Amid Religious Crackdown, Some Iran Academics Hope to One Day 'Approach' 20th Century

Iran's education system was already ailing, but now the supreme leader is ushering in a plan that aims to raise the students' religiosity and curb the consumer culture

"We will no longer be able to correspond using the previous e-mail address. I have begun work at Amirkabir University and I am afraid that the supervision of e-mails will be far more stringent," a lecturer with whom I made contact during the demonstrations after Iran's 2009 elections wrote me recently. "But I hope the new university will have slightly more sophisticated laboratories than the ones I worked in at my previous university. Maybe we will approach the 20th century."

In the past he wrote me about the level of studies at his university and especially the shortage of teaching materials and up-to-date textbooks, as well as the difficulty of staying in touch with new developments in the West. "We try to glean whatever we can from the Internet, but the problem starts much earlier, with high-school students. They don't learn anything - and I'm talking about top students who passed the exams with very high marks," he added.

Nearly 2 million high-school students in Iran must take a special exam if they want to enter university, especially departments such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and medicine. Other "secular" departments such as the social sciences, English and literature are also popular. Students have to answer hundreds of questions within an allotted time and are then classified for one of the 54 government-run universities or 52 medical schools at which studies are free.

Iranian worshippers, perform their Friday prayer, at the Tehran University campus, in Tehran, Iran,

As in other countries, the difficulty of being admitted to university in Iran has given rise to a vast industry: Dozens of private and expensive institutes and hundreds of textbooks are available to prepare students for the exams. Bookstores in Tehran sell workbooks on subjects ranging from English and mathematics to theology. They are packed with thousands of questions and answers based on the actual exam; some of them are published by the very inspectors who mark the test.

Only about 20 percent of the aspirants pass these exams and only 5 percent will be able to study at elite institutions such as the University of Tehran (the only university in Iran on the list of the world's 1,000 best - 899th place - based on the number of publications by its faculty ). Other prestigious institutions include Amirkabir University and Isfahan University of Technology.

Brain drain

Iran is the biggest exporter of brains in the developing world. The government is concerned that despite all the ribbons President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cuts for important projects such as pilotless planes, miniature submarines and new centrifuges, hundreds of thousands of young people are excluded from higher education.

A few years ago, the council responsible for setting the country's education strategy decided to assist outstanding students by providing scholarships; it also allocated more resources for research students and laboratories. But this has not been enough. Iran spends about 25 percent of its budget on education, but most of the money goes toward salaries, buildings and maintenance. Only a small portion is left for research or improving education in general.

The problem will only get worse, not least because Ahmadinejad's government is implementing a new five-year education plan, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's "national pact for education" aims to "raise the students' level of religiosity and morality and curb the consumer culture." The plan calls for the construction of another 1,000 mosques in the schools at all levels and the addition of new religious subjects.

In the early 1980s, Iran underwent an aggressive and violent cultural revolution in which about 200,000 textbooks were replaced within five years and 85 million new textbooks were printed. The Education Ministry again plans to examine and "update" the curricula and textbooks amid findings that there is a gap between young Iranians - about 70 percent of the country's citizens are under 30 - and the generation of the revolutionaries.

"Even though the illiteracy level in Iran fell dramatically - nearly 80 percent of the people can read and write - and despite the equality in education, we are teaching pupils to recite and memorize, not investigate and interpret," a pedagogue said in an interview on Iranian television. (Iran is the first country in the developing world in which girls outnumber boys in the education system, by a ratio of 1.22:1 ).

No jobs

All told, the universities, the 50 colleges and the 40 or so institutes of high technology send some 750,000 graduates per year into the labor force. But only a small percentage find suitable jobs. The Iranian-American researcher Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, who has published several important studies on the young generation in Iran, notes that university graduates sometimes have to wait more than three years to find suitable work.

An Iranian law from 1990 imposes heavy fines for dismissing employees, but amendments to the law make it possible to hire people based on short-term contracts. The result is that employers enjoy cheap labor, and the system makes it difficult for young people who invested long years in studies to build a future and raise a family.

This represents a potential danger for the regime, which is finding it harder to persuade the young generation that the Islamic Revolution benefited the people. This attitude is reflected in Iranian rap lyrics, which give voice to the deep frustration about unemployment and outdated education, as well as displeasure with politicians and the Iranian parliament. It's actually conservative parliamentarians who are not giving Ahmadinejad a free hand to set budgets, are extremely critical of his economic management and have twice rejected his candidate for education minister.

"Ahmadinejad is a passing phenomenon. His term will end in three years and he cannot run again, but the destruction he will leave behind with his new education programs will cost Iran far more than the sanctions being imposed on us by the United States," an Iranian commentator wrote. Perhaps this new generation will be the one that foments the next revolution.