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Students go on strike to protest education reforms in Armenia

8 November 2019
A protest organised by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s youth wing on 7 November outside the government building. Photo: Dvin Titizian/OC Media.

A student strike has been sparked by proposed reforms which would make Armenian Language, Armenian Literature, and Armenian History no longer mandatory for University students.

On 6 November, students from the Armenian Philology and History Faculties at Yerevan State University organised a student strike. 

The students were protesting against the new reforms proposed by the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports. 

The faculty also joined the strike to show support to their students and express their disagreement with the bill.

In an interview with Sputnik, Arshaluys Galstyan, an associate professor at the Armenian Literature Department, said that the students had the right to protest.

‘Our faculty has already given a negative opinion on this draft reform’, he said. ‘We all know what kind of negative consequences the retreat of a native language can have on a small nation in the 21st century.’

Students also started collecting signatures against the draft reform. They claim that students from other faculties have signed as well and they hope to reach 3,000 signatures before handing it to the ministry.

On 4 November, the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), the youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (Dashnaktsutyun), a coalition partner of the former ruling Republican Party, called for the resignation of Education Minister Arayik Harutyunyan. 

They demanded that Harutyunyan resign before the next government session, which was held on 7 November. 

In their demand, they cited their disagreement with the financial priorities of the ministry, that is, the funding of projects such as Huznanq u Zang (‘excitement and call’), a live street art performance labelled ‘satanic’ by far-right protesters. 

[Read on OC Media:  Far-right protestors disrupt modernist dance performance in Yerevan]

They also objected to the slated education reforms.

On the day of the student strike, the AYF organised a small protest in front of the Education Minister by placing large and empty cardboard boxes in front of the entrance. 

They said the boxes were for Harutyunyan to help him pack his things and leave. 

While students were holding strikes and the AYF was placing boxes in front of the ministry, several news agencies claimed that Harutyunyan, who has also been teaching at the Arabic Studies Department at Yerevan State University since 2008, was let go from his teaching position and should not have been teaching in the first place. 

They claimed that the last time he published an academic paper was in 2007, which contradicts with YSU faculty criteria. An article by Yerkir called on law enforcement agencies to look into the claim.

The same day, Harutyunyan responded to the attacks on Facebook. He blamed the former ruling Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, who have both intermittently headed the ministry for the past 20 years, for uniting once again to try to disparage his name.

‘The reason for [these calls to resign] is that their “mafioso” infrastructures and their control are starting to wane in the system’, Harutyunyan wrote. ‘The Ministry still has many ARF member department heads that I have not laid off.’

‘You could have taken them [with you] when you brought your cardboard boxes’, he quipped. 

On 7 November, while a session was taking place inside the Government Building, the AYF held a protest out front. Roughly 300 supporters picketed for two hours shouting slogans including: ‘Arayik, go away!’, ‘Our culture is Armenian!’, and ‘Our language is Armenian!’. 

In an interview with OC Media, Kirsitine Vardanyan, a member of the AYF Central Committee, said that the organisation believes that Harutyunyan has been gutting policies relating to education, science, culture and sports — without coming up with adequate replacements. 

‘He’s crossing a red line by not properly developing policies in these fields, which are in a dire state’, Vardanyan said. 

As for the AYF’s stance on the draft reform, Vardanyan explained that the main issue, for them, is not whether the subjects in question are mandatory or not, rather it is that the quality of the curriculum is not being addressed.

‘We don’t want these courses to be a repetition of what was learned in school. We believe that Armenian academic writing should be taught. For example, a lawyer should be able to write laws in Armenian that would be understandable for all’, Vardanyan explained. 

As for protecting Armenian national values, Vardanyan said the ruling regime was ‘artificially’ pitting it against progressive values. 

‘They label anyone who wants to push forward an Armenian agenda as a conservative who needs to be educated’, Vardanyan said. ‘When we say national values, we mean a progressive, developed education system based on Armenian values.’ 

‘The US education system is based on American values’, she added. ‘Japan’s education system is based on Japanese values. Why can’t we have an education system based on Armenian values?’ 

During the protest, students from the Armenian Philology and History Faculties also joined. Afterwards, they marched to the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports and started a sit-in.  

After the Government session, Harutyunyan held a live briefing with reporters in which he stated that the Ministry was willing to sit down and discuss the reforms with the students who were protesting for honest reasons and did not have a political agenda. 

‘The ARF is making so much noise now because they dismantled the education system’, the minister said. ‘There are many criminal cases that we could open against them for things they did while they headed the ministry.’

 ‘We will have the courts look into it’, he concluded.

Addressing criticism of his ministry for funding controversial projects, Harutyunyan said that the overall budget for art grants was over ֏900 million ($1.9 million) and they prioritised national cultural projects. Less than 1% of that budget was intended for experimental projects such as Huznanq u Zang, he said.

In an interview with OC Media, Davit Hovhannisyan, one of the leaders of the Restart Student-Civic Initiative, a student group which focuses on university reforms, said that schools provide Armenian language, literature and history classes which should be enough. 

‘The question is what do universities want’, Hovhannisyan said. ‘Every faculty and department should decide for themselves what their priorities are in terms of which courses are being taught.’

Hovhannisyan also brought up the importance of academic writing and reforming existing courses.

‘Students in universities shouldn’t be taught a generic course on the Armenian language, but how to write essays, reports, and how to use and quote sources properly in Armenian’, he said. ‘This should have been done a long time ago.’

Hovhannisyan said that despite the validity of some of the claims, the calls for Harutyunyan’s resignation were political. 

‘The Restart Initiative believes these students have the right to protest and demand his resignation, even though we don’t agree with them.’ 

But claims about ‘national values’, he added, were made for the purposes of ‘manipulating the public’.

On 6 November, the Ministry of Education released an announcement clarifying that the reform would simply give universities the freedom to develop their curricula as they see fit. 

‘After this reform is put into force, all university academic councils can decide which classes are mandatory and which are not’, it reads.

The draft reform bill is still not up on e-draft.am, an online platform where draft legal bills are published for the public to see, vote on, and discuss.

The AYF’s sit-in is still ongoing.