In this article, we offer an introduction to the education system of Iran, with insight on how best to evaluate common academic credentials from both the secondary and tertiary levels.
More than 38,000 Iranian students were studying abroad in 2010, according to government figures, published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). The 2010 total represents a 42.5 increase in the number of internationally mobile Iranian students versus 2008 when there were just under 27,000 students at overseas institutions of higher education.
With ever-increasing competition for limited university places in Iran, for those families with the means to support an overseas education, studying abroad is an appealing option in a country where holding a prestigious degree is highly regarded. Overseas students also provide an important link for Iran with the outside world, which continues to tighten sanctions on the increasingly isolated ruling regime. And Iranian students have continued to go overseas even as relations between Iran and many host countries have deteriorated.
Nonetheless, the future of international academic mobility among Iranians seems uncertain in the face of sanctions that have cut hard currency earnings from oil exports significantly. In a bid to help maintain its foreign exchange reserves, the government announced in September that a majority of students abroad would no longer be able to buy U.S. dollars at the subsidized government “reference” rate of 12,260 rials, forcing them to buy in the open market where it costs approximately 34,000 rials to buy a dollar. This has essentially tripled the cost of studying overseas, which has made the cost of a foreign degree prohibitively expensive for those families without hard currency savings.
In the United States, the number of Iranian students over the years has fluctuated from as many as 51,310 in 1979/80, when Iran was the leading place of origin, to 1,844 in 2000/01. Clearly political relations have a huge role to play in where and why Iranian students study abroad, and while recent years have seen a resurgence in the number of Iranians studying in the United States, recently escalating tension between the two countries look likely to put a damper on the outward movement of Iranian students to the United States.
The vast majority of Iranian students in the United States are studying at the graduate level.
In response to the currency issues currently facing Iranian students abroad, and in the United States specifically, the Institute of International Education (IIE) recently announced the launch of a new Emergency Student Fund (ESF) to assist students from Iran on U.S. campuses with urgent financial need. In partnership with the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), funding of $100,000 has been made available to meet immediate needs for the spring 2013 semester.
IIE is issuing a call for nominations from U.S. colleges and universities that currently have students from Iran enrolled on their campuses who have emergency needs for funds to continue their studies so that their academic careers are not interrupted as a result of the financial situation in their home country. Visit the Iran-ESF web page for more information and to download the nomination form.
Policy, Administration, Funding and Regulation
The central government is responsible for the financing and administration of elementary and secondary education through the Ministry of Education. At the local level, education is supervised through the provincial authorities and the district offices.
The Ministry of Education supervises national examinations, monitors standards, organizes teacher training, develops curricula and educational materials, and builds and maintains schools.
The Supreme Council of Education is the legislative body that approves all education-related policies and regulations.
Private schools (non-profit) are partially government funded and operate under the supervision of the Ministry of Education.
Compulsory education lasts until grade 8, and public education is free. The basic education cycle is divided into a five-year primary education cycle (dabestan) and a three-year lower secondary, or guidance, cycle (doreh-e rahnama-ii).
At the primary level, students undertake 24 teaching hours per week. The curriculum covers Islamic studies, Persian studies– reading, writing and comprehension — social studies, mathematics and science.
At the guidance level, students undertake 28–31 teaching hours per week. There is a national curriculum that is uniform for all schools, and subjects covered are much the same as at the primary level. The guidance cycle prepares students for either academic or vocational/technical studies.
Students take exit examinations at the end of grades 5 and 8. Students who fail have to repeat and may take the examination again the following year. If students fail a second time, they must either undertake basic vocational training or seek employment. The examinations are held in June at the end of each academic year and they are conducted by provincial education authorities. Successful students are awarded a Certificate of General Education.
Depending on grades achieved in the relevant subjects at the end of grade 8, students are eligible to continue their education in the academic or vocational/technical branches of the secondary cycle.
The gross enrollment ratio at the primary level in Iran in 2010 was 115 percent, meaning that not only are students of primary age enrolling at very high levels (99.75 percent in 2011), but so are overage students who did not enroll in first grade at the age of six. This statistic suggests that literacy rates in Iran at all levels will continue rising from current levels of 98.7 percent among 15-24 year-olds and 85 percent among the general population over 15 years of age. The net survival rate to the end of grade 5 is 98.1 percent (percentage of relevant age group finishing grade 5).
