Rendering of a bird’s eye view of Academic City (copyright gmp)

Academic City Plan Would Dramatically Change Armenian Higher Education and the Face of Yerevan

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WATERTOWN — The creation of what is being called Academic City by the government of Armenia is a major plan for the reorganization of institutions of higher education and research in Armenia which will also change the face of the city of Yerevan if fully realized. It involves the merger of universities to form larger units, to which research institutions will be connected in academic clusters, all of which will move to a new location on the outskirts of the capital. Courses will be offered free for all students there. This complex reform plan has been the topic of much discussion and controversy. The current article is an attempt to present an overview of its main components along with some of the reactions it has evinced.

A rendering of what part of the Academic City would look like (copyright gmp)

Interviews of Dr. Zhanna Andreasyan, Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport (henceforth referred to as Ministry of Education for short) since 2022; Stephan Schütz, Executive Partner, and Associate Partner Tobias Keyl at Gerkan, Marg and Partners (gmp), the German architectural firm designing Academic City; robotics engineer Tigran Shahverdyan of Gituzh (“Power of Science”), an initiative of businessmen, foundations and associations supporting technology and science in Armenia; and Suren Aloyan, founding president of Dasaran Ed Tech Company (and Gituzh member), were conducted for this purpose. A number of individuals involved in education were consulted who declined to speak on the record, professedly out of concern for preserving good working relations with the Armenian government.

Map of Academic City with campus, university, opera house, theater, concert hall, stadium etc. (copyright gmp)

The motivation for the aforementioned reforms is the crisis being experienced by higher education and research in Armenia. According to a recent report by the Armenian Center for Socio-economic Studies (ACSES), the number of university students has declined 21 percent between 2013 and 2023 (from 100,854 to 79,513), while the rate of inclusion in higher education increased from 42% to 60%, leading to less selectivity. Despite increases in government spending on education in recent years, the number of scholars and researchers in Armenia are also on the decrease while Armenia’s universities generally are not highly ranked in international comparisons.

Andreasyan declared that discussions about reforming Armenia’s institutions of higher learning have been taking place for at least over a decade, even during prior regimes, including concerning combining institutions of higher learning to create larger universities, and with advice from international organizations.

Minister Zhanna Andreasyan speaking about the master plan of Academic City at the Matenadaran in Yerevan on April 12, 2024 (photo courtesy Academic City Armenia Facebook site)

The current plan for Academic City was first presented in 2021 by the government as a general idea, and then much more developed in the state plan for the strengthening of education until 2030. This plan was confirmed by the Armenian National Assembly at the end of 2022. Things became more concrete in 2023: in March, the government established an action plan with deadlines and concrete tasks to be done per year; in April, the Academic City Foundation was established to carry out this plan; in mid-October, the government cabinet approved the concept or vision of the Academic City; and a week later, a contract was signed with gmp for the design. This year, a preliminary draft of the master plan for the city was unveiled to the public at the end of January, and a more worked out version will be ready next month.

The government foresees the work to be done in three stages: the planning or designing stage, which began in October 2023 and will finish in September 2025, construction, from 2025 to the end of 2029, and then initial use with one or two clusters of academic institutions from 2030.

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Educational and Administrative Issues

Andreasyan said that one issue the Academic City project addresses was the existence of some 60 institutions of higher learning in Armenia, which she said was too many considering the student population, while many were not providing education up to international standards. This large number also means paying for a large number of educational administrators or bureaucrats. Instead, the government plans to merge many of the state universities and institutions into up to 8 large institutions.

She said, “Our approach is to consolidate our resources, human resources, infrastructure, and financial, so that our institutions of higher learning compete not just with themselves – as in my opinion, in the contemporary world this would be a bit meaningless – but on an international level be competitive with institutions of higher education of other countries.… In that sense, we have a very important goal: that at least four appear in the list of ratings of the top 500 world [higher education] institutions.” These are lists like the Times Educational Rating or the Shanghai Ranking.

