Ever since the Islamic Revolution, efforts to bolster the number of universities and students in Iran has been a constant preoccupation, a preoccupation that really started when the Islamic Azad University was set up in Tehran in 1982. Iranian governments have not looked back since.
The Islamic Azad University — with over 400 branches across Iran — is one of the world’s largest universities and the first in the country to charge for education. Prior to this, Iran only had public universities, which were highly competitive. To get a place, students needed to take an entrance exam called the “Konour” that required one year’s preparation. Then several years later, in 1988, a new university called Payame Noor was set up, which introduced distant learning and part-time graduate courses for the first time in Iran. Following this, a number of different types of universities, including private ones, were founded. And so the number of higher educational facilities in Iran exploded.
Every Iranian government has made university expansion, and increasing student numbers, a policy priority. By referring to official data, administrations have drawn comparisons between their success and that of their predecessors. The result of this is that there are more university places than students wanting to accept them, which also explains why there are numerous empty study rooms at various universities.
President Rouhani, though, appears to have a different plan; he hopes to fill the empty spots with “international students” and to internationalize the Iranian university system. “The internationalization of universities is one of the three main programs of this government under the Sixth National Development Plan,” announced Iranian science minister Mohammad Farhadi. The development plan is a five-year agenda initiated in March 2015.
However, there is a problem: to attract students from abroad and to “internationalize” Iranian universities, the institutions in question need to have the necessary — albeit basic — academic standards.
A Lapse in Quality
Over the past two decades, the number of higher education institutions has grown at an unprecedented, yet inconsistent rate. Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, the number of universities jumped by a staggering 175 percent, a strategy that was designed to do little more than increase the number of paying students. This led to a huge compromise in quality. Equally, as a report by Small Media shows, huge amounts of literature and academia were published under the same administration, but this was a farce to a great extent: Only books that were in line with the government’s ideological outlook were published, making literature increasingly one-sided.
“Some of the new universities don’t meet the necessary academic standards to be thought of as a proper ‘university,’ ” says Mojtaba Shariati, a deputy official at the ministry of science.
But the unfillable places across universities is not the only issue; a lot of the new courses were set up without sufficient research into needs assessment, and with inadequate training of education staff and surplus hiring of teachers and professors. Under Ahmadinejad, more than 150 professors were either dismissed or forced into early retirement.
“The higher education system has sprung up like mushrooms in Iran,” says Member of Parliament Reza Saberi. “A lot of universities don’t have permanent teachers, so they hire part-time or freelance teachers who are unable to serve the universities as permanent staff.”
Because of the time it takes to train a university professor, many of the universities are facing a shortage in experienced teachers and faculty members.
“There are too many postgraduate students, which means supervisors have to divide their time with more students than they should and they can’t guide them properly,” explains Tehran MA student Saeid.
A Lack of Trust
In Iran, having a university degree is deemed to be a must for most of the younger generation if they want to find a job and gain respect. It is widely thought that getting promoted at work is directly linked to having a degree, which means a lot of young people care about the degree rather than the quality of the education or university.
Equally, there are many young Iranians who do care about the quality, so they apply for the well-known and highly-competitive universities, most of which were built before the Islamic revolution. As it is difficult to get into these universities, many students choose to go abroad to study.
Parvaneh P, who left Iran to do a PhD in Moscow, explains that it was “the poor quality of universities in Iran that led me to study abroad.”
Iranian MP Javad Haravi says that Iranian universities are very much the last choice for international students. “Getting a university degree is more important in Iran than learning and that’s the main issue here. And this is what has caused the poor quality of Iranian universities and it’s why international students aren’t interested.”
Highly-educated Hossein Mokhtarzadeh, who did an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Tehran, an MA at Sharif University and a PhD at Melbourne University, is of the view that most young Iranians want to study abroad.
“Almost every student at Sharif and Tehran universities considers leaving Iran and studying abroad,” says Mokhtarzadeh. “I myself accepted a scholarship at Melbourne University because I didn’t have access to recent university research or decent scientific equipment in Iran.”
Another reason for a number of students going abroad is the lack of freedom of expression. Numerous students and teachers have been dismissed in the past for expressing their views or beliefs, including those studying for social sciences degrees.
“There are a lot of restrictions and pressures at Iranian universities. For instance, our teachers can’t discuss their ideas freely,” says Fatima, who did an MA in political science in India. “So one of the advantages of studying abroad is that you can argue and discuss your ideas and opinions freely, which I did in India.”
Access to information and foreign websites is also restricted in Iran, posing yet another challenge to students. For those wanting to escape internet censorship and slow Wi-Fi speeds, going abroad is an attractive option.
Fatima adds, “I had to use anti-filters or VPNs [virtual private networks] in Iran to do academic research. Even YouTube, which has a lot of educational videos, is blocked in Iran.”
Iranian universities offer a great opportunity — for the Rouhani administration and the economy at large. The president’s intention to “internationalize” the academic institutions by bringing in foreign students could be the government’s next big success after the nuclear deal. However, at the moment, the academic institutions in Iran are being wasted. Until the universities meet the necessary international standards, foreign students will continue to look elsewhere. If Rouhani wants Iranian universities to seriously compete with other places abroad, a lot of work needs to go into them. For now, the majority of them struggle to cope with their own internal students. Being able to meet the needs of students from further afield is another question altogether.
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