Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Education in Iran: Opportunities and Challenges

Iran- Iranian university students
Students prepare their robots prior to a soccer match during the 12th RoboCup Iran Open competitions in Tehran, Iran, 6 April 2017. Photo AP

Four decades of economic sanctions and political isolation have affected every facet of life in Iran. Yet despite the obstacles, science and research have flourished. According to Towards 2030, an UNESCO science report, ‘the sanctions … have accelerated the shift from a resource-based economy to a knowledge economy by challenging policymakers to look beyond extractive industries to the country’s human capital for wealth creation … between 2006 and 2011 the number of firms declaring R&D activities more than doubled.’

The same report highlighted that in 2017, Iran ranked seventh worldwide for the number of scientific papers related to nanotechnology. However, it would be a mistake to consider sanctions as a positive force for science and research in Iran. Although paralyzing sanctions pushed the education system to be more creative, they have posed numerous challenges for students and scholars. For example, as a result of the sanctions on the Iranian banking system, many universities lost their subscriptions to international academic journals, simply because they could not transfer the money to pay for access to the journals.

Despite these challenges, significant progress has been made in higher education in recent years. For example, between 1996 and 2008, scientific output increased 18-fold, from 736 published papers to 13,238. In 2011, scientific output grew 11 times faster in Iran than the global average and faster than any other country in the world. Iran now has a staggering number of science and engineering students – over two million, an increase of 161 per cent since 2004. Also notable is that 70 per cent of these students are women.

In recent months, new bibliometric data have identified Tehran as potentially being as important as Delhi and Beijing, in terms of cities growing their academic international collaboration in certain fields. Energy research, for example, has a field-weighted citation impact approaching 50 per cent above the world average. There are several socio-cultural factors that can partly explain these achievements, but at the same time it is fair to assume that this rapid scientific growth could not happen without a sufficient educational infrastructure. After all, such an educational leap requires both horizontal and vertical development.

According to UNESCO statistics published by the World Bank, Iran spent 2.95 per cent of its GDP on education at all levels in 2014. This figure represents 19.7 per cent of overall government spending, which is higher than the majority of developing countries. Globally, governments spent an average of 14.25 per cent of total expenditure on education. Iran has a high literacy rate by Middle Eastern standards. The country’s adult literacy rate was 84.6 per cent in 2013, compared to 78 per cent in the neighbouring Arab states. The literacy rate among 15-24-year-olds is even higher at 98 per cent.

In Iran, basic education is compulsory and lasts nine years. Prior to the education reform act of 2012, basic education lasted eight years and was divided into a five-year elementary education and a three-year lower secondary education. The reforms extended the elementary cycle to six years, extending basic education to a total of nine years.

During elementary school, pupils attend 24 hours of class per week.  The curriculum covers subjects such as mathematics, science, Islamic studies, Persian reading, writing and comprehension and social studies.

At lower secondary school, other subjects such as history, vocational studies, Arabic and English are introduced, and students attend more hours of class each week.  The curriculum at this level is national and consistent across all schools.

Upper secondary education is not compulsory but is free and lasts three years. At this level, students can choose from one of the available streams such as academic (nazari), technical (fani herfei), and vocational/skills (kar-danesh). The academic stream has traditionally been the most popular.

Over the last four decades, higher education has rapidly expanded. In 1977, Iran had only 16 universities with a reported 154,315 students. In 2008, it had over 3.5 million students enrolled in universities. The overwhelming majority of students are enrolled in the private sector. More than one third attend the semi-private Islamic Azad University (IAU), Iran’s largest university and one of the largest mega universities in the world with 1.7 million students. In 2013, 57.9 per cent of the 921,386 students taking the konkur standardized entrance exam were admitted to public university. Konkur is extremely competitive and takes place only once a year. It is a 4.5-hour multiple-choice test that covers all subjects taught in high school. In recent years, legislation has been passed to eliminate konkur and replace it with a different system.

Medical universities are supervised by the Ministry of Health, Treatment and Medical Education, but all other institutions are under the control of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. Despite the rapid expansion of the higher education sector, Iran faces a shortage of educational opportunities at the graduate level, because most of the programmes at private universities are at the undergraduate level. Only six per cent of the approximately 900,000 applicants to master programmes and four per cent of the 127,000 doctoral applicants reportedly secured a spot in 2011.

The other major challenge facing higher education institutions is political, which is connected to the ideological nature of the ruling regime. Even before the revolution in 1979, universities were considered as epicentres of political activism. In fact, university students played a vital role in overthrowing the shah. After the revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, political activism in Iranian universities intensified. This resulted in the temporary closure of all universities and colleges throughout the country in 1980, an event that marked the beginning of the cultural revolution. Thousands of students and scholars were purged and textbooks were rewritten in accordance with the ideological doctrine of the Islamic Republic.

Although the universities were reopened three years later, the state maintained strict control over higher education. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who was a reformist, higher education was significantly reinvigorated both in terms of resources and student freedoms. Yet in 1999, there was a major clash between students and the security forces connected to the hardliners, which resulted in violence and destruction in and around a university campus in Tehran. Under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the hardliners took drastic measures to ‘Islamize’ higher education again and put more pressure on scholars and students. In recent years, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has warned against ‘un-Islamic’ universities and subjects and has pushed for ideological conformity.

Today, the Iranian education system presents both opportunities and challenges. It is clear that the system, and in particular higher education, is facing challenges both externally and internally. Internally, hardline factions of the regime see higher education as an ideological tool; externally, sanctions imposed by the West make universities’ everyday operations significantly harder. Despite the 2015 nuclear deal that saw some of the sanctions lifted, heavy embargoes still overshadow life in the country.

Despite these challenges, Iran’s education system seems to be dynamic. Especially in scientific and engineering subjects, Iran is now considered as a leader in West Asia and continues to produce world-class researchers such as Maryam Mirzakhani (the first female winner of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics) who make important contributions to human knowledge. Although the Iranian education system has the potential to do a lot better, its future depends on the ongoing power struggle between the hardliners and reformists in the country.