Challenges of Higher Education in Iran

Challenges of Higher Education in Iran

Table of Contents

About this Article

The Transformation of Higher Education in Iran poses a basic question: Why an ancient civilization, like Iran, with a long history of cultural affinity for learning and teaching institutions, was unable to create a system of higher education comparable to those in France or Great Britain? In an attempt to answer this question, the author explores over 100 years of learning institutions in Iran under the Ghaajar and Pahlavi Dynasties and under the Islamic Republic. Aside from a careful examination of the history of higher education in Iran, this article addresses the study abroad programs implemented throughout this period in Iran. Key figures including visionaries, statesmen and educators combined with their achievements and challenges are also presented here. There are several key statistics and graphs about the higher education applicants and the number of attendees that are also edifying. Overall, this article portrays a comprehensive picture of the state of higher education in Iran and the way it was transformed from the turn of the century around 1300.

Higher Education before 2021 (1300)

The formation of higher education in Iran goes back to the academic connection with the West and the migration of Iranian students to foreign countries. The earliest Iranian students studied abroad at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the establishment of the first higher education institutions was achieved with the participation of European professors and with the efforts of those who had studied in Europe themselves.

Formation of Modern Higher Education

Russia’s victory against Iran in two major military wars forced Iranian elites and officials to search for reasons behind Iran’s failure and decline. One of these elite figures was Abbas Mirza, the son of Fath-Ali Shah, the second king of the Qajar dynasty, who believed the root of Iran’s decline was due to lack of knowledge in the fields of science and technology. At that time, Iran had not made any scientific progress in the form of scientific or academic centers, nor technical research and higher education in the modern term. These scientific facilities gradually emerged in Europe since the seventeenth century. However, Iran’s higher education were religious schools and seminaries which were completely unaware of significant change in the world. (Paivandi,2006;Kardan,1957). Comparing Iran’s scientific history with other developing countries raises a question of why despite its historical educational background and libraries, historical observatories, Iran could not establish a university like many other European and American countries, and how Oxford, Cambridge, Tübingen, Harvard and Yale, despite their religious backgrounds, survived during the course of historical events and adapted to today’s world, while Iran was incapable to do so with all that magnificent history of science. Nothing was left for Iran, besides a handful of historical memories and books, so in order to advance in the field of higher education, Iran had to reach out to developed countries. Research in this field shows that Iran’s political, social, and cultural decline began after the Safavid dynasty (Tabatabaei, 2008). Reasons behind this undesirable decline are mostly related to the Mongol invasion of Iran, this event created a situation that philosophy, science, and non-religious science were pushed away, and replaced it with the religious prejudice, religious schools and spending a significant amount of time on discussion about Islamic lessons such as lawful and forbidden laws of jurisprudence. On the other hand, educational and scientific institutions of the west not only transformed themselves and became a part of society, but also actively participated in transforming the social, cultural, and scientific environment.

