Health & Education
Going the Distance
Granting widespread access to education has been one of the Islamic Republic’s greatest achievements since the Revolution—Iran has extended educational opportunities to a demographic often overlooked by developing nations: rural women and families. However, a growing population of young people is facing tough competition when it comes to passing university entrance exams, and to accommodate the overflow of high-school graduates seeking higher education, new vocational routes have opened up for young men and women who seek to develop career skills. In 2012, the Ministry of Education is seeking to further level out the country’s education imbalances by implementing an affirmative action plan to boost the number of male graduates.
According to the government, over 95% of Iranian children currently receive primary and secondary education at public schools, all of which are single sex. There are over 113,000 public elementary and high schools throughout Iran, with over 18 million children enrolled. It is estimated that there are almost 1 million teachers in the education system. This workforce has enhanced the country’s literacy rate, which weighed in at 85% for adults and 99% for youths in 2010, compared to 65% and 87%, respectively, in 1990.
Iran’s universities were educating over 4.5 million students in 2012, out of the total 75 million people living in the country. Of these students, the majority choose to study humanities (40%), engineering (20%), or medical sciences (16%). Students pursuing work in the energy or telecommunications sectors tend to study and work abroad if not accepted into one of Iran’s top public universities.
On average, the Iranian government has allocated approximately 20% of its expenditures toward education on a yearly basis, which has roughly reflected 5% of GDP. As one of the highest figures in the region, it is unsurprising that Iran has nearly doubled enrollment numbers in the past two decades.
Although over 1 million students graduate from high school annually, only 10%-15% are able to pass the university entrance exam, granting access to one of the nation’s highly selective public institutions. To accommodate the incoming classes, the country boasts more than 80 state and technical universities, 28 of which are medical schools. However, the bulging number of young people and the shortage of places in public schools has sparked the establishment of more than 25 private universities, which require separate, less stringent exams for entry, and charge tuition and fees. The Iranian government has also pursued distance education as a means to fulfill the growing demand for education in the country.
As the world’s second largest university, Azad Islamic has stepped up to fill the gap in demand from students left in the wake of the annual exam, accepting hundreds of thousands of students each year. Established in 1982, the school currently has over 46,000 staff members and 1.5 million students enrolled in its programs, many of them eager to pursue an advanced degree and secure a position in the country’s competitive job market. The university’s 400 branches are located in the many regions of Iran, granting access to higher education to rural communities and deterring students from moving to major cities or seeking schooling abroad.
FOCUS ON HEALTH
In the years following the Revolution, Iranian medical professionals began to encourage students to study in the healthcare field, aiming to boost the number of graduates at a rapid pace. This has led to the integration of medical education and institutions offering health services. In addition, a number of the best medical universities in Iran have shifted to focus on developing research centers and exchanging know how with similar schools in the Americas and Europe.
Although cultural differences and language barriers have long presented an issue for medical education in Iran, universities such as Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences have overcome the challenges to attract 10,000 students from a variety of backgrounds and 1,250 local and international professors. The school is rapidly expanding to provide education in 12 teaching hospitals and 48 research centers around the country. “With the speed of development we are going through, within the next few years many Iranian universities and centers will be ranked among the top education and health institutions in the world,” Dr. Hassan Abolghasemi, Chancellor of Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, said to TBY. The school has also sought to export the talent of its students, preparing them with the appropriate expertise to succeed in the international arena and encouraging them to study abroad. “We opened up room for fellowships and sub-specialties so external students can gain skills,” Dr. Abolghasemi said. These initiatives are being carried out as part of the government’s 2025 development plan, which specifies a series of criteria for universities of every specialization.
Iran’s best technological schools are seeing an increased demand in engineering and physical sciences, and the number of international students arriving in the country to study technology is also growing. Focused on the education and application of the latest technology, universities are also seeking ways to expand learning outside of the classroom and beyond Iran’s borders.
With 11,000 students and 400 professors, Sharif University of Technology has been one of the country’s leading technical institutes since its establishment in 1966. Famous for its engineering faculty, the university has been attracting a number of international students and staff members over the years, many of them going on to pursue higher degrees or launch their own enterprise.
Reza Roostaazad, President of Sharif University of Technology, attributes the success of his students to their ability to network. “In order to establish an enterprise, entrepreneurs need to have a solid network to support them, and companies require trust and familiarity. From this point of view, the four years of education we offer can be a valuable asset,” he explained to TBY. Beyond the education that Sharif University of Technology offers, financial options for startups such as loans are often disbursed to graduates as they seek to establish new companies.
In line with the technological viewpoint of the school, Sharif University is seeking to offer an open course remote e-learning system. Although the school envisions an innovative approach to educating students in a range of countries learning about a number of industries, Sharif University is not alone; government-run Payame Noor University has been providing distance-learning options to cover the demand from students not skilled enough to pass the national entrance exam since 1987. With the motto, “Education for all, everywhere and every time,” the school was the first of its kind in Iran. With advantages such as student-centered teaching, the potential for in-depth and independent study, comprehensive coverage of the country, and courses in less time at lower costs, distance learning presents a new system that could transcend traditional methods and add yet another strength to Iran’s steadily improving education system.