A second issue according to Andreasyan is that “with us, higher education and research are not connected to one another, or are little connected…Contemporary higher education without research cannot be considered valuable.” To encourage research further, she said that the state has in recent years substantially increased its funding, with a 200 percent increase compared to the budget in 2018. Perhaps for this reason, she related, starting in 2022 there was an increase in researchers or scholars in Armenia, not a decrease as in the past. Much of the state funding is for grants for collaborative projects.

A third matter, connected primarily to institutions involved in technology, is how to connect research to practical results for the economy. Andreasyan said, “One of the chief issues that we are trying to solve for technological universities is the commercialization of knowledge.”

A fourth related concern is, she said, the aging of current scholars and researchers. New young scholars must be produced to ensure continuity of research and education. The union of research institutes and universities in Academic City can help attract new students and elevate the level of scholarship and research, with modern laboratories and an appropriate environment for student life. She said that if Armenian higher education is competitive internationally it would attract students from other countries as well as Armenians in all fields of study. Moreover, she said, having the infrastructure in one place, where both education and research take place, will be more productive for the state in terms of expenses.

To help increase the quality of education and the number of students, student dormitories, areas for lecturers and researchers, and a modern infrastructure will be created. She said, “By higher education, we also understand a student experience.” Today, she said, there are universities in Armenia “where the students open the doors and practically find themselves in a market.” In Academic City, there will be places for student entertainment, libraries, parks and places for studying.

Location

Andreasyan said that the original city plan for Yerevan by architect Aleksandr Tamanyan envisioned a suitable environment for universities and other such institutions in the heart of the city, but that the growth of Yerevan no longer allowed the realization of his ideas. The desire to create a more suitable environment for learning with modern facilities led to the plan of creating a new city for universities and scholarship.

Prime Minister Pashinyan, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan, Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports Vahram Dumanyan, head of the Cadastre Committee Suren Tovmasyan visit the Institute for Physical research of the National Academy of Sciences in Ashtarak in September 2022 to discuss the plan for Academic City in Ashtarak (photo primeminister.am)

Initially in 2022, the government announced that Academic City would be built in the area of Ashtarak, which is 13 km. northwest of Yerevan in Aragatsotn Province. However, it was decided in 2023 to move the location closer to Yerevan. Currently it is planned to be built adjacent to the 17th district of Yerevan and on the site of the HayFilm Studio, northwest of the city’s center. Andreasyan explained that the reason for the change is that only 80 hectares of land was available next to Ashtarak, whereas the current space is much larger, 680 hectares. She said, “What is important is that the great majority of this territory consists of state and municipal land, not private, so we will not have any issues with initiating anything on these properties.”

This location also will be easier in terms of accessibility from Yerevan. At present, there is a railway freight line that goes to this location, but the government plans to turn it also into a commuter line, which after improvements will reach Academic City from the capital in roughly 20 minutes. A north-south highway passes through this location, and Andreasyan said that several major roads will be added to allow easy entry into Yerevan. There is the possibility in the future for an extension of the metro to Academic City.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and other officials ride the train to the site of Academic City on April 12, 2024 (photo primeminister.am)

Nearby areas of Yerevan are also rapidly developing, she said. A little bit to the south of the Academic City, one of the largest new quarters of Yerevan, the Defanse Housing quarter (the name is evidently based on the La Défense business district immediately to the west of Paris, France) is currently being built by a private company, potentially for up to 45,000 residents. Andreasyan noted that the Armenian government also has a plan to move government buildings for various ministries out of the center of Yerevan, and the Ajapnyak District is being considered as a suitable location. Andreasyan said, “When experts came from German to study Yerevan’s urban development, it became clear that great changes are taking place and the area in which the Academic City will be located is going to become very important from the point of view of Yerevan too, in terms of urban development.”

