Iran’s education sector will be key to its ambitions of renewed economic and societal development as the nation emerges from global sanctions. With the second-largest population in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic holds tremendous potential reserves of human capital. The government has made expanding university access a priority, and enrollment rates have risen dramatically over the past decade; today, there are more than 4.5 million Iranians enrolled in higher education, with rates of growth within STEM fields particularly high. Moving forward, agreements with international institutions are expected to grow as Iran rejoins the global economy, which should increase knowledge transfers and further the growth of the country’s educational output.
Centers of education in what is now Iran date back to ancient times, but the modern education system can be traced back to the early 20th century. Nine years of education is compulsory for all Iranians, with both free public and private options available for both sexes. High schools are generally specialized, with students focusing on either vocational or academic programs. Primary and secondary enrollment numbers are well above regional averages, with UNESCO reporting that 99.1% of all Iranians were enrolled in elementary-level schools and 89% in secondary schools; in comparison, Pakistan had 44% enrollment at the secondary school level. As a result, literacy rates have long been strong, especially in younger generations; UNESCO reported an 84.6% literacy rate in 2013, just below the 85% global rate and above the 78% rate in the Arab region. Promisingly for the future of the country, increased investment in education has raised this figure to 98% among 15-24 year olds, a good indicator of the core level of human capital being met for the future.
The Iranian higher education system was slow to develop, and the University of Tehran was its only modern university into the early 1940s. However, high levels of investment in the mid 20th century led to new development and a wave of schools modeled after Western institutions. The nation’s schools closed briefly in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, but growth continued throughout the end of the 20th century. New institutions in previously underdeveloped parts of Iran increased access to higher education and led to a significant increase in enrollment; between 1991 and 2015 higher education enrollment rose from just over 500,000 to 4.5 million. Iran has both public and private universities, with the majority of Iranians enrolled in private schools that are branches of Islamic Azad University, which is one of the world’s largest private institutions. State-owned schools have tuition subsidized by the government and are thus inexpensive for Iranian citizens but competitive to get into. To meet increased demand, the number of private universities has risen significantly in recent years and the sector has seen the arrival of online distance leaning institutions. Today, there are more private universities than public ones, which was not the case as recently as 2005.
The rise in university enrollment and access has given rise to a new optimism about the future of the country, but the education sector still has its share of issues to work through. The rise in private institutions. Iran’s government allotted 11.5% of its budget to the Education Ministry, up from previous years but well below comparable countries. Expenditure on education has also hovered at roughly 1.5% of GDP in recent years, below the OECD average of 5%. This looks likely to change in the near future as the Iranian government’s 20-year vision calls for expenditure equal to 7% of GDP by 2025, and meeting this would go a ways toward increasing funding. The population boom that has international observers optimistic about Iran’s economic potential has also stretched resources, with average pupil spending less than one-tenth of the OECD average and teacher incomes similarly low.
Still, things are looking up. No longer constrained by international sanctions, Iranian higher education institutions are aggressively forming new partnerships with foreign schools to build the skills the country will need. In the first months of 2016, Iranian universities signed research agreements with leading French, Swiss, and Armenian universities that created avenues for new technical collaboration and exchange programs that will allow Iranian students to study and conduct research abroad. The return of these exchange programs, which are primarily focused on postgraduate studies, are less immediately apparent on the Iranian economy than the return of oil exports, but they are no less important to the long-term future of the country.