Mohammad Bathaei, Iran’s controversial education minister, can finally claim some victory in gathering bipartisan support for his campaign against the country’s educational book publishers. During his two years in office, the 55-year-old former teacher has managed to ban supplementary books from schools, claiming that they are “detrimental” to the school curriculum. These books are one of the main sources of income for private educational book publishers.
Bathaei also announced, on Jan. 2, the partial end of "the konkur," Iran’s highly competitive national university entrance exam. This, too, will deliver another blow to the publishers who earn millions in test preparations for the multiple-choice exam that is taken by millions of high school graduates every year, after intense preparations.
Bathaei’s battle against homework at schools is another blow. In Iran's elementary and secondary schools, most of the homework is assigned from — and solved with the help of — supplementary textbooks rather than official textbooks. Banning homework — as Bathaei did in September 2018 — means that these textbooks will no longer be necessary, depriving private book publishers from another chunk of their revenues.
Ironically, the most vocal reaction to the homework ban has not come from the educational book publishers but from Grand Ayatollah Jabar Sobhani. "This is not a correct measure, and a student should not be set loose after school … their brains should exercise by doing homework," Sobhani was quoted as saying in the local media in mid-December.
Sobhani went as far as saying that banning homework was “against the Quran” and the lifestyle of the ulema, those educated in religious law. He called upon the education minister to “readdress” the issue and overrule the decision. “Students should be asked to do homework like in the past," he said.
The ayatollah's strong statement immediately got the attention of the media that noticed the disagreements between Bathaei and Sobhani. Media reports revealed that Sobhani had criticized Bathaei in a meeting with the Cultural Association of Educational Publications.
The ayatollah's support backfired, however. Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, a senior cleric, told Reformist Entekhab news site Dec. 15, "We cannot refer to the Quran to [claim] the necessity of homework. This is not related to the Quran. The only nightly homework in the Quran is praying."
On social networks, Iranian users created the hashtag #homework in Farsi to express their views. Media activist Ali Akrami boldly tweeted on Dec. 13 that the ayatollah had been under the influence of publishers, not the Quran, to make such a statement: "The managers of [educational book publishers] such as Gaj and Ghalamchi visited the grand ayatollah to get this fatwa [religious edict] that banning homework is against the Quran."
Gaj and Ghalamchi, two most powerful private educational institutions in Iran, offer a wide range of educational products and services that range from supplementary textbooks to biweekly exams and personal tutoring for those who are competing for university seats.
Their roles have been challenged by Bathaei ever since he became minister in 2017. At a press conference on Aug. 26, 2018, he referred to the supplementary textbooks as detrimental to the school curriculum and said that they must be removed from all schools starting with the country's elementary schools.
In early January, Bathaei commented on the konkur, writing on this Twitter account with the hashtag #goodbyekonkur, “Students can gain admission to 85% of the fields of study at universities without needing to take part in the difficult exam and undergo intense stress, solely based on their educational backgrounds."
It is yet to be seen whether this can lead to the complete end of the national exam and what the new system will be. Ahmad Hajforoush, an independent researcher on education, wrote on Khabar Online Jan. 19 that "the 85% open seats" are for unpopular subjects and academies and had been announced before, implying that students who seek admission to the top universities would stil have to take the konkur.
Bathaei blames the "Konkur Mafia" for being behind the resistance against all his actions, because with homework and the konkur exam gone both teachers and students will use less supplementary textbooks and publishers will lose revenues.
Supplementary textbooks are a major market in Iran. According to Fars News Agency and Khaneh Ketab (Book House), a nonprofit organization that releases a wide range of statistics on published books in Iran, of the total of 6,961 books published in September 2018, textbooks topped all other topics by 1,701 books. In addition, Khorasan newspaper reported that 200 million books were published in 2018 and more than 22 million were textbooks.
According to the former chairman of Iran's Islamic Azad University, Farhad Rahbar, there is an 80-trillion-rial industry ($1.9 billion) benefitting from the konkur. Therefore, he said, "those who benefit from it would do anything to keep the exam in place."
However, it looks like the education minister's campaign has been victorious so far, as confirmed by the publishers themselves. In October 2018, Gaj publishers laid off 500 people, announcing that more layoffs could be imminent if the publishing business diminished further.
The campaign against the educational book publications has become bipartisan. Hard-line Javan newspaper wrote on Dec. 15 that the "Destructive Mafia” had taken advantage of grand ayatollahs, warning them that "the Qom ayatollah should be careful so that 'the Konkur Mafia' does not exploit the legitimacy of grand ayatollahs for their own interests."
The next battleground may be the advertisements by the publishers on state TV, which the critics say persuade Iranian families to be "deceived" into believing that they are jeopardizing their children’s education if they do not use the supplementary textbooks and educational tools proposed. Gholam Reza Kateb, a conservative member of parliament, revealed in August 2018 that "one of the educational groups has paid 320 billion rial [$7.6 million] to state TV in return for broadcasting its ads for one month."
A report published on moderate Khabar Online in October said that the educational book publishers pay 500 trillion rial ($119 million) for special shows on state TV in connection to the konkur.
On Jan. 1, Bathaei stated that he had written a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei concerning the rampant educational ads on state TV and received a positive answer. Subsequently, state TV announced that it has decreased the broadcast of such ads by 50%.
It looks like Bathaei has won the war against the educational book publications by a partial ban of the konkur and abolishing homework. The sector, in turn, may resort to lobbying in parliament, persuading a number of parliamentarians to act against the minister, which, even if successful, would not change the decision that has been taken.
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