When asked what would happen to universities in other parts of Armenia or whether any other “academic cities” could be constructed, Andreasyan replied that there will only be one Academic City. Education in the provinces at present, she said, is in a disorderly state, as some people attend institutions of higher education there whereas the education they require could be given at a different level. A reorganization is necessary after further study.

One thing was clear to Andreasyan: “We want to greatly strengthen vocational education in all provinces, which we think should be present in all provinces and places of large population. This is certainly in our plans.” The currently operating provincial universities and other institutions of higher education will continue to operate until further discussion, she said.

The Enlargement or Combining of Universities and the Role of the Academy of Sciences

Andreasyan said that there would be six primary clusters created in which individual universities and institutions would be united: medical, officer or military (including emergency or crisis training), technological (including agrarian as well as high tech), arts, classical (fundamental knowledge), and educational or pedagogical. She gave as an example of a model for the arts, University of the Arts London, which is a union of six colleges, each retaining its uniqueness, into one university benefiting from cooperating under one umbrella. Andreasyan said, “I think that we will go in a similar direction, so that each of our institutions of higher learning will preserve the uniqueness and specifics of its educational programs, but also be able to take advantage of all the possibilities of working together, and also think about educational plans which demand joint work.”

Schematic of the clusters in Academic City (copyright gmp)

Furthermore, each Armenian cluster is going to have at least one international partner. The University of the Arts is one, while for the technology cluster, it is the Technical University of Munich, which is composed of a matrix of 7 schools and 5 integrative research institutes.

Consultations have been ongoing with some American universities too, such as the California Institute of Technology, and organizations such as the Armenian Society of Fellows, which Andreasyan said had made very good proposals concerning the concept of Academic City, especially about technological issues. Andreasyan said, “We are ready to include all those who have ability and resources in this sphere, and express definite interest, in our discussions with great happiness.”

Map of the academic clusters in Academic City presented at Matenadaran, April 12, 2024 (photo Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport, map copyright gmp)

The role of the Armenian Academy of Sciences will also change, as it no longer is connected to the broader network that existed in Soviet times. Its institutes are not primarily teaching bodies like the universities. Andreasyan said, “We believe we will continue to have the Academy as an expert milieu, which provides very important advice on all kinds of different issues, but in a financial and administrative sense, I believe they will be united with the institutions of higher education and administratively will become a part of those integrated structures. We will not have the need for the financial and administrative functions of the Academy, but definitely we will need the expert opinion of the Academy, and the Academy will be also a place for the careers and work of academics.”

Andreasyan to a degree viewed it as like think tanks or research institutions in the West where distinguished emeritus professors, scholars and experts continued to work on the progress and dissemination of knowledge and provide consultation.

Input is being sought from the institutions involved in these changes. In July 2023, the Ministry of Education announced that as part of the process of combining and thus enlarging institutions of higher learning, as well as the uniting of scientific research organizations, it invited all institutions of higher learning and scientific research organizations to present its own ideas on this process by February 15, 2024. Andreasyan said that proposals were received from 12 state institutions of higher learning and 36 organizations.

The ministry then created working groups including all state institutions of higher learning and research organizations to further discuss the process. She said, “This means that we imagine that this work from the beginning will be participatory, transparent and cooperative. Everybody accepts that we have very serious issues in our higher education and we need fundamental change. Now we are going to find together the most correct ways to do this.”

Teaching and Staff

Andreasyan said that “the content of educational programs is completely in the realm of academic autonomy of the institutions of higher learning.” The government’s most important tool to affect change is to require a range of standards as part of its educational plan, but, she emphasized, “the contents [of curricula] and the pedagogical approaches are the realm of the institutions of higher learning, and I find it is wrong if the government regulates that field. I think that this is the most direct matter of academic autonomy, to have freedom to choose methods, to choose the ways, to secure the results that are necessary.”