Formation of Higher Education

The history of modern higher education in Iran began with the establishment of Darolfonoon. This school had military, medical and engineering departments that started their work in 1851. In the first year, a total of 114 students got into Darolfonoon of which 70 students were accepted in the military school, 20 students were accepted in the medical field, and 12 of them got into the engineering field. The first medical professor was Jakob Eduard Polak an Austrian physician who was born to a Jewish family, and played an important role in introducing modern medicine in Iran ( Jakob Eduard Polak, 1818-1891). He was a physician, surgeon, professor of natural science, and a pharmacist who was hired by Darolfonon. In 1845, the Ministry of Science of Iran was established for the first time. When Darolfonoon formed, foreign missionaries came to Iran like Joseph Plumb Cochran, an American physician who is known as a founder of the American Medical Center in Urmia in 1878. This medical center may be considered as the first medical school in Iran in modern times. Medical school students earned a Ph.D. degree in medicine after five years of theoretical and practical training. The School of Political Science was another academic institution that was founded in 1899 by Minister of Foreign Affairs Mirza Nasrullah Khan, and his son Mirza Hassan who was an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mirza Hassan Khan, who joined the Moscow Political and Military School, was ordered by his father to set up a specialized institution to train the needed workforce for the Foreign Ministry. He got approval for his plan from Muzaffar ad-Din Shah, and this institute immediately began to work by accepting 17 students. Located in Tehran’s Chahar-Dange, the first agricultural school in Iran was launched in 1900 called Falahat Mozaffari’s School. The School of Fine Arts was also established on the initiative of Mohammad Ghaffari, better known as Kamal-al-Molk in 1911 AD. This school was only formed to educate and teach painting (Menashri, 1992). Dar al-Moulmein was established as the first school to train elementary school teachers in 1908. This institute had two classes to train primary and secondary school teachers. The task of the first class was to prepare students to teach in elementary schools, which was later replaced by the elementary school, and the function of the upper class was to train teachers for high schools, which were replaced in later years by the university. Nusrat al-Dawla Firoz, Minister of Justice, established the first law school and hired four French teachers within the Ministry of Justice. The school was headed by the French lawyer Francis Adolphe Perny, and Javad Ameri was appointed as the deputy of the school. Applicants for law school had to be fluent in French in addition to their junior high school diploma. Graduates of the Political School and Darolfonoon were among those who could enter Law School. School of business was established in 1925 by the Minister of Public Works at that time. The purpose of establishing a business school under the support of the Ministry of Public Works was to prepare specialists in economics and international trade. In 1927, the two schools of politics and law were merged and established the School of Law and Politics. The School of Commerce was separated from the Ministry of Public Works and worked under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. In 1930, all these three schools merged into the School of Law and Politics and formed the School of Law, Politics and Economics. Another center of higher education was the American College of Tehran, which thanks to American missionaries who beside working at elementary and high school, also allocated part of their activities to university education. The American Samuel Martin Jordan was the director of this educational institution in Tehran from 1908 and ran it for 40 years. During this time, he established the American College in Tehran (1928, 1929) with the support of New York State University. American College did not last long as it was purchased in 1940 and named Alborz High School. Alborz educational activity was limited to the secondary level (Naraghi, 1992). The first higher education institutions in Iran were formed in close interaction with non-Iranian (mainly European) teachers, and their development was mostly the result of personal creativity as well as the need of Iran’s government and military to grow. The lack of a coherent and efficient primary and secondary education systems caused these institutions to take on the role of secondary schools in some cases. The important point in comparison with the academic experience of developed countries was Iran’s lack of practical educational programs and research. The majority of the world’s well-known universities, like Humboldt University in Germany, combined research with teaching, and research had become an important part of academic activities. In fact, these schools in Iran were formed according to the needs of society and the government, and its usefulness was more important. Later, with the establishment of the University of Tehran and research centers, research work gradually became important in Iran.

Expansion of higher education during the Pahlavi era

The Pahlavi dynasty sought to expand higher education to implement Iran’s modernization agenda, therefore, in this era, many students were sent abroad to study. Reza Shah has decided to send about 100 students to Europe per year. These students mainly studied in the field of Medical, Science, and law. According to Ehsan Naraghi, in the first six years, 640 Iranian students were sent to Europe of which seventy-five percent of these students were studying in France (Naraghi, 1992). Along with sending large groups of students to Europe, the establishment of the University of Tehran as the first modern university in 1934 was an important event in the history of higher education in Iran. The discussion about creating a modern university began in the first years of Reza Shah’s reign, and went into effect in 1931. After examining this plan with consultations from people like Isa Sedigh in 1934, it was approved by the National Assembly and it started to work in March 1934 with 1041 students. The University of Tehran, which was established by the merger of different higher Educational schools, initially had six departments: Theology, Natural Science and Mathematical Sciences, Literature and Philosophy and Educational Sciences, Medicine, Law and Political and economic science (Menashri, 1992). One of the important improvements of Tehran University was the establishment of the Department of Theology, which mainly replaced the old style and context of seminaries with a kind of modern academic approach. At the end of Reza Shah’s reign, the number of students at the University of Iran alone was about 2100. During Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign, the new phase of higher education began in Iran. Between the years of 1946 till 1956, five universities were established in major cities of Iran including Tabriz, Shiraz, Mashhad, Isfahan, and Ahvaz. The years between 1946 till 1956 should be named as the era of improvement in higher education in Iran. During this time, Iran was facing an increase of private universities and colleges, which created a kind of competition in Iran’s higher education. The Ministry of Science and Education was established in 1967, and two years later the Central Council of Universities was launched in 1969. These institutes were important steps towards reorganizing and exercising management over universities and higher education establishments. Figures such as Majid Rahnama -the first Minister of Science- played a significant role in discussing the quality of education and boosting the standards of Iranian universities. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi attached great importance to higher education and the quality of universities; as a result, an annual educational conference took place in Ramsar to study the challenges of higher education. Therefore, attention to the quality of education and research became one of the characteristics of Iranian university policies in that era. Lack of research at the university harmed the quality of education and played an important role in the decline of Iran’s higher education and the formation of a knowledge-based economy. Sharif University of Technology, Isfahan University, and Polytechnic University were among the new universities that dedicated great emphasis to research and one of their major plans was to prevent the migration of young Iranian researchers abroad (Menashri, 1992). Another feature in the progress of higher education at the time was the close relationship with higher education institutions in developed industrial countries, especially American universities. After 1953, Iran was witnessing the expansion of educational and scientific relations between Iran and the United States, and some of the important universities of that time were formed based on the American model or cooperated directly with American universities. For instance, the Aryamehr University of Technology in Tehran, (now known as Sharif University of Technology) and the Aryamehr University of Technology in Isfahan, (now known as Isfahan University of Technology)were both established based on the MIT University in the United States. The Ferdowsi University of Mashhad collaborated scientifically and academically with Georgetown University. Ibn Sina University in Hamedan was also established with the help of the French, and the University of Gilan formed with the cooperation of Germans. One of the new research based educational institutions of Iran was the Imperial Medical Center of Iran (Iran University of Medical Sciences and Health Services), which was established in August 1973. At the beginning and in the first phase of its activity (before 1978), this large center was collaborating with famous American universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell, and was designated by the World Health Organization as a library and information center in the greater Eastern Mediterranean region. Besides these universities, there were lots of higher education institutions owned by other ministries or the private sector. After the increase of oil prices in 1974, higher education became free and the government took over the management of some private institutions.

