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Recruiting in Iran: Demand remains high in this challenging market

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The recruitment context in Iran is complex to the extent that the Iranian government influences which institutions can recruit in the country and restricts most social media apps
  • Working with agents and developing partnerships with Iranian officials, schools, and universities is essential to success in this market in which there is very significant demand for study abroad

Demand among Iranian post-graduate students for study abroad has been very high in recent years, not the least because:

  • Access to undergraduate education in Iran has expanded massively over the past decade, but graduates have few opportunities for further studies in the country;
  • Youth unemployment is a real problem.

Millions of Iranians with undergraduate degrees cannot find employment. So many Iranian youth have degrees from Iranian higher education institutions that the degrees aren’t providing them a competitive advantage to leverage with employers. Studying abroad for an additional degree – a master’s, a second master’s, or a PhD especially – is a better proposition for most than remaining in the country to find a job.

Public protests decrying the punishment of women who do not adhere to the Iranian Islamic clergy’s strict dress requirements have spiralled into a generalised demonstration of anger at the way the country is being run. In 2023, demand may be higher than ever in Iran for study abroad, but there are challenges to recruiting in this iron-clad theocratic regime, not the least because the government is clamping down so tightly on social media and websites in general.

Working with trusted agents and building relationships with key Iranian officials and school contacts is crucial. The Iranian government has been aware of a “brain drain” problem for years, and despite tensions with the West, is attempting to address the issue by striking partnerships with international institutions in the delivery of doctoral degrees. In these scenarios, studies are balanced between Iranian and foreign universities. WENR has noted, “Schools who can establish these sorts of links may find it easier to gain access to the market.”

Fast facts

Geography: Iran is located on the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz and is a strategic geographical meeting point joining Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. It is bordered by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan (east), Iraq (west), and Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan exclave (north).

Official language: Persian (Farsi). Turkish, or Turkish dialects are also spoken by about 18% of the population, and many Iranians are fluent in English and French.

Language of instruction: In addition to Farsi, students learn Arabic as the language of the Koran in grades 7-12, as well as one foreign language (usually English or French).

Governing bodies for education: At the secondary level, the overseeing body is the Ministry of Education. For non-medical higher education, it is the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology. For medical institutions, universities, and teaching hospitals, it is the Ministry of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education.

Religion: Islam. The government of Iran regards all Iranians as Shi’a Muslims and declares Iran to be officially Shi’ite.

Main student cities: Ahvaz, Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, Arak.

Population: 86.8 million. By 2060 the number of Iranian citizens is expected to peak at 105 million. Currently, more than 60% of the population is under 30 years old. In 2021, 27% of 15-24-year-olds were unemployed in Iran.

Economy: Iran ranks second in the world for natural gas reserves and fourth for oil reserves, but the World Bank considers it “relatively diversified” for an oil exporting country. However, one of the country’s key sectors – agriculture – has been underperforming because of the worsening effects of climate change (high temperatures and drought).

The mass public protests sparked by the death in detention of Mahsa Amini led to the Iranian currency – the rial – falling to its lowest level ever against the US dollar in December 2022. The protests also reflect widespread anger at the government (which is deeply influenced by its Islamic clergy) for skyrocketing prices of consumer items – especially food and medicine – and inflation. Iran International reports that people have recently been trading personal items online for food:

“‘My shirt for a few kilograms of rice,’” read one personal ad, as people who were considered middle class just four years ago, now cannot afford the most basic food items.'”

The economic chaos suggests that many Iranian families will be more price-sensitive than usual in 2023 when considering study abroad. Iranian students in Italy are reportedly having trouble paying tuition and are buying euros on the black market.

Students have been very active in the protests – a development that experts tell Time Magazine contrasts with “a decade of a politically dormant student movement in Iran.” Tehran University and Sharif University have been major sites of demonstrations.

Iranian students abroad who have supported the protests are concerned about having to return to Iran. One told Italy’s La Redazione that:

“The Iranian regime’s choices affect many of our lives. To give an example: if Iranian boys do not receive the scholarship and are forced to return to Iran, they are forced to join the army because they left the country with an educational exemption. Also people who participated in anti-regime demonstrations face major political problems if they return to Iran, risking even prison or worse. For this we expect the Italian government and the international community to support us in the same way it has supported the Ukrainian and Afghan students in the past years, because, at the moment, we Iranian students have not received any support and we continue to be under pressure both of the Iranian government and of the laws that are here.”

Outbound mobility

Iran is a major sender of students to destinations including the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Malaysia. The Iranian government says that in 2022, more than 95,000 Iranians studied abroad. Despite sending fewer students since former President Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran is still the 15th largest source market for American higher education institutions (9,295 students in 2021/22). It is a top 10 sender for Canada (16,900 students in 2021, up 21% year-over-year), Turkey (12,000 in 2022), Germany (10,560 in 2022), and Italy (4,580 in 2019).

Iran also has aspirations to attract more inbound students to its universities. In the summer of 2022, Mohammad Javad Salmanpour, the deputy head of the Organization for Student Affairs, stated, “Iran has the ability and capacity to have more than 250,000 foreign students by 2026.”

Push factors

Iran’s The Financial Tribune reports that, “In recent years, the unemployment rate for new graduates in Iran has topped 50%.”

