How Armenia Remits The Prestige of Engineering Education

Рубен Аггашян
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When it comes to this country, then, along with its ancient history and the biblical Mount Ararat, first of all comes to mind the world-famous cognac and the love of the nation for chess. However, first of all, Armenia has an exceptionally strong higher school.

The first university was opened here back in 1282; in Soviet times the Republic supplied young engineers to research institutes and industrial enterprises throughout the Soviet Union. Today, Armenian technical education still stands out from the former CIS countries by its level of teaching and scientific potential. Much of the credit for this belongs to the National Polytechnic University of Armenia (the Polytechnic).

More than 125,000 people have graduated from the University since its foundation in 1933. Every year it supplies the labor market with about 2 thousand professionals of various qualifications. NPUA trains specialists in more than 50 Bachelor’s and 60 Master’s degree and 34 research (postgraduate) programs of higher education in a broad range of engineering, technological, industrial economic, and applied mathematical lines of study.

Acting rector of the National Polytechnic University of Armenia Ruben Aggashyan told about how the state has managed to stop the “brain drain” to other countries, and what scientific research the university plans to develop in the upcoming years.

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- The Armenian government decided to extend the state of emergency in the country until August 12. Professor, does this mean that the sanitary and epidemiological situation in your country, in contrast to the states that have eased restrictive measures, remains alarming? How has the current state of affairs affected the educational process?

-The situation is not much different from the countries where the quarantine was formally lifted. Everything works here: cafés, shops, kindergartens. I would say that the situation is not alarming but unpleasant. The country has a steady rate of new infections and recovery. However, the state of emergency, which has officially lasted for 4 months, does not quite correspond to its definition in the classical sense.

Of course, the coronavirus and its spread around the world have affected the quality of the educational process. Today’s information technologies make it possible to use a variety of tools for distance learning for students but under standard conditions they will remain only additional means.

The semester that has just ended was mostly held online: lectures, exams, diploma defenses. We did not use other people’s developments but created our own educational platform. Considering that the Polytechnic is the main engineering university in Armenia, it would be strange if special programs for distance learning were not introduced in our country in the first place.

The coronavirus has seriously affected the admissions tests. Usually, to enter the university, applicants must pass 2 or 3 exams; however, this year, it was decided to reduce them to just one. At all universities, for each group of specialities, were predetermined the basic subjects. We have declared mathematics to be our major discipline. The exams were held not remotely, but in a specialized center. It was built several years ago in Yerevan under the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports for a centralized testing knowledge of young people, in particular, for conducting entrance examinations.

By the way, in the future, the role of this center will only increase. Now a project is being considered, according to which each person can at any time be certified in the chosen subject and receive a state certificate confirming this level. Subsequently, this document can be used when obtaining a certificate and admission to a university. For example, with its help it will be possible to improve the grade obtained in the final exam at school, and it will be taken into account during the competitive selection at the university instead of the school graduation results.

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- In Russia, applicants are admitted to universities on the basis of the Unified State Exam. Its format causes a lot of discussions; nevertheless, everyone is already used to it and it is unlikely that it will be canceled in our country in the upcoming years. In Armenia, applicants pass entrance exams when entering the university. Which system, in your opinion, is more preferable?

- Even the most ingenious test cannot replace a personal conversation with a teacher. In my practice, there were many cases when, during the de jure exam, a student demonstrated low knowledge of the material. For example, an applicant forgot some formula. But I have never focused on that. Any formula can be viewed in a reference book or phone. Much more important is how broadly a person thinks, what his or her creative resources are. You won’t find that on the Internet. In the case of a “dry” testing, knowledge is merely formally recorded, but the potential of persons, their thinking and ability to analyze are absolutely not revealed.

- What positive did the Armenian higher school take from the Soviet past and, on the contrary, what shortcomings did it retain?

-Any system needs to be assessed within a specific time context. The Soviet school was really distinguished by its strong training by the standards of the 20th century. At that time, education, like most other spheres of life, developed rather slowly, and a system with strict curricula and rules was ideal. For example, there was no danger that the program you entered 5 years ago could suddenly become unusable and irrelevant.