Similarly as far as the qualifications of the teaching staff are concerned, Andreasyan said, “I especially stress that certification will be done in the institutions of higher learning. The state will not intervene at all. The institutions of higher learning will decide whether these people can ensure the result which they as institutions of higher learning desire in a professional sense.”

Change has already begun internally. Andreasyan said, “I am very happy that many institutions of higher learning, seeing the goal that they must appear in the ranks of the [international] rating systems, already have taken active steps to raise their level of educational quality, make structural changes, and reexamine the list of their specializations. I believe they evaluate their lecturers internally, and of course this is a very important process which we only encourage.”

When the unification of universities and institutions take place, Andreasyan said retraining and assistance will be made available to faculty.

Private and International Universities

In a March 16, 2024 speech, Prime Minister Pashinyan declared that in the long term, no institutions of higher learning should remain in Yerevan, and all such institutions, whether state, foreign or private, should only operate in the Academic City.

Andreasyan explained that Pashinyan meant that if such institutions need new buildings, they can henceforth only be built in Academic City and not in Yerevan. Secondly, eventually such an enticing and advantageous environment will be created in Academic City that institutions according to their own desire will wish to move there to benefit from the new structures.

A meeting of the rectors or leaders of international institutions of higher education with Minister Zhanna Andreasyan and her staff to discuss Academic City in March 2024 (photo Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport)

She said that, for example, the government has already spoken with the American University of Armenia (AUA) and the French University in Armenia (UFAR) about this, and that this rule about no new buildings in Yerevan applies to them. A new working commission with representatives of international or foreign state universities is being formed, she said, in order to find solutions which neither harm the activities of these institutions nor turn this important state plan problematical.

Rector of the Armenian-Russian (Slavonakan) University Edvard Sandoyan declared in a May 12 interview on 1Lurer.am  that the situation has not been discussed yet with the Russian side, but the idea seemed promising. However, he felt his university, which taught many different subjects, would only benefit from joining the technology cluster in the Academic City. In the same interview, a statement from the American University of Armenia (AUA) was presented which conveyed its willingness to establish a presence in Academic City but similarly stressed that “moving all of AUA’s operations to the Academic City is neither desirable nor possible. We believe that the decision to continue to build and grow in Yerevan on [the] one hand, and establish a presence in the Academic City on the other hand, should not be dichotomous or coerced in any way.”

Who Will Live There and How?

Few students from poor families at present receive higher education in Armenia. Andreasyan declared that the government considers higher education an important tool to overcoming poverty. Consequently, no students at the Academic City will have to pay for courses, she said. Students whose families are in the provinces will not have to pay for dormitories either.

The final approach for student support concerning living expenses such as cafeterias or dormitories is still being finalized, but Andreasyan said that there is one principle already accepted, “that no good student should remain without education due to social or financial reasons. Whoever does not have the means will have the possibility of receiving full assistance.”

Other students with means will, however, be charged as psychological motivation. Andreasyan noted, “Unfortunately, there is such a thing that when a person pays nothing, it seems he does not value it. What is most important is to find the correct schema for motivation, so that education is both attainable and also valued.”

Andreasyan said that arrangements will be made for living quarters for lecturers at the Academic City but the decision of where to live will be left to individual lecturers. She said that some may prefer to commute from homes in Yerevan, since it will not be that difficult.

She said that it has already been announced that the salaries of lecturers will also be significantly increased, at least doubling. Lecturers will also have the possibility of receiving further financial assistance in the case of need. This presumably will mean make life easier for those who had to work several jobs in Yerevan to support their families.

Gmp’s Master Plan

The government chose Gerkan, Marg and Partners to develop the master plan for Academic City. It will be assisted by the National Architectural Construction University of Armenia. Andreasyan said that gmp is one of the most respected organizations in its field, and there is no organization with similar experience in Armenia. They have the experience of combining different cultural contexts in various parts of the world. She said that they were chosen also in part because they have the right of authorship or copyright to certain projects, such as a multifunctional concert hall.