The market is saturated with degree-holding students, many of whom will have credentials from subpar private colleges. WENR reports:

“As economists Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Daniel Egel have noted, Iran’s education system more ‘resembles … a giant diploma mill than a dynamic sector, training workers in skills needed by the global economy. … [P]roper teaching of English and computer skills is an extra-curricular activity for most students and available only to those whose parents can afford to pay for evening and summer courses in private institutions.’”

As they struggle to figure out ways to parlay their education into meaningful jobs in Iran, young Iranians are aware that there is much more opportunity elsewhere. MigrationPolicy.org reports:

“Iranians abroad tend to be well educated and earn high incomes. Nearly 60 percent of Iranian immigrants in the United States had at least a bachelor’s degree as of 2019, with more than 30 percent holding a graduate or professional degree. Iranian immigrants’ median household income was nearly $79,000 in 2019, significantly more than U.S.-born residents ($66,000) and immigrants overall (nearly $64,000). Likewise, more than 47 percent of Iranian asylum seekers living in Germany in 2018 had a university degree, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said in a recent report.”

Challenges and opportunities

Because of the protests, the Iranian government has increased its censorship of expression and foreign content and the press even more than it already did … and that is saying a lot. In July 2022, according to the 20th World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Iran was ranked lower than all countries other than Eritrea and North Korea.

The list of banned websites and apps is now longer than ever, and Iranians are even having trouble accessing international websites with sections translated into Farsi.

Iranians are currently not permitted to access:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • Discord
  • Instagram (a recent ban)
  • WhatsApp (also a recent ban)

The banning of Instagram and WhatsApp is particularly troublesome given Iranian students’ fondness for these apps. The state-run Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) conducted a survey in 2021 that found that 74% of Iranians aged 18+ use social media, with WhatsApp (64%), Instagram (45%), and Telegram (36%) the most popular. Iranian social platforms are far less popular, with only 5% reporting use of these platforms.

Despite the government’s increasing censorship of the Internet and apps, it is still important to develop customised web content for Iranian students. Iran International reports that “Nearly every Iranian with a smartphone has installed anti-filtering software that allows access to filtered applications and websites.” Those Iranian students who are determined to study abroad will be doing their best to find a way to check out foreign institutions’ websites.

Still, the highly controlled digital environment in Iran means that engaging with trusted agents is an absolute must – agents can help with building relationships with key partners in Iran, from government officials to good schools and universities. Two important things to note:

  1. To be eligible to recruit Iranian students, a foreign college or university must be accredited by the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology.
  2. Agencies can recruit students for a maximum of 3 countries and are regulated by the Iranian Society of Student Recruitment Initiatives (SSRI).

Girls and women have as much access to secondary and tertiary education in Iran as men do, and the Iranian government reports that women make up more than 60% of the student population in the country’s universities.

Key dates

Iran’s secondary school and university calendar runs from September to June, with the first semester running September-January and the second semester taking place from February–June. Secondary school students can only gain entrance to teritary studies by passing the national university entrance exam, the “Konkur.”

Students begin exploring study abroad options two years prior to their intended start date, according to Intead, and therefore campaigns and other efforts to attract them should begin at this time. Outreach should gear up when students begin applying to schools – from September to December prior to their start date.

Where the students are

At least 50% of university students are enrolled in the mega-institutions Islamic Azad University (a private institution with 400 campuses across the country enrolling close to 2 million students) and Payam Nur University (providing distance education to over 800,000 students).

In addition, more than 50 public universities and institutes are overseen by the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, and there are more than 300 private institutions. A list of universities can be found right here.

Another very useful link is the 2022 uniRank listing of top private universities in Iran – which uses the following criteria:

  • The university must be chartered, licensed or accredited by the appropriate Iranian higher education-related organisation;
  • It must offer at least four-year undergraduate degrees (bachelor degrees) or postgraduate degrees (master or doctoral degrees);
  • It must deliver courses predominantly in a traditional, face-to-face, non-distance education format.

In terms of degree equivalency, the Iranian government provides the following details:

  • Kardani: 2-year programme equivalent to the associate degree;
  • Karshenasi: 4-year programme equivalent to the bachelor’s degree;
  • Karshenasi Arshad: 2-year programme beyond the Karshenasi equivalent to the master’s degree;
  • Doctora: 3-year programme equivalent to the PhD degree;
  • Specialised Doctorates: Degrees in dentistry, medicine, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, etc.

More detailed information on these programmes can be found here.

As for grading, the government explains:

“In Iran, the grading system is based on a 0-20 scale. At the elementary, secondary, and undergraduate levels, an average grade of 10 is a minimum required passing grade. The minimum average grade at the graduate level is 12, and in doctoral programs, the cut-off score stands at 14.”

At the secondary level, students considering study abroad will be studying at the “upper secondary” level (Grades 10-12) and will be aged 15–17/18. They will have chosen either the “theoretical (academic) branch” which prepares students for university, and includes focuses in mathematics/physics, biology/experimental sciences, and humanities, or the “vocational branch” (which the government says “prepares students to go into the business market as semi-skilled and skilled workers”).

The literacy rate for Iranians aged 15 and up is 86%.

A final note

Recruiting in Iran is more complicated than in many other countries, especially in the current context of widespread protests and a regime struggling to control them. A careful approach is necessary, especially given that government approval is required for foreign institutions to recruit in the country. With high demand among Iranian students for study abroad, however, many institutions are betting that the extra time and consideration needed to enter this market are well worth it.


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