University Exam Entrance, Konkoor, Education in Abroad

There was a new trend growing in Iran which was a huge demand for higher education despite the limited capacity of the university. The economic boom of the 1970s, led to an increase of urbanization and growth of the middle class, and the development of communications led to a sharp increase in demand for higher education. As a result, there was a slight expansion of the secondary school and along with that dramatic increase in the number of graduates which created a situation that more people wanted to achieve higher education each year. The number of Iranian high schools increased two and a half times from 1961 to 1971. Although the number of students increased from about 23,000 in 1961 to about 175,000 in 1978, this increase did not meet the growing demand of Iranian society and economy. The direct consequence of this imbalance between supply and demand in higher education was the growing gap between the capacity of university admissions and the number of applicants for higher education. In 1961, about 36 percent of the volunteers went to university, this rate moved to less than 18 percent in 1973 and 14 percent in 1976. The gap between university applicants and university admissions capacity has become a main social problem over the years. In 1978, about 12 percent of applicants were able to successfully pass the entrance exam. The result of an imbalance between supply and demand in higher education, created nothing but a long line waiting for the university entrance exam. Another consequence of this imbalance was the huge demand for traveling overseas to study at foreign universities.

Iran Cultural Revolution in 1980 and Higher Education

Iran’s revolution in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, brought an end to the historical time of evolution in Iran’s higher education. The Cultural Revolution took place in 1980 and universities were temporarily closed with the aim of Islamizing higher education which was a new chapter in Iranian universities life. The Islamization of universities led to the dismissal of many students and professors who had a different ideology, and changes in the curriculum universities for getting close to seminaries course content, also hiring clerics at university. According to some documents, after the reopening of universities more than 40 percent of the faculty members did not return to work and the number of expelled students exceeds 25,000 ( Paivandi, 2006). Despite these extensive measures, in the first years of the Cultural Revolution and the establishment of several organizations and institutions to implement this project, the discussion of Islamization of universities and humanities is regularly brought up, and every few years universities witness new clashes for resisting pressures in the name of Islamization.

Unclear definition for Islamic University

With the Cultural Revolution, the focus of affiliated institutes was the Islamization of universities, without any plan and specific knowledge of what it means. Those who were involved in the promotion of such changes in universities gradually realized that the Islamization of universities is not practical, and as a result reduced their expectations of the plan. Abdolkarim Soroush, one of the members of the first Cultural Revolution Council, who left the Cultural Revolution and the Islamization project after a short period, in several statements (book Tafraj Sana) openly criticized the Islamization of universities. He considered it mostly a political and ideological project and the efforts of conservative and principlists groups for a “naive and impossible return to the past”. For him, attempts to Islamize universities and humanities was in part due to concerns by those involved in Islamization who feared exposure to such lessons would deviate young Muslim students.

