Sofya Hovsepyan

Kindness, Corruption and a Battle over Ideas : The State of Armenia’s Education System

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By Avo Piroyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Armenia inherited its education system from the Soviet Union. For better or worse, during Soviet times there was a clear curriculum, system and comparatively reasonable funding.

30 years later Armenia is still trying to forge a new path with all three aspects in limbo.

Pre-Pashinyan era

The Soviet education system was rigid and intense. “It was heavily focused on teaching knowledge and to a lesser extent skills,” said Sofya Hovsepyan, a former Armenian parliamentarian and expert on Armenia’s education system.

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The Soviet education system continued into the 1990s but was gradually more and more eroded by corruption. The plague of corruption grew to a point of becoming an informal system within a system by the time Armenia joined the Bologna Process in 2005. This persisted until the 2018 revolution.

“It costs $3,000 to get a job as a teacher, that’s two years’ salary upfront just to get the job. In the 1990s, this would only occasionally happen but by the mid-2000s it had become an unofficial requirement,” said Hovsepyan.

However even beyond this, low pay has made the profession an unattractive prospect. At best, a teacher’s pay is around $200 per month. Most jobs, skilled or unskilled, pay higher.

Reforms and attempted reforms

Armenia’s government has made several attempts at improving and modernizing the state of the education system. The overarching idea has been to move away from the Soviet system that priorities knowledge/information and to a lesser extent skills to one that priorities the teaching of skills and problem solving.

“The idea is that in the modern world information is easily accessible and fluid. Therefore, children can learn things on their own, either now or later in life,” said Hovsepyan.

However, mainly due to the endemic corruption and a tussle over the curriculum/system between schools and outside influences, there has been no consistent progress.

“There have been many attempts at re-training teachers. However, this has not worked,” said Hovsepyan.

In part this has been due to the conflict between schools and the government over the curriculum. Due to being cash strapped, Armenia’s government has been very welcoming of international aid directed at the education system.

However, this aid has come with conditions and caveats regarding the curriculum. The most common areas of interest have been around history and literature with those providing the funding promoting globalism at the expense of focus on national literature, history and culture.

“The funding is not long term but a one off for a specific program, for example, 5 million euros towards the establishment of a history curriculum. There is an ideological struggle going on.

“The government always invites teaching associations for consultations but if they want the [foreign] money, they must meet the criteria required,” said Hovsepyan.

Post-Pashinyan

Following Pashinyan’s rise to power in 2018, corruption in schools ended almost overnight. However, all other problems, including the issues in teacher training, funding and the curriculum, remained. More recently, corruption has once again started to become a problem.

“The anti-corruption reputation with which we came to power was enough to scare everyone away from giving or receiving bribes [including to get a teacher’s job].

“This lasted for 1.5-2 years but then it started to go back to the old system depending on the region,” said Hovsepyan.

Oversight of the education system is devolved to regional governors. With hostility between the old and new regimes now in the open and the Armenian central government’s authority and credibility badly weakened after the 44-Day War, regional governors appear to now be operating without concern about the central government.

Armenian Humanity Shines Through

Despite the corruption and financial struggles, one area in which Armenia’s education system has made great progress is with special needs children, including those with autism, down syndrome etc.

“Eighty percent of these children go into normal classes without a problem. They are not put under any pressure and if they only learn 1-2 letters then fine,” Hovsepyan said. The aim is to support them, provide a positive experience and pass on life skills, she added.

“The other 20 percent are taught out of class and there are provisions for them with specialist teachers and psychologists in schools,” said Hovsepyan.

Speaking of her own experiences while attending teaching seminars on special needs children in the UK and Germany, Hovsepyan said, “I was amazed to see that despite the huge difference in resources, in Armenia, we were having similar levels of success [to the west] and in some cases we were doing better.”

The reasons appear to do with approach. “In Germany, there was an attitude that nothing can be done and these kids are just this way. The children were managed more than they were cared for,” said Hovsepyan.

In Armenia, teachers have tended towards a far more caring and humanist approach which is likely a reflection of wider, deep rooted Armenian values and principles that go far beyond the education system.

This bodes well for the future as it demonstrates that the core base on which a successful education system can be built on already exists in Armenia.

Should the state take a consistent approach to teacher training, commit to a single direction on the curriculum that is not opposed by teachers and end corruption then even with the existing low levels of funding, Armenia’s education system has very strong prospects for the future. Should the funding improve at the same time, then Armenia’s education system will highly likely rival the very best in the world within a short space of time.

Hovsepyan became an MP in 2018 along with Nikol Pashinyan. However, shortly after the 44 Day War, in December 2020, she left Pashinyan’s party and as a result lost her parliamentary seat after the June 2021 elections.

She has been working in and campaigning for Armenia’s education system for around 17 years.

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