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After regaining independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian higher education began to re-establish independence and autonomy. With new freedoms, large numbers of private higher education institutions called themselves universities and grew like mushrooms, possible due to the fact that there were no regulations or principles in place to determine university status or control expansion. Changes have taken place in the public sector as well. Pioneers within the public universities redesigned the system from one-cycle programs to two-cycle bachelor and master level programs in alignment with other major systems in the world.
The Republic of Armenia is one of the 48 countries that joined the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the Bologna Process by signing the Bergen Communiqué in 2005. Armenia has since implemented most of the initiatives agreed on by the ministers of education of the member states. It hosted the Secretariat of the Bologna Follow-up Group from 2012 to 2015, followed by the Ministerial Conference and the Fourth Bologna Policy Forum in 2015. Today Armenia is trying to implement a new vision for its higher education system while pursuing the goals of the EHEA agreed on in the 2015 Yerevan Ministerial Communiqué.
The higher education landscape
Armenia has around 3 million inhabitants and a comparatively large number of tertiary institutions—65 public and private higher education institutions. Of these, 23 are public, non-profit universities; 4 are interstate (defined as institutions established following an agreement between the Republic of Armenia and a foreign government, or with state participation) universities (non-profit private/public institutions and foundations established through international agreements); and 31 are private, for-profit institutions. The total includes seven branch campuses of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian public and private universities. In addition, more than 98 research institutes and scientific and technological organizations remain from the Soviet system—33 under the umbrella of National Academy of Sciences, 25 under the Ministry of Education and Science and the rest under other governmental organizations. These institutes operate separately from each other and from universities. The majority of students (87%) still enroll in public and interstate institutions. Although research indicators for Armenia are relatively high for the region, it would have been more efficient to build a system that integrated research institutes and universities more strategically and that was better aligned with the social and economic development goals of the country.
Armenia is a country whose main resource is a highly intelligent human capital. The nation is very strong in the STEM fields, in particular in mathematics, physics, and information and communication technology (ICT). Although the country is making substantive progress in ICT, universities do not use ICT-based methodology widely in the teaching process. There are some tertiary education institutions organizing distance learning opportunities but there are no appropriate mechanisms for the recognition of online or non-traditional educational results.
Major reforms in Armenian higher education system accomplished during the last ten years include the establishment of a quality assurance agency that has been incorporated into the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and that was added to the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) in 2017. The standards and procedures for quality assurance, as well as for institutional and program accreditation, were developed and approved consistent with the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance of 2011. The European credit transfer and accumulation system (ECTS) was also introduced in 2011. Funding of tertiary education has been modernized and improved through the introduction of more efficient principles and mechanisms for financial management. And a national university ranking was introduced in 2013.
In 2016 Armenia reviewed its National Qualifications Framework (NQF), originally adopted in 2011. Educational institutions are now redesigning educational programs in terms of learning outcomes and aligning them with the levels specified in the NQF and according to the demands of 21 century labour market skills and competences.
After incorporating most of the Bologna initiatives, it became obvious that the higher education law in Armenia needed to be rewritten in order to support comprehensive implementation, particularly to enable greater institutional autonomy and enhance effective institutional management. There has been a trend towards considering the basic principles and conditions needed to support the differentiated institutional missions and visions needed to meet the diverse demands of globalized societies, issues such strengthening international cooperation in education and research, fostering research excellence and innovation, developing modern infrastructure, improving teaching quality, and so on. In 2016, a new higher education law was drafted with support from the EU Twinning project and Finish and German partner organizations. It is currently being reviewed by the government of Armenia.
Major steps have been taken during this period, but there are still many issues that need attention in order to build a competitive, innovative integrated system in the country in line with international standards and values.
One of the major issues that the education system presently is confronting is lack of government funding, currently at 2.8% of GDP (UNESCO data for 2015) and it is unlikely that there will be big change in this regard. Universities have considerable autonomy to pursue revenue from different activities but have yet to take full advantage of this opportunity.
Another challenge is the lack of adequate monitoring and supervision mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability in university performance, or the effectiveness of their programs.
Finally, there is no clear internationalization strategy at the national level. Although Armenia is located on the periphery of Europe, with good internationalization strategy it should be possible to attract more students from neighboring countries. During 2015-2016, a total of 3,798 foreign students from around 35 countries (4.5% of the total enrollment) studied at Armenian universities. The majority came from Russia (31%), Georgia (22%), India (20%) and Iran(10%). Several centers of international excellence focusing on IT and STEM education have been created.
Mobility enhancements like ECTS and the diploma supplement have been implemented in tertiary education. There are several programs supporting the mobility of Armenian students and academic staff abroad with funding from the Erasmus+ program, German Academic Exchange Service(DAAD), Open Society Foundation, British Council, Fulbright, Armenian Luys Foundation, along with interstate bilateral agreements for student exchanges with Bulgaria, China, , , Georgia, Jordan, Poland Romania and Russian Federation . There is no reliable number of students and staff members studying abroad under these mobility programs although according to Open Doors, there are around 300 Armenian students studying in the US, another 400 in Russia, and 446 students studying abroad under Erasmus+. The Luys Foundation is a government program with support from the Armenian diaspora that subsidizes up to 50% of the cost of study for students of Armenian origin at the top 10 universities listed in the annual Academic Ranking of World Universities. In 2016-2017, 104 students received support from this Foundation. Yet many of the students who go abroad do not return, taking advantage of better paying jobs elsewhere. As a result, the country, like many developing countries, is suffering brain-drain today.
In addition to the challenges above, the Armenian education agenda must address the need for entrepreneurial skills and competences in programs at all educational levels and establish an effective research cluster in the tertiary education sector.
Tatevik Gharibhyan is a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the College of Education, Pennsylvania State University, and Senior Specialist at the Ministry of Education and Science of Armenia, Department of Policy Development of Higher and Postgraduate Professional Education. Recently she was a visiting scholar at the Center for International HIgher Education at Boston College.