Others with religious beliefs consider the project of Islamization impossible and even harmful, and in their written statements they tried to differentiate between teachings, religious knowledge, academic humanities, and academic theology. Ali Paya, Mostafa Malekian, Gholamabbas Tavassoli, Sadeq Ziba- Kalam, and Susan Shariati are among the prominent figures of this movement who, despite the prevailing atmosphere inside Iran, have openly stated their opposition to the Islamization of the university.

Growth of Iran’s Higher Education

During the time that all the focus was on Islamizing the university, Iran had its significant growth and demand for higher education which came in the seventies and eighties. The number of Iranian students from 1979 to 2014 has soared more than 26 times and from about 175 thousand to about 4.5 million. The annual growth of higher education in Iran, which was about 9 percent in the 1940s and 1950s, continued in the next three decades with almost the same increase rate (11 percent for the 1970s and 9 percent for the 1980s). This remarkable growth is unique in the worldwide arena, causing the number of students per 100,000 population in Iran to increase from 500 in 1978 to 2,500 in 1999 and 5,800 in 2013. In this way, Iran has reached the level of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of the development of higher education.

Graph of admission capacity of universities in comparison with applicants(1961-2014)


According to the statistics, there was a growth rate of (six percent from 1991 to 2011) within the labor market which entirely consisted of people who graduated from university, but the number of graduates in this period had an average growth of 18 percent per year. Therefore, many educated people join the unemployed group every year. The unemployment rate of educated people has spread to many fields such as medicine, agriculture, and engineering, which in the past were so unusual. The official unemployment rate among university graduates is around 30 percent, while the same figure for the uneducated is less than 5 percent.

The Rise of Females in Higher Education institutes

After 1979, one of the most important developments in higher education was the presence of women in universities. Although, gender discrimination and the declining image of women in textbook programs and debates could reduce motivation for girls to study, as well as unfair job opportunities, the growth of girls’ education has not stopped in the years since 1978, and girls have dramatically narrowed the gap with boys. In the entrance exam of public universities, girls, with 52 percent of the admission capacity of students of public higher education institutions in 1999, left the boys behind for the “first time”, and this advantage continued in most tests.


This graph shows the presence of girls in all higher education institutions (Peyvandi, 2000)

(From left to right: all students, science courses, engineering, medical)


The significant improvement of women in higher education had brought a negative reaction from the conservative parties. Following these pressures, the Ministry of Science during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency formally sought to limit the presence of girls in higher education. Determining the quota or gender segregation plan was one of the policies of the Ministry of Science during the time of Kamran Daneshjoo, which was followed by the widespread support of the conservative clergy.

Scientific development of Iranian universities

The topic of Iran’s scientific growth and its position in global research has been widely discussed in the country since the 1980s. Officials mentioned Iran’s position in science internationally, calling it a sign of a success of the government’s research policies. The only reason used to measure “science production” in Iran is the number of articles published in reliable scientific journals. Internationally, this index is used as a measure of scientific progress in many specialized journals along with the number of citations to articles and authors and some other indicators such as the relationship between research and the world of production and innovation due to its ease of calculation. However, in a closer view, measuring the scientific progress and contribution of each country is a very difficult and even impossible task. Iran’s dramatic growth in the publication of scientific articles is a fact that has been mentioned in international studies. This growth is particularly prominent in Iran’s previous situation. In fact, Iran has entered a period of rapid scientific growth after the Cultural Revolution of the 1980s. According to Science Matrix, the number of Iranian scientific articles never exceeded 100 in 2006, Now is 700 in 1995, 1100 in 2000, about 7000 in 2005. And reached more than 10 thousand in 2008 and more than 24 thousand in 2013. The average growth rate of Iranian scientific articles for the period 1995 to 2013 is about 20 percent, while at the international level this figure is a little more than one percent. Among countries of the world, Iran, Turkey, and South Korea have the highest growth in article printing per year, and Iran is ranked 17th. Among the emerging countries, it’s worth mentioning that China has a new position, which will be able to overtake the United States in terms of publishing articles before 2020. Iran’s share in the total number of published articles or the number of citations compared to other countries is still very small and insignificant and does not exceed one and a half percent of the total number of published articles or half a percent of the number of citations globally.


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Dr. Saeed Peyvandi holds a B.A. and M.A. in sociology from the University of Tehran and a doctorate in sociology and educational sciences from University of Paris. He is a professor at the University of Laurent and the academic director of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (Iran Academy). 

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