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Enrolled with the Future

Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, successive Iranian governments have expanded the higher education sector in the country. According to the latest statistics, Iran has approximately 4.5 million students, 57% of which are women. However, gross enrollment rates show that currently 58% of Iranians aged 18-24 are enrolled in Iranian universities, very near the target of 60% for 2025.

The most recent UNESCO reports suggest that enrollment at Iranian universities has more than doubled over the last decade. During this time, an increase in the number of private universities and education centers made higher education more accessible to Iranian students. Consequently, easier access to undergraduate education resulted in students becoming interested in postgraduate education, such as master’s and PhD programs.
Following this trend, Iranian universities have already set up an array of education agreements following the JCPOA to develop the postgraduate infrastructure through international cooperation. Reputable European institutions, such as France’s École Polytechnique or the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, have signed agreements with Iranian education centers. Most of these are expected to initiate exchange programs, allowing undergraduate students to engage in a year of studies abroad or to complete a portion of master’s or doctoral programs abroad. However, these initiatives could also pave the way for an incremental joint investment between Iranian universities and foreign stakeholders, a formula that has already become common in the Persian Gulf countries.

An example of the reconnection of Iranian universities to the international academia is Sharif University of Technology, which has set up joint degree programs with Hong Kong University and the University of Grenoble, among others. Considered to offer one of the best undergraduate electrical-engineering programs in the world, Sharif University competes with top international institutions such as MIT, Stanford, and Cambridge University.

Iranian students can also attend one of the nearly 400 campuses of Islamic Azad University, billed as the world’s third-largest university by enrollment with a reported USD200 billion in assets. In 2015, Azad University increased its enrollment capacity for master’s degrees by 31%. Moreover, growth in the private and fee-based public sectors of higher education has been fueled by the unprecedented expansion of distance-learning and part-time universities. In its early years, Payame Noor University mostly enrolled government employees and professionals seeking postgraduate diplomas in order to boost their careers.

Western tech companies have also started snatching up Iranian graduates. Silicon Valley companies from Google to Yahoo now employ hundreds of Iranian graduates, as do research institutes throughout Europe. Furthermore, universities across Canada and Australia report a big boom in Iranian recruits. This boon for foreign universities and tech firms represents a serious source of brain drain for the Islamic republic. As historically, Iranians have had a long tradition of pursuing higher education outside of the country, exchange programs seem to be the panacea to cater to students’ desire of going abroad, and may perhaps reduce the potential for advanced students to leave the country and never come back.

This reality has shown Iranian policymakers the necessity to address the needs for expansion and cultivated a strong push to internationalize Iran’s research centers and to foster cooperation with other institutions both in the region and beyond. In this line, 141 scientific projects are jointly conducted by Iranian centers and renowned universities of the world, involving 400 professors. The improving diplomatic situation has already increased interest in institutional partnerships between Iran and the West, but there is still a long way to go. The lifting of sanctions and the potential for foreign direct investment or other forms of cooperative efforts in the development of the education sector make the goal of creating a knowledge-based country more attainable. While pursuing this objective, universities could be the driving force of Iran’s Vision 2025.

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