Gmp has done very largescale projects, such as the design of the high-tech Chengdu Future City in southwest China, Lingang New City, a satellite harbor city for Shanghai, Zhanjiang Science City (also near Shanghai), as well as academic projects, such as the Shenzhen School of Medicine, which is the size of one of the Armenian clusters.

Andreasyan added that gmp was given a contract only for the development of the main design because the government had not already defined the conditions and contents of Academic City sufficiently to create a competition. After the preparation of the full master plan, all remaining work will be conducted through competitions, she said.

Stephan Schütz (photo courtesy gmp)

Stephan Schütz related how the initial connection with his company occurred: “The beginning was that the Prime Minister [Nikol Pashinyan] visited a concert hall [in February 2023] which we completed in Munich. He was struck by this concert hall because it was completely different, compared to many others. It is a modular concert hall.” Pashinyan asked the Armenian ambassador in Berlin to contact the architect and meet with him. Afterwards, Pashinyan himself met with Schütz and told him that the Armenian concert hall was to be built in an academic city. Keyl added that Pashinyan later told him that he was impressed about how the concert hall also worked to inspire community activity, as a library and a site for small workshops.

Schütz found out that there was no master plan for this city and proposed to visit the site near Yerevan. After the visit, they all agreed that “the first step is to develop a major understanding of what is to be built there, what is the Academic City, and what is the future of higher education [in Armenia].” Before developing a master plan, many workshops were held and the gmp representatives asked a lot of questions in order to learn more about local conditions. Gmp invited Armenian government representatives to come to Germany to look at existing academic cities or university campuses there.

The Armenian government summarized all its potential demands in terms of the number of studies, faculties, and special buildings (these include a national stadium). It wanted, as did gmp, a place which, Schütz said, would be a vision of life in an academic way.

Keyl pointed out that the process of developing the vision for a master plan and understanding who need to be involved in the process in order to obtain their support was quite different than how academic cities were created in Qatar, Dubai and many other places. There, a master plan was designed that might technically work perfectly but not reflect the interests of the people who would use the site. To bring all the disparate universities and institutes together to generate cooperation it is necessary first to discuss with the people working in them. He added that there also must be a certain flexibility for future development, as the process in Armenia could last from 10 to 30 years and nobody can know what changes will take place during this period.

Tobias Keyl, at left of podium, with Sargis Hayotsyan, president of the Committee on Higher Education and Science of the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport at the Matenadaran, April 12, 2024 (photo Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport)

Schütz said that his firm was considering what sort of architectural language to create for the whole complex, as it should not just be a campus that could be built in Germany or the US but should show an Armenian character.

Timeline

In practice, Keyl related, gmp defined a timeline with major steps and workshops with stakeholders focusing on specific topics. One workshop, for example, included a select group of some 15 students from different universities majoring in different fields, discussing what they would like in a modern university city, and a separate workshop with professors. There were also larger presentations before groups of several hundred, to which all faculty were invited.

Polling of larger numbers was not done because it was generally too technically demanding, Keyl said, but once a limited poll with a select group of participants was done concerning goals of sustainability. Parallel to the various meetings with stakeholders, discussions continued with the Ministry of Education and even the prime minister.

The Armenian government has encouraged the gmp architects, Keyl said, to give public speeches explaining what they are doing, to seek such interactions and make the process as transparent as possible.

Aside from academic planning, there is much city planning, laws and regulations that must be determined. After the completion of the initial master plan or vision plan, complete with drawings, it will take between half a year to one year to recheck many factors and rework the plan by integrating traffic, infrastructure, landscape design, and sustainability design, Schütz said. Only then can the following phase of planning be conducted, which will concern individual plots and building plans for clusters or individual buildings. This will take one to one and a half years, he continued.

