Increasing challenges around the Iranian study abroad market
"We have the capacity to educate students inside the country, and except when it is urgent, there is no need for our foreign exchange to exit the country." -- Iran Economic Minister Shamseddin Hosseini as announced on state television last month Iran has always had a unique role to play in the study abroad industry, but recent events surrounding currency fluctuations and restricted fields of study have shown the market to be even more of a challenge. Approximately 35,000 Iranian students are believed to be studying abroad this year, according to government figures, providing the economy with important skills and maintaining a link between the country and the rest of the world as it becomes increasingly isolated internationally. Places in Iran's top public universities, determined by a national entrance exam, are extremely competitive, and lucrative fields such as medicine are difficult to get into. For those whose families can afford it, studying abroad can be a different avenue to earning a prestigious degree, putting students in line for the best jobs when they return home. But a recent article in Reuters explains that the Iranian government, moving the economy onto an austerity footing in the face of sanctions which have cut hard currency earnings from oil exports, appears increasingly to view foreign study as a luxury that can be sacrificed. In a move to preserve its foreign exchange reserves, the government announced last month that most students abroad would no longer be able to buy US dollars at a subsidised government "reference" rate of 12,260 rials. This has forced many to seek hard currency in the open market, where it costs about 34,000 rials to buy a dollar. As there are an extremely limited number of government-funded study abroad scholarships and no plans to increase them, students who travel overseas for undergraduate or graduate programmes are privately funded. And with recent currency fluctuations pushing the Iranian rial down to about a third of its value against the US dollar, foreign degrees are becoming so expensive that for many, they are nearly impossible to afford.
Restrictions around fields of study
Compounding the tension are various restrictions around the types of degrees Iranians can pursue at home and abroad. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has called for the US State Department to issue clarifying guidelines for Iranian students in response to a new bill that bans visas for Iranians seeking education at American universities in fields relating to the nuclear and energy sectors. The bill states that a US visa would be denied to “any alien who is a citizen of Iran” and who “seeks to enter the United States to participate in coursework at an institution of higher education to prepare the alien for a career in the energy sector of Iran or in nuclear science or nuclear engineering or a related field in Iran." Meanwhile, inside Iran's borders, new regulations announced in early August state that 77 specific academic fields at the graduate level will be denied to women in the country’s 36 government universities. According to the Iranian news site Rooz Online, subjects now open only to men in certain universities include mathematics, accounting, chemistry, natural resources and forestry, urban development engineering, mining engineering and most petroleum-related subjects. University World News has stated that more than 600 degree programmes in 60 universities in Iran are now segregated by gender. At present, one in every six students is in a male-only or female-only university course, with an average of more than 17% of university courses separated. When ICEF Monitor spoke to an Iranian-based student recruitment agent on the issue, his view was that the country's long-term aim is to create all-female and all-male institutions, with only certain courses offered in each type of institution. Other agent sources in Iran said that the news was simply not true, and that women are free to study any course they choose.
Study abroad destinations taking a hit
For those student setting their sights on foreign degrees, international student recruitment agents say Canada has been a difficult country for Iranians when it comes to visa acceptance, and the Canadian government's decision to close the Iranian embassy in Ottawa last month, as well as its embassy in Tehran, has sent a clear signal that the situation is unlikely to change in the near future. Students may have to conduct Iranian embassy business through the embassy of Pakistan, like the US does, or travel to other countries such as Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. Such hassles and expenses can clearly deter students from going to Canada to study. Still, Iranian students have continued to go overseas in the last several years even as relations between Tehran and the governments of their host countries have deteriorated. Countries such as the UK and New Zealand have been popular destinations, but lately, recruitment agents and students are looking at up-and-coming study destinations such as Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. However, as a result of the currency slide, Reuters outlines various disheartening scenarios from Iranians aiming to study abroad in these locations, such as:
Neda, age 27, was first set to go to northern Cyprus in January to study communications. But US sanctions against Iran's central bank prompted a slide in the rial's exchange rate that month, putting the US $1,500 per semester tuition out of reach of her upper middle class family, an indication of how the squeeze is affecting even the well-off. "I had been accepted to the school and everything was ready to go. But when foreign currency became so expensive, I had to cancel my plans."
"I can't even focus on my studies because every second I'm calculating how much the dollar is now and how much it will be tomorrow," said Reza, age 22, who is studying medicine in Hungary. He was able to get hold of hard currency at the government rate to pay his US $14,000 tuition this year, but fears that if the rial falls any further, he will be forced to abandon his studies and return to Iran. "My motivation is my family. My father arranged things for me so that I was able to come here and achieve my dreams. But because of this situation, I'm not sure I'll be able to reach them," he said.
The number of Iranian students in Kuala Lumpur has also dropped in recent months, and normally bustling Iranian restaurants in the Malaysian capital are now empty, said Siavash, age 32. He is pursuing a business degree in Malaysia at a cost of around 6,500 ringgit (US $2,130) per semester. Malaysia, with its relaxed visa policy for Iranians, has attracted thousands of students and businessmen in recent years. As of 2010, more than 70,000 Iranian nationals were living in Malaysia, according to Iranian foreign ministry figures. "We had a neighbor who came this year to start her classes. She came with so much hope and her whole family was proud," Siavash said. "She left just last week. She sold her belongings and went back to Iran."
Study abroad a pathway to immigration
Some Iranian students say the currency crisis has caused them to wonder whether they should return to Iran at all. "When I left Iran, I swore I would go back," said Hasan, who came to the United States in 2011 to study industrial engineering on a university scholarship. "Now it is less likely that I will return. There is no stability." Neda said if she manages to save enough money from her job as a photographer, she will try again to pursue her studies abroad, where she says the universities are better in her field than the ones at home. "Before, I wanted to go abroad to study and come back to Iran," she said. "But with the situation how it is right now, I would prefer to go to any other country." Elections in Iran will take place on 14 June 2013, so many are hopeful that the future will improve and a new government will be more moderate and open. Until then, education providers can try to overcome these negative forces by working closely with trusted partners in Iran, such as quality student recruitment agents who have insider knowledge on how to tap into this challenging market.