At the end of April Levant Education undertook a mission to Iran with colleagues from Higher Education in Ireland and Canada, in order to assess the education landscape in the country.
Sponsored by University College Cork (Ireland) and University of Alberta in Canada, the mission covered all aspects of education in Iran, including state and private provision, High Schools, Language Schools, Universities and Colleges.
With a young demographic – 40% of the 80 million population of Iran are under 25 – education and training are key aspects of the economic growth promised by presidential candidates in the upcoming election. Incumbent President Rouhani – who has pinned his hopes for growth and re-election on increased economic engagement with the rest of the world – is facing 5 officially approved challengers for the top spot.
The Levant Education mission was the 2nd this academic year – the first one organised with London-based Middle East Association was beset by visa and permission issues. This time there were no such worries, and the delegates enjoyed a packed programme.
Our delegation visited a semi-private university with a national enrolment of 1.6 million students, a vocational college with 478,000 students, and a language school with 2000 teachers! While average incomes and therefore fees are lower than in the West, numbers like that allow for interesting economies of scale.
‘Montaj’ and the importance of international branding
A common theme you encounter in Iran in the importance of international branding and recognition. For many years copies (or ‘montaj’) of international brands were developed, with varying degrees of success or quality. Since the sanctions were partially lifted last year, it has become easier to buy the better quality ‘real thing’, and wealthier Iranians in particular enjoy the social status of driving a BMW, owning an iPhone or wearing European clothing brands.
This desire for international brands is also important in education – although frustrations remain. All teachers of English in Iran crave the CELTA teaching certificate – but with no CELTA courses in Iran, candidates must travel to other countries to take it, for 4 weeks… The course, travel and hotel fees add up to around GBP2000 at least, a huge amount for a teacher, if they can get the time off.
International exams for students are available, but only at a select number of institutions. Centres must be either licensed by IDP (due its political agenda, the British Council is banned in Iran) for IELTS exams, or work with the locally approved Cambridge agent for FCE/CAE/CPE exams. Naturally, established language centres that do not have these licences, for whatever reason, complain about the effect on the playing field for their businesses.
Both state and private universities or colleges are eager for international partners to better commercialise their courses. While many international partnerships have been struck up with Iranian HE providers, the trick seems to be making them last.
Suspension of Belief
With the Presidential election underway, tensions with the Trump government and US/Israeli hawks, US and British support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, and the holy month of Ramadan beginning at the end of May, earlier optimism in Iran discernible in October last year has now wained as people hold their collective breath.
President Rouhani only narrowly won the election last time around, with 51% in the first round. This time he faces competition from moderate progressives and ‘principalists’ – Islamic conservatives.
If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote on May 19th, a second round will follow between the top 2 candidates.