What have we saved from it today? First, education based on a solid theoretical foundation. Among the universities of the former Soviet republics, the Polytechnic of Armenia has always been famous for the fact that it provides a fundamental physical and mathematical base. It’s impossible to get a good engineer without it.

Another plus of that system was funding. Soviet universities did not have any uncertainties and absolutely did not worry about their condition. Teachers and professors had a high position in society. The rectors did not think about how to keep the staff. And today, universities are afraid of losing fee-based students, since, roughly speaking, 15 students subsidize one extra teacher.

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- What innovations of recent decades in higher education, in your opinion, can be distinguished?

-In many sectors of the economy, labor market requirements are changing quite quickly. If the programs of the university are very rigid and do not have a certain degree of flexibility, this will lead to a full-scale collapse. Today, the most relevant is the student-centered system of higher professional education, which involves an increase in the volume of students’ independent work. The emphasis is shifting from a monologue presentation of educational material towards cooperation and dialogue between the teacher and the student. In Master’s degree and postgraduate studies, a young researcher comes to the fore with his/her personal interests, motives, competencies and ultimate goals. The rigid education system, when students studied a typical set of subjects for 5 years, is replaced by elective courses, in which young people choose part of the disciplines at their own discretion.

This approach allows the development of academic mobility. Now the Polytechnic has 13 joint educational programs with Russian universities and 10 with European universities. During the first year, Master’s degree students study with us, and during the second year, at a partner university.

Now the country is developing a new bill “On Higher Education”, and I am looking forward to changes, including the fact that we will be able to get away from such a vestige as the degree of “Candidate of Science.” The old scheme of awarding academic degrees, in my opinion, has already outlived its usefulness. It is necessary to switch to a one-stage system, when the PhD program follows the master’s degree. Young scientists confirm their qualifications as a researcher by defending a dissertation, and they do not have to prove this status again. It is not a piece of paper that speaks about the success of a specialist as a scientist, but a real job: what they create, where they publish, how well known are in professional circles. Comparison of candidates and doctors in favor of the latter is not always true. If in Soviet times the requirements for the defense of a doctoral dissertation were really strict, now sometimes people who are far from science get a degree out of a desire to increase their own prestige.

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- How popular is engineering education in Armenia? Where do your graduates go to work? How often do they go abroad?

- In Armenia, the ratio of state funded and fee-based education is approximately 1: 5. There are specialties where the number of budget-funded places is negligible or there are none at all. This is due to the fact that the state is not ready to pay for the training of new groups of ordinary economists, lawyers, psychologists. At the same time, applicants annually strive to get into precisely these areas, not paying attention to the fact that the labor market is in dire need of engineers. This is reflected both in the number of state-funded places in universities and in the offered salaries in companies.

In Soviet times, the Polytechnic produced 43% of the total student body in Armenia. The main branch of our small Republic was industry. Unfortunately, after the collapse of the USSR and the liquidation of factories, interest in technical education among young people decreased significantly. Today we are gradually reviving it. This year, the number of applications for admission to NPGU has grown significantly compared to last year. In addition, there are still areas that traditionally demonstrate high demand: information technology, computing, electronics, software, nuclear energy.

Most of our graduates work in their speciality. Some of the undergraduates take part-time jobs during their studies and earn more than teachers.

Information technologies, nano electronics and chip design have been developing at a particularly fast pace over the past 10-15 years. Employers send us requests for 3-4 thousand graduates per year. This is due to the emergence of Armenian field-specific companies and the opening of international branches in the country. In the 1990s, we lost a whole generation of young specialists: they left to work in the USA and Russia. Then large companies changed their strategy and began to open, one after another, their representative offices in Armenia; among those were Microsoft, Cisco, Cronimet Mining, Synopsys and others. Such a scheme of work costs them much cheaper than inviting engineers to the U.S., for example. If enterprises there paid our specialists an average of 5 thousand dollars a month, then here it is about 3 thousand. In addition, the need to resolve visa issues, buy health insurance, and provide housing for employees has disappeared. As a result, everyone is happy: young people find high-paying jobs in their homeland, companies save money, and we keep our scientific potential within the country.

