Stipends or Student Fund?: Minister stirs debate by hinting at possible reform

A recent statement by a government minister about a possible abolishment of monthly stipends has caused a serious discontent among university students who call such plans “a gross violation of a student’s rights.”

At a roundtable organized on November 17, International Student Day, Education and Science Minister Armen Ashotyan was challenged with a question about the small size of student stipends and was asked when the government planned to raise these stipends. To this, Ashotyan answered that the government “is generally inclined to scrap student stipends altogether.”

“Because this stipend (which is about 5,000/$12) does not bring any serious change in any student’s life, meanwhile, the stipends issued to 19,700 students make a sizable sum that, it can be said, gets squandered,” the minister said.

A student from Hrazdan, however, disagrees with the minister.

“Instead of depriving us of stipends, which we have earned with our knowledge, let them lower the student fees, they are terribly high. True, 5,000 drams a month is no money, but for students coming from provinces it at least covers some of their travel expenses and makes their parents’ lives a little easier,” Melanya Gasparyan tells ArmeniaNow.

(Students who are admitted to universities under the so-called state order, besides having their university fees paid by the state, also receive a monthly allowance, called a stipend, which now usually makes 5,000 drams. Students in the “non-state” sector pay the university fees themselves and have no allowance paid to them by the state.)

Minister Ashotyan explained that monthly stipends paid to students amount to some 125-130 million drams a year (up to $340,000), and this sum would be enough to pay for the annual university fees of about 300 students.

“During the year a lot of students leave their education half finished because they cannot pay their fees. And the funding that is now used to pay stipends can be used to create a loan fund [for such students],” said Ashotyan.

Meanwhile, students insist that the fund can be set up with some of the money that generates from university fees or with some other means.

“Why do they want to deprive us of our 5,000 drams while they are paying millions to buy cars?” says Mihran Simonyan, a third-year student at Yerevan State University from Ashtarak, who makes a clear reference to the widely debated recent acquisition by the ministry of an expensive office car.

A Volkswagen Touareg SUV was purchased for 32 million drams (about $90,000) at about the same time that the prime minister was urging his cabinet members to “tighten the belts” and the National Assembly was considering a curtailed state budget for next year under which the Ministry of Education and Science would receive about 25 percent less state funding.

As the minister explained, however, the SUV was purchased not at the expense of state funds or state budget.

“The vehicle was purchased by the National Education Institute (NEI) CJSC, which is doing so well that it even has profits, and from its profits it purchased this vehicle and gifted it to the Ministry of Education and Science. This is no one’s property, this is government property. Other speculations are simply political speculations,” Ashotyan explained to A1 Plus.

Meanwhile, many think the NEI still should have spent that money on the implementation of education development projects, teachers’ retraining, which are things it has been set up for, or else on a student loan program. (The money paid for the vehicle would have been enough to pay for the fees of an estimated 20 students for the whole duration of their five-year studies.)

Many students not only oppose the abolition of stipends, but also feel skeptical about plans to set up a student loan fund as they do not expect all eligible students to have equal access to it.

“I don’t get a stipend, but I oppose the plans to abolish it, because I am sure that again they will share this fund among themselves and their relatives and friends. They’d better think about how to raise the stipends,” Ani Sargsyan, a fourth-year student at Agricultural Academy, tells ArmeniaNow.