Early next year the preparation of roads and the site will begin that will eventually allow the architectural construction, Keyl said. Meanwhile, Schütz said, a lot of other preparatory work is already proceeding concerning electricity, water, and other infrastructure.

Schütz said that the actual construction will be done through other companies, but gmp hopes to design and plan at least some of the major buildings, though this will be determined through competitions, and other planners will also be involved in the process.

The concept plan accepted by the government last October envisions four clusters moving to Academic City in the first phase, followed by the classical and medical clusters later. By 2030, Schütz said, the expectation is to have at least one cluster built, which will include the performing arts center with a concert hall, together with all necessary infrastructure, including the railway station, roads, and landscaping. He said that this is realistic to accomplish in 6 years, whereas the concert hall in Münich took only three years, because it had infrastructure already.

In a presentation at the Matenadaran (which incidentally is not included as part of Academic City) on April 12, 2024 to representatives of institutions of higher education and the press, Keyl said that he hoped the first institutional of higher learning can move to the Academic City in 5-7 years, while the completion of Academic City could take 30-50 years.

Meanwhile, a draft of a new law on higher education and science is being prepared through the Ministry of Education which will include a section on the Academic City project and its functioning. The draft of this law will be shared with the state institutions of higher learning and wide swathes of the public, Andreasyan said. Once passed by the National Assembly, it would regulate the Academic City but until then, the state will continue its current financing of the institutions of higher learning and research.

Budget

Andreasyan said that the cost for the Academic City project will be quite large. She said that for the next year, up to 3 billion dollars was budgeted by the state for the Academic City, which is primarily for design and planning work. The 2025-27 state budget proposal already includes these initial expenses.

Afterwards, construction works will be put up for competitive bidding, and depending on the winning bids, the budget for the next stage of construction will be formulated. As noted above, all construction will not begin at the same time, but will be done in a phased manner.

When asked how much the work conducted until 2030 would cost, Schütz merely said that it is too early to provide such information, since only after the plans have been set can cost estimates be made.

The total cost of Academic City till completion has not been estimated publicly by the government, and concerns have been raised about whether the state can afford it. One argument made in the media against the Academic City project is this undoubtedly great and still largely unknown cost when Armenia has many other urgent needs, such as bolstering its defense or helping Artsakh refugees. Andreasyan responded that while these are indeed important matters for which the government is making great efforts, “It is also important for our country to have an agenda of progress, and at no time diverge from that agenda of progress.” She gave the example of raising educational standards during the period of the Covid pandemic and the 2020 Artsakh war, during which time the children from Artsakh were all being educated in Armenia. She added, “Let us not forget also that in reality, the significance of the system of education, the meaning of scientific research, is also the key to the defense of the country and the solution to social issues of the country.”

Keyl remarked that the move should be viewed as an investment in the future of Armenia. Secondly, the original locations of the universities in the center of Yerevan will either be sold for profit or operated by the Ministry of Education in a way to generate income. While in the first few years the scale of this will not compare to expenses, eventually it will grow and pay it all back within one or two generations’ time, Keyl said.

Andreasyan said that there would be separate plans created for the management of the buildings and property in the center of Yerevan, and the revenues received from that will be used for higher education and Academic City.

There are also talks with the European Union and other institutions concerning possible financial support for Academic City, Schütz added.

Aloyan said he thought there should be more public discussion of the great cost of Academic City. Since ultimately it would be a major component of the state budget that Armenian citizens would be responsible for, he said that even non-specialists in education and research should have a voice in decision-making.

Suren Aloyan

Aloyan wondered what might happen to Academic City if the current government changed and a new regime decided against continuing the project. He said that in this light, the current prohibition on expansion in Yerevan proper of higher educational institutes, would not be logical. Furthermore, even if Academic City progresses as projected, institutions would be at the earliest able to move to Academic City by the end of 2029, so this prohibition would leave a five-year gap in their progress.