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- What is the level of state funding of your university? Can you compare the amount of allocated funds with Western counterparts? And is it possible to attract additional funds from economic contracts? How much?

- Today, only 20-25% of the total university budget comes from the state. Moreover, this is the financing of educational expenses, the so-called free places. Higher education is forced to earn money on its own. The main part of the income comes from the contractual forms of education.

As for Western counterparts, I can give you one example: the annual turnover of Munich University of Technology, comparable to ours in terms of the number of students, is 1.3 billion euros. The annual budget of Armenia is about 4 billion euros. At Harvard University, this figure exceeds 5.5 billion euros. In such cases, I quote Pushkin: “Dreams, dreams, where is your sweetness?”

Since mid-1995s, when the former Soviet republics gained access to the programs of the European Union, we have become their permanent participants: Tempus, The Erasmus Mundus Program, Erasmus +, Horizon 2020. Every year, we use this resource to update equipment, organize business trips for employees to leading universities in Europe, ensuring the academic mobility of students, implementing international projects with a budget of hundreds of thousands of euros.

Of course, we sign our own economic agreements, but their amount is not sufficient. The potential of the university is much broader, it can earn more. In Soviet times, we did not know what to do with incoming contracts. Enterprises were ready to supply us with more contracts than we had the right to take. Now the situation is quite the opposite. Companies are afraid of bureaucracy when working with universities and prefer to contact employees on an individual basis. This problem could be solved through investments in the development of higher education and research from private business, but they should be interested in this. Let’s say by tax deductions.

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- Russian-Armenian cooperation has been unstable for many years. Our countries, on the one hand, formally demonstrated a striving for friendly relations, but, on the other hand, they did not take any concrete steps on this path, with rare exceptions. Is it possible for partnerships between the states to reach a qualitatively new level, and in what areas: economy, education, science, culture?

- In the case of Russia, I would very much like to. This is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Armenians. Official intergovernmental ties do not reflect the real picture of relations between our peoples. The fact that about 3-4 million Armenians live in Russia and consider it their second homeland says a lot. Historically, Russia has always been the main guarantor for us against many external dangers, and Armenia for Russia has been an important outpost in the Transcaucasia. It is education and science that should play an important role in our relations. I think we will definitely come to cooperation, which contains joint educational programs and research.

- The National Polytechnic University of Armenia received the status of a foreign branch of the International Competence Center in Mining Engineering Education under the auspices of UNESCO. Why do you need it? How important is collaboration in today’s reality?

- This will allow us to expand and qualitatively improve the capabilities of our university to internationalize education and science. We have over 170 agreements with various universities around the world, but the status of a foreign branch of the Competence Center under the auspices of UNESCO is a fundamentally different situation. We want to find our niche in this international structure. The goals of the center are 100% consistent with the strategic development plans of the Polytechnic University of Armenia. Thanks to cooperation with St. Petersburg Mining University and the Competence Center, we want to try to revise the existing curricula, introduce new standards and competencies adopted at the international level, as well as retrain teachers in accordance with these standards.

- What scientific research would you like to intensify in the framework of cooperation with Russian scientists and representatives of other foreign departments of the Competence Center? Is your research in demand among the business community? Are there examples of their successful implementation in production?

- Presemtly, promising developments are taking place within the framework of separate collaborative agreements of the university. The Competence Center will help bring them to a new level. These are composite materials and metallurgy, efficient use of the resources of the mining and processing industry, nanotechnology, micro- and nano electronics, nuclear and alternative energy. We would like to develop research in these areas together with new partners.

In the field of mining engineering, we are interested in the development of environmental technologies for the industrial development of subsoil, aimed at reducing the harmful impact on the environment, improving and creating new systems for underground mining of non-ferrous and precious metals. We develop these topics based specific contracts, but they are in demand not only in Armenia, which means that we can talk about the integration of experience in solving the listed tasks.