Skip to main content

The paradox of higher education in Iran

The increase in the number of private universities in Iran has not increased the level and quality of scholarly work in Iran.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. 
A student draws a pattern for a Persian handmade carpet as she sits in a classroom in Isfahan Art University, 450 km (280 miles) south of Tehran November 14, 2011. Persian carpet weaving is a historical part of Iranian culture, dating back to as far as approximately 2,000 years ago. Persian carpets can be mostly divided into three size groups: large (3x4 metre

TEHRAN, Iran — The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, had a meeting with university chancellors and heads of research and educational institutions. During this meeting, Rouhani emphasized that the quality and the quantity of education should be compatible with one another in Iranian academia. He also said that although he is proud of the increasing expansion of the post-graduate programs and the number of Ph.D. students in the country, he cannot help but worry about the quality of the education that they are receiving.

Since the early years of the Islamic revolution, there has been an attempt to expand and propagate higher education in Iran. In 1982, then-speaker of the parliament Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani had unveiled plans for establishing a new university called Azad (Free) University with branches in all parts of the county, including villages.

Islamic Azad University, the third-largest university by enrollment in the world and, according to its website, with over 400 branches in Iran, was founded with this goal in mind. Azad University has a different kind of entrance exam than public universities and, unlike public universities, it does not provide free education. This may help explain why Iran’s private schools have failed to produce the same level of scholarship as public universities. For example, the public Sharif University of Technology is included in the Times Higher Education World Universities Ranking.

In 1988, Payame Noor University was founded. Payame Noor offered distant learning and half-time education. In its early years, it mostly enrolled government employees and professionals. Eventually, however, it opened its doors to other types of students and also, for the first time, enrolled undergraduate students without asking them to take the university entrance examination.

In the following years, an increase in the number of private universities and centers for higher education made higher education much more accessible to students in Iran. In Rouhani’s words, the government managed to almost completely eradicate students’ fear of the undergraduate entrance exam.

Easier access to undergraduate education resulted in students becoming interested in postgraduate education, such as master’s and Ph.D. programs, in hope of finding better jobs and social status. It has gone so far that Rouhani, in a rather critical tone, said: “I will be very happy to hear that we have 40,000 Ph.D. students in Iran. However, let’s look at the famous universities in the world and see how many Ph.D. students each of them have.”

The truth is that the rate of knowledge production in Iran, in case of humanities and social sciences as well as natural sciences, is not compatible with the increase in the number of universities. According to the experts, humanities and social sciences are in a sorry state in Iran. Rouhani believes that political “red lines” that prevent both the students and faculties from expressing their opinions candidly are the reason behind this problem.

Natural sciences are not in a significantly better condition either. There has been a notable rise in the number of Institute for Scientific Education (ISI) articles written by Iranians and Iran currently ranks as No. 18 in the world. However, judging by the number of references made to these articles, it appears that none of them have been deemed useful.

According to the journal Nature, in 2012, among the 39 countries which were actively involved in submission and citation of articles, Iran ranked lower than countries such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Egypt and Turkey.

Based on the regulations of the Ministry of Higher Education, many Iranian professors and students are required to produce and publish scientific and research articles. Prior to the new regulations, master’s degree students’ dissertations were graded not to 20 (total allotted points on the Iranian grading system) but to 18; up to two more possible points were allocated based on the students' research and scientific articles.

Also, a notable portion of the credits that each student needs to be accepted into a Ph.D. program comes from the student’s science and research articles. Therefore, Iranian science and research journals have resorted to charging a fee for publishing articles written by students and professors.

As the result, students and professors publish articles with the aim of receiving credit and not because they believe that the society has any need for what they are publishing. Rouhani also addressed this issue and criticized it by saying that producing articles, without caring whether or not they are useful for society, is pointless.

The desire to produce content under any circumstances to receive points and credit in the academic environment has resulted in numerous institutions offering to help the students, and professors, by writing their articles and dissertations for them. In some cases, these organizations even arrange for articles to be published in science and research journals. Therefore, a large number of dissertations and research articles are not written by students and professors in the university but are instead produced by a trading firm.

Of course, articles and dissertations are not the only things that can be bought. Many universities and centers for higher education enroll students who have not taken entrance exams if they are willing to pay a certain amount of money. It appears, based on the number of advertisements put forth by these types of universities, that higher education has become a money-making business in Iran.

One of the professors in a private university in Mazandaran told Al-Monitor: “In many cases, universities are putting pressure on the professors to not fail the students so that the students would be encouraged to continue their educations and continue paying their fees.

Although Azad University does have an entrance exam, it is constantly trying to increase its own capacity so it can enroll more students and earn more profit. Last year, the head of the Islamic Azad University Center for Entrance Examination announced that the enrollment capacity for master’s degrees has increased by 31%.

Buying and selling academic articles and dissertations, enrolling students without the entrance exam and in exchange for money, and the universities' drifting away from industry and the everyday needs of society all indicate that the growth in the quantity of the universities has been in exchange for a decrease in their quality. It appears that in Iran, higher education and publishing articles have become a matter of gaining prestige and earning credits.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial