayan felt unprepared.

“Our school does not have good teachers in foreign languages ​​and mathematics, I didn't get a good understanding of those subjects. I studied on my own, but it was not enough,” Isayan told IWPR.

Isayan, who hails from the village of Svarants in Armenia’s southern Syunik region, failed the exam. She joined the ranks of thousands of recent high school graduates whose results fell short of the threshold needed to enter university.

In 2022, Armenia recorded unprecedentedly poor results in university admissions: 25 per cent of the 1,918 government-funded places remained vacant, while out of 21,761 self-funded places, 15,243 were left unfilled.

“The situation is the result of a low number of graduates and the poor education public schools provide,” Atom Mkhitaryan, dean of the scientific and education centre of the National Academy of Sciences, told IWPR.

Armenia’s troubled demography is affecting universities as there are fewer graduates than the available government-subsidised places. For many, the obstacle is money.

Armenia’s higher education system is highly centralised. The country has 55 higher education institutions, including 26 state universities, which are almost all located in the capital Yerevan.

Tuition fees range from 400,000 to one million drams (990 to 2,480 US dollars) and renting an apartment in Yerevan starts at a minimum of 150,000 drams (370 dollars). The average salary in Armenia is 180,000-200,000 drams (between 445 and 495 dollars).

“For people from the villages, studying at the university in Yerevan is a challenge. Few can afford the tuition fees and renting costs without interrupting their daily classes. For those who make it, a degree is earned at a very high price, both financial and personal,” 23-year-old former student Asya Garselyan told IWPR.

Garselyan’s parents worked in agriculture in their native village of Bavra, in the north-western region of Shirak, and decided to move to the capital to find better paid jobs to support their daughter’s dream of going to university.

“I worked two years as a waitress in a café to save and pay for my education. It was exhausting,” she recalled. Then in 2018 she applied and entered the Yerevan State University of Languages.

When the Covid pandemic hit, the café closed and she eventually found a job in the IT sector. But by the time she was in her third year, Garselyan could not make end meet. She eventually dropped out.

In 2020, 781 students were expelled from university for failing to pay the fees; in 2019 the figure was 962 and in 2018, 365.

In July 2018, prime minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that “no student should be expelled from the university for being unable to pay tuition fees .

“The prime minister’s statement is just words,” Mkhitaryan said. “Many students drop their higher education primarily because of tuition fees and various associated costs. But if they are expelled after being admitted, what mechanisms do we have to avoid it?”

The education state policy and system need to be revised, he noted, as “the ongoing so-called reforms have zero and sometimes even negative results”.

There are other factors. The economic contraction of 2020, due to the pandemic and the war against Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, resulted in young people turning to jobs that required no university qualifications, while high-achieving students applied for scholarships to study abroad.

The mismatch between what universities offer and what the labour market needs adds a layer of inefficiency.

“In the planned economy of the Soviet era, the state knew exactly how many specialists it would need in the specific sectors every year and planned the distribution of places accordingly,” Mkhitaryan explained, adding that today the government’s approach is shrouded in confusion.

Experts maintain that, to bear fruit, education reform should also include better conditions, professional development and salaries for education professionals.

Universities must adjust their curricula to current economic relations and offer competitive short-term programmes and training.

In May, the World Bank announced a 25 million-dollar loan to the government for additional financing of the country’s Education Improvement Project (EIP), which includes quality and relevance in higher education institutions.

The World Bank indicated that quality of education is a key challenge “causing a mismatch between the formal qualifications of graduates and the skills sought by employers, slowing overall productivity, and hampering economic growth in Armenia”.

Sciences are particularly hit by low number of applicants, with subjects like chemistry, geology and agriculture attracting close to no applicants. This results in an aging scientific community: data from the statistical committee of Armenia showed that in 2020 more than half of the country’s scientists were over 50 years-old and mostly male.

Upgrading the system to international standards will be a long-term effort.

The Armenian National Agrarian University had the lowest admissions in 2022, with only 40 places filled out of 1,000 available. The institution, one of the country’s oldest, is failing to attract applicants despite efforts to modernise, for example creating about 40 laboratories and research units.

“On the one hand, the government says that agriculture is one of the priority sectors of our economy, but on the other, it does not implement an adequate policy on providing the education in the agricultural sector,” Sos Avetisyan, head of the institution’s PR department, told IWPR.

“Some school teachers lack the required knowledge. It is not a coincidence that Yerevan State Pedagogical University ranks second after us with a low number of first year students. People don't want to become teachers. This is a serious problem, a nationwide issue.”

On July 28, the government approved the draft law on developing state education until 2030. The deputy minister of education Artur Martirosyan stated that by 2030, “90 per cent of graduates will work according to their profession after graduating from school, college or university”.

Providing targeted state support to specific Armenian universities will create an opportunity to significantly improve our position internationally and include four Armenian universities in the list of the top 500 international rankings,” Martirosyan said during the cabinet session.

Mkhitaryan does not share this optimism.

“At this rate, we may even lose what we have. It is simply unwise to say that by 2030 four Armenian universities will be included in the world's top universities. First of all, it involves huge financial investments and students, including international, as well as the integration of research work into the educational process, which we do not have at all,” he told IWPR, adding that none of the current cabinet members will be in the government in 2030, so no one will bear any responsibility for the programme’s failure.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

Education, Youth, Life
Frontline Updates
Support local journalists