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1st Aug 2013

Could Iran’s new president give higher education a boost?

With Hassan Rouhani assuming the Iranian presidency this weekend and speaking to the West in conciliatory tones, the shape of Iranian higher education is at a crossroads. While some are hopeful better international relations can ease pressures on students, others point out that final political decisions will continue to be made by Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran’s theocracy, and that any major shift in policy is unlikely. The Economist sums up: "It has been a blessing for reformists, who hope a Rouhani presidency could help boost the country’s moribund economy and ease the suffocating security atmosphere. It may be an even bigger blessing for Mr Khamenei and the conservative establishment who can claim renewed legitimacy over a unified Iran, amid the instability rocking Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The new president is a pragmatist and may herald some shift in domestic politics and in the tone of international negotiations, but he remains very much an establishment figure and proposes no change of course in the substance of the Islamic Republic’s regime, nor its foreign policy." Nevertheless, this victory of moderation could at least ease tensions surrounding Iran’s higher education sector and related mobility issues.

Iran as a receiving country

On the inbound side, Iran’s Minister of Science, Research, and Technology, Kamran Daneshjoo, reports that approximately 14,000 students from 92 countries are studying at Iranian universities. He adds that if the 12,000 foreign students studying at Al-Mustafa University (which has international branches and affiliate schools, such as Islamic College of London, Indonesia Islamic college and Ghana Islamic College) are included in those numbers, a total of 26,000 international students are studying at Iranian higher education institutions. Most of these students inside Iran come from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey. Efforts are underway to lure more, with a short-term goal of attracting 25,000 a year, as outlined in Iran’s Fifth Five-Year Development Plan (2010-2015), which is part of the 20-Year Outlook Plan (2005-2025). According to an overview of education in Iran by World Education Services (WES), in 2009 there were 103 universities operating in the country. Each June, a university entrance examination known as the Konkur or Concours disqualifies about 90% of potential applicants to public universities. Applicants who fail can repeat the test until they pass, and most who score highly go on to study engineering and medicine. Iran is home to a total tertiary student body of 3,350,000 students, with approximately a 50/50 split between public and private universities. Most students in the private sector attend Islamic Azad University, an institution established in 1982 that now has an enrolment of approximately 1.5 million students with over 400 branches across Iran and in countries such as Afghanistan, UAE, Tajikistan, Lebanon, Armenia, and Tanzania.

Science and medicine a draw card

An early centre of world knowledge, in recent years Iran has seen a sharp rise of science and research activity. Today, SciVerse Scopus ranks Iran the world’s 15th leading scientific nation, and research by SCImago Journal & Country Rank suggests that Iran could rank fourth in the world in scientific publications and research articles by the year 2018. With higher education a driving force behind such output, Iran is banking on its science sector to attract more inbound students. An interesting side note on growth is that Iranian officials see the country as a potential magnet for health tourism. Already 30,000 people travel to Iran annually for health reasons, seeking the benefits of everything from the country’s mineral fountains to its medical centres, which are the most advanced in the region. Expanding Iran’s reputation as a top rank medical destination is seen as a way to strengthen ties with neighbouring countries.

Forming ties outside of Iran

As noted, Iran is pushing ahead in scientific research, and has education relationships with many countries in the region and beyond. However, Iranian authorities are keen to strengthen such links, not only because of economic benefits, but because they reportedly see collaboration in higher education, research, and science as a key part of a strategy to maintain and increase political influence. Some of those international links include:

  • Afghanistan - Iran announced joint research and engineering projects with Afghanistan at a December 2012 meeting in Tehran. Iran is also establishing branches in Afghanistan of the state-run Payame Noor University.
  • Pakistan - Iranian and Pakistani officials in a meeting in Peshawar agreed to boost their mutual cooperation in fields including education, health and tourism.
  • Turkey - Iran’s Ambassador to Turkey, Alireza Bigdeli, in a meeting with Turkish National Education Minister Nabi Avci in late July, called for more scientific, educational, and cultural cooperation, and the strengthening of Persian language departments in Turkey and Turkish language departments in Iran.
  • Thailand - During a meeting in Tehran with visiting Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Bunsongphaisan, president Mahmud Ahmadinejad received a favorable response to his suggestion for expanded relations between Iran and Thailand.
  • Russia - Iranian and Russian officials are discussing potential co-operation in education to address the fact that only a handful of Iranian students attend Russian universities and vice versa.
  • Ghana - In April, Iran and Ghana signed memoranda of understanding on bilateral cooperation in the areas of education, agriculture, tourism, youth and sports. The signing followed a series of bilateral discussions held between Ghanaian and Iranian officials, led by President John Dramani Mahama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
  • UNESCO - President-elect Rouhani says he plans to deepen mutual cooperation between Iran and UNESCO during his presidency, specifically in scientific and technical fields.

Iranian outbound mobility

Exact mobility figures for Iran tend to vary according to the source. Last year government reporting set the figure of Iranians studying abroad at approximately 35,000, but this past April, Hassan Moselmi Naeini, head of the Science Ministry’s General Bureau of Scholarship and Overseas Students Affairs, put the total at 55,686, and of this, the numbers played out as follows:

  • 8,883 students are studying in Malaysia;
  • 7,341 in the United States (But IIE's Open Doors report quotes that in the 2011/12 academic year, 6,982 students from Iran were studying in the US, up 24.1% from the previous year);
  • 5,638 in Canada;
  • 3,504 in Germany;
  • 3,364 in Turkey;
  • 3,228 in Britain;
  • 23,728 in other countries.

However, numbers could shift due to US and EU economic sanctions that have cut the value of Iran’s rial against the US dollar, making foreign degrees expensive to obtain. The US is now taking a "cautious approach" regarding a new series of sanctions in the wake of the recent elections. In order to mitigate currency issues facing Iranian students, the IIE announced the launch of a new Emergency Student Fund (ESF) to assist Iranians on US campuses. In partnership with the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), funding of US $100,000 (50 grants of US $2,000 apiece) was pooled to meet student needs for the spring 2013 semester. In addition to financial strain, Iranian students face enrolment restrictions in the EU, as well as visa and curricular restrictions at US schools. For a detailed examination of these issues, see ICEF Monitor’s comprehensive piece from last year: “Increasing challenges around the Iranian study abroad market."

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