After years of concerted effort and focused policy initiatives, the last decade has witnessed significant progress in a number of key educational arenas across Iran. Investments in private universities focused on distance and part-time learning and vocational schools have begun reaping rewards, providing education opportunities for portions of society traditionally underserved or totally neglected. Iran now boasts some the largest percentages of college graduates in the Middle East.
Thanks to clearly stated policy goals and a commitment to change, Iranian institutions, both public and private, have succeeded in transforming a disappointing and frustrating system into a high-quality and multifaceted structure that prepares young Iranians for the demands of a 21st century economy and consistently produces some of the best outcomes in the region. According to the Washington Post, as recently as 10 years ago the Iranian education system was overburdened and underfunded, consistently failing to provide students with the skills and education they needed to succeed; in the mid 2000s, fewer than 50% of 14 to 17-year-olds were in the proper high school grade and more than 2.4 million students who should have been enrolled in high school were missing from the system entirely. Frustrated by a highly competitive higher education system that accepted only a small fraction of students, many young Iranians decided their efforts would be better spent bypassing the ivory tower and jumping directly into the workforce, according to the Post.
In recent years, however, there has been a renaissance in educational institutions, particularly fee-based private universities that allow admission to anyone willing and able to pay. By opening higher education to a larger portion of the Iranian population, more Iranians than ever before are receiving bachelor’s degrees. This is having ripple effects, particularly in secondary education where students, their optimism buoyed by increased access to higher education, are staying in school; according to the government, enrollment rates for high school are at historic highs, approaching 94% for 7th through 9th grades and 82% for 10th through 12th grades.
University education has not proven to be a silver bullet for all issues, however. Since the economy has, in some cases, not remained abreast of developments in education, there is a dearth of degree holders and a want of jobs requiring those degrees. According to a 2013 study by Brandeis University, the unemployment rate for university students was nearly 20%, substantially higher than the unemployment rate for less educated workers. Business and education leaders hope to correct this is by re-focusing the economy toward highly skilled industries based at home. In a recent interview with TBY, Dr. Hamid Reza Tayebi, President of the Academic Center for Education, Culture and Research (ACECR), explained his vision for the future: “At this stage, most of our production should be based on science and technology. We can have cooperation with other countries, but we cannot rely on imports without transferring knowledge and technology. If this happens, we can generate plenty of jobs for this qualified young generation of university graduates.”
Top-tier universities in Iran are taking steps to ensure their graduates have as smooth a transition into the workforce as possible. By designing career training and job skills programs that focus on immediate employment, university administrations seek to funnel their students directly into high-quality jobs. “We make sure our students find a job through two channels: the office of industrial relations and the alumni association,” said Dr. Mahmoud Fotuhi-Firuzabad, President of Shariff University of Technology. “Moreover, Sharif Careers School, which was launched two years ago, aims to give students soft skills, which will make them more suited to employment post-graduation.”
While progress has been made in pre-primary education, there is still room for improvement. According to the most recent data from the UNESCO and Iran’s Ministry of Education, enrollment rates for pre-primary students increased from 29.3% in 2000 to 70% in 2006, but then dropped to 55% in 2013. Enrollment rate progress in rural areas was slightly more stable, with rates improving from 9.8% in 2000 to 52.8% in 2006 and then falling to 49.6% in 2013. Much of this decline is attributed to the government’s decision to close public education centers focused on these young learners. Sustained progress was made in the student/teacher ratio, however, and the most recently recorded ratio of one teacher to 21 students marked a significant improvement from a ratio of 1-25 in 2001.
Primary, junior high, and high school education
In 2012 the primary education system was expanded from five years to six years, and this education is compulsory and free. More consistent progress has been made in primary education than pre-primary; between 2000 and 2014 enrollment in first grade increased from 95.9% to 98.6%, though there is a 2% gender disparity, which favors boys, in rural areas. Additionally, retention rates for primary schoolers (grades 1-5) increased; between 2000 and 2013 retention rates for boys grew from 89.2% to 94.5% for boys and 88.4% to 94.7% for girls. In order to be considered sufficiently qualified to teach primary school, teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, and in 2013 41.8% of teachers held such degrees. Amongst junior high schools, enrollment rates increased from 78.4% to 90.6% between 2000 and 2011. Transition rates from primary school to junior high have also been on the rise, improving from 91.8% in 2000 to 95.7% in 2013. Strides toward gender parity have also been made, and the percentage of girls enrolled in junior high has grown from 45.3% in 2000 to 47.7% in 2013. Though progress is being made, certain challenges remain, such as the decline of boarding schools and central rural schools in areas with poor access to education infrastructure. Transition rates from junior high to high school have fallen somewhat, dropping from 96% to 92% between 2000 and 2013, though girls enjoy higher rates than boys.
Vocational schools and non-traditional learning
Vocational and life-skills education is provided by the government and the private sphere; formal training is provided by the Ministry of Education in a number of venues and non-formal education is directed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Technical-Vocational Training, and private providers. In 2009, 29% of students enrolled in secondary schools were studying in technical-vocational and work-knowledge programs, but by 2013 this figure had increased to 41.5%. According to the government, the Department of Technical-Vocational Training has provided over 7 million people with some form of training, and women have come to represent a sizable majority of those participating, at roughly 62%. For much of the Iranian population, vocational and skills-based training is an attractive route because it allows for almost immediate entry into the job market.