Conservatory

There has been an outcry among artists against moving the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan to Academic City from its current location, where it contributes to the cultural life of the capital city and benefits from close proximity to the National Opera and Ballet Theater, Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and various other institutions and schools of music. Both lecturers and students participate in the work of these other institutions, thus obtaining real world experience and also additional pay. Its alumni have achieved success in globally prestigious institutions like the Metropolitan Opera of New York, La Scala, etc., and some of them have spoken out against the move. In March, 2024, a petition signed by 6,290 people, including many conservatory staff and lecturers, was presented to the Ministry of Education opposing the uniting of the Conservatory with any other institution of higher learning, or leaving its building and moving to Academic City.

Andreasyan responded that as transportation to Academic City from Yerevan will be made accessible and more convenient, ties with cultural establishments remaining in the center of Yerevan could continue. Moreover, during the work of the first phase in Academic City, as part of the arts cluster a modern multifunctional concert hall which can be used for opera and other musical performances will turn Academic City into a cultural center into its own right. The national stadium which will also be built there will also serve as a concert hall.

Keyl pointed out that as part of the arts cluster, the conservatory would benefit from connections to others such as stage designers, and informal spaces and a suitable environment for students. Schütz said that while the current conservatory offers a classical education for musicians and others connected to music, the new facilities will also allow for experimental performances in its multifunctional spaces.

Research Concerns

Shahverdyan of Gituzh raised some concerns about the process of merging research institutions into universities. He noted that the National Academy research system of institutes that Armenian inherited from the Soviet system should not automatically be considered outdated and to be dismantled, as countries like the Netherlands, Austria, Poland and the Czech Republic through reforms have made similar systems effective and efficient. One advantage of the extra layer of management between the funding government and the performers of research and development provided by the Academy system is that this provides a buffer from the political cycle and thus allows for longer-term planning, Shahverdyan said.

Tigran Shahverdyan

At the same time, he continued, “It is not like we are against merging some of the research capabilities of the institutes into universities. The problem is that this needs to be discussed on a case-by-case basis. You need to check which institutes or parts of institutes it may make sense to merge into universities.”

A second related problem is the status of these research institutes after the merger. He said that generally the government says they must be integrated into – not with – the universities, which implies that they would later no longer enjoy an equivalent status.

Aloyan said that he was apprehensive that academic research and science might be put at the service of education in the current schema of Academic City, which could lessen its independence and value.

Shahverdyan wondered how Armenia’s research and development competitiveness and capacity would be affected by the mergers. Public universities in general focus on basic research as opposed to applied R&D, especially that serving national needs, which Armenia has immediate need of, yet, Shahverdyan said, there is no worked-out plan for the latter. In fact, he noted that the government unlike other countries facing an intense security environment budgets a very small portion of its expenditures for R&D, and on top of that, last year it only spent 2/3 of this small amount. Additionally in 2024, state budget applied R&D allocations are 8 times less than the allocations for basic research. Issues like seismic or food security risk mitigation are not being covered, and even if Academic City ends up encouraging applied R&D, it will take a very long time before that is operational.

Under the current circumstances, Shahverdyan said that the Academic City plan does not have the support of a very large part of the stakeholders in the research institutes and some are afraid to express their opinions openly. He concluded, “For 70 years or even more, the research system in Armenia developed this way. To completely change it, you should be planning very wisely what you are going to get as you might just destroy it and make things worse.”

Academic City Alternatives and Objections

If successful, Academic City would have an immense positive impact not just on Armenian education and research but on many other aspects of life in Armenia. It is a very complex and ambitious project with many, many moving parts covering a timeline of many decades till completion, which has not been fully defined except in outline. Consequently, aside from research, financing and timing concerns, many other questions have been raised in public discussions and the media.

When asked why not start Academic City by establishing a new state institution of higher learning there first, Andreasyan repeated that there are already too many such institutions in Armenia, so this would not have been a very productive decision. She said, “I think we must be very realistic. Are our resources sufficient to, for example, organize a quality education in five places for jurists, chemists or teachers as a state? Or should we unite what we have, our human resources, infrastructure and possibilities, and do it in one place as a state, and do it with such quality and at such a level that our higher education be comparable to the quality of the education of the best institutions of higher education?”

She said that many students leave Armenia to study abroad in search of a more competitive and higher quality education and environment. She said that she did not want Armenian institutions to turn into places where people study only because they do not have the possibility to study elsewhere. The Academic City project would help stop the brain drain Armenia faces. She added, “I understand that all changes take place with difficulty, especially in the educational system, which is very conservative, but we are in a situation where not carrying out those changes is much more dangerous and destructive.”

Schütz declared that there is a worldwide trend to build such campuses outside of city centers. He said that it was in order to be able to have a flexible way for further development in the future. The Technical University of Munich, for example, has a prime location in Munich but its building dated from the 1800s and there was no possibility of incorporating modern scientific instruments. It also has a system of small classrooms, like existing universities in Yerevan, while modern teaching requires large auditoriums and flexible spaces for interactive workshops and labs. Of course, he added, new ways of teaching must accompany new facilities.

When asked about the need to develop the Armenian provinces, Keyl said that it would be difficult to move to a location too distant from Yerevan since the major universities and their staff are all in the capital along with the airport and infrastructure. Furthermore, to allow for a productive interaction with the economy, the universities cannot be isolated in a remote area.

The danger of enemy attacks wiping out a large proportion of Armenia’s intellectuals through one blow at Academic City has been suggested by some as one reason not to build it. Shahverdyan of Gituzh, for example, felt that at the least a risk assessment needed to be conducted, especially considering that Academic City will include a military or officer training academic cluster, according to the government plan. Andreasyan responded: “I cannot accept this as serious. For example, with that same logic, why keep all our manuscripts in the Matenadaran? Why keep all paintings in the National Gallery of Armenia?…I think we are speaking about progress. We must undertake our steps with that logic, If we are continually saying that we must live with a bunker mentality, then honestly, I do not understand what progress we can imagine.”

Suspicions have repeatedly been raised in Armenian social media and the press of potential corruption in both the forthcoming contracting process for building and the disposition of the old buildings and real estate of the universities in Yerevan. Andreasyan dismissed them as “ridiculous.” She stressed that the current government’s policy is focused on a free economy, towards which recent studies confirm progress.

Some have expressed fears on social media that moving students out of Yerevan will make the city less vibrant or inhibit their involvement in politics. Andreasyan said that opponents should make up their minds, as they had different criticisms when Ashtarak was the proposed location of Academic City. At present, she said, the trip to reach Yerevan’s center from Academic City will take approximately as long as today going there from another neighborhood like Masiv or Nubarashen, where university students live, so living at Academic City would not change their ability to be involved in events at Yerevan’s center. She added the government had no intent to influence the students’ political consciousness, but in fact the meeting places and environment in Academic City may actually provide students more opportunity to freely discuss politics with friends and take political positions than they had before.

On the one hand, some have criticized the government because its plan for Academic City and the concurrent institutional changes was not sufficiently well thought out, and things were constantly being changed. On the other hand, others raised concerns that the opinions of stakeholders still have not been heard or incorporated into predetermined decision-making. Andreasyan stated: “As far as the substance is concerned, that is completely in the realm of discussion; that is, as to what the Academic City must be, what must be included in it, what programs, with what logic must different institutions of higher education be united and work also with the research institutes.”

For now, she said, only some basic things have been finalized: the decision to build Academic City, its location, and the process of implementation after the development of the final design. She concluded, “It is also clear that we will enlarge our institutions of higher learning, but how to enlarge them, by what logic, and how they will be governed and work together is all subject to discussion. These are not small matters. The solutions are being examined and I think that this is the most important part.”

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