Overall secondary enrollment rates in Iran are high relative to many other countries at similar levels of development, with 97 percent of students transitioning from primary to secondary education in 2010, according to the UIS, and an overall enrollment rate of 86 percent at the secondary level. Iran’s secondary enrollment rate compares to a regional average of 62 percent. The gross graduation rate at the lower secondary level is 80 percent among all students, but the number is much higher for females (91 percent) than for males (70 percent).
Upper Secondary (Dabirestan)
Upper secondary education is three years in length, and requires the completion of 90-96 credits (30 credits a year.) One credit is generally equivalent to 30 academic (50 minute) hours, and students undertake 30-32 teaching hours per week.
Students are streamed into three 3-year branches: Academic (Nazari), technical (Fani Herfei), and vocational/skills (Kar-danesh). A student’s stream is dependent primarily on his or her examination results at the end of the lower secondary cycle (grade 8), and to a lesser extent student preference. The academic stream has traditionally been the most popular.
During the first two years, students in the academic and technical branches follow a common curriculum (although load varies slightly by branch) with the third year focusing on a specialized curriculum.
Students in the academic branch follow one of four streams in the third year of upper secondary: Humanities & literature, mathematics & physics, experimental sciences, or Islamic theology (and formerly a socio-economic stream.)
Students in the technical stream follow one of three specializations: Technical (industry), business & vocational (service industry), or agriculture.
Assessment is based on final examinations and continuous assessment in all three years of the upper secondary cycle. Examinations are held twice a year, but by far the most important is the final examination.
Students from the academic and technical streams are awarded the Diplom-e Motevaseteh (Certificate of Completion of Secondary School Studies) upon successful completion of studies and after passing the national examination (grade 11.) Graduates can go on to the final pre-university year of schooling or employment.
The skills or vocational stream leads to the award of a certificate in the trade/profession studied. A First Class Technician’s Certificate is awarded to students that complete 48 credits in their area of specialization, and a Second Class Technician’s Certificate to those that complete 32 credits.
Some students also undertake a five-year Integrated Associate Diploma at this level.
Upper secondary education is not compulsory, but is free at public schools.
Pre-University Year (Pish-Daneshgahi)
Fully implemented in 2004, the pre-university year is for students intending to take the university entrance examinations, or Konkur. Students specialize in a specific field of study (math, experimental sciences, humanities, art or Islamic culture) and must complete a minimum of 24 units of study, eight of which are compulsory.
Students are taught at pre-university centers administered by the Ministry of Education. They are graded by continuous assessment and by final examination (accounting for 75 percent of the overall grade.) Successful students are awarded the Pre-University Certificate and entitled to sit for the Konkur for university admission.
Entry to Iran’s public universities is based on the very competitive University Entrance Examination known as the Konkur or Concours. Taking place in June every year, the exam weeds out almost 90 percent of candidates for public universities, with just 10 percent of approximately 1.5 million test-takers finding a spot at one. All private universities, other than Islamic Azad University, also use this examination for admission purposes.
Despite the government’s efforts to increase capacity by enlarging existing universities, it struggles to get ahead of rapidly increasing demand.
Almost 60 percent of accepted applicants in recent years have been women, with tertiary participation rates among women doubling over the last two decades.
Islamic Azad University (IAU), the country’s largest university administers its own entrance exam, which is very similar to the Konkur. IAU, which charges tuition fees and enrolls over 1.6 million students at its campuses around the country, is not nearly as competitive to get into as public universities.
The Konkur itself is a 4.5-hour multiple-choice comprehensive examination that tests student knowledge in Persian language and literature, history, a foreign language and mathematics. Those that fail are allowed to repeat until they pass. Top students usually go into engineering and medical fields.
Associate degree programs do not require the Konkur examination for admission, but some do use a separate entrance examination. There is a separate Konkur examination for entry into graduate programs.
Given the competitive nature of the examination, a cram industry providing exam-preparation classes thrives in Iran, giving rise to widespread criticism of the examination and its negative impact on school instruction, the last year of which is essentially focused on taking and passing the exam. As a result, authorities continue to look at reforming the system with one option under consideration being the use of a cumulative grade point average of the final three years of secondary school.
Types of Higher Education Institutions
All institutions of higher education, except medical institutions are under the supervision of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. Medical universities are supervised by the Ministry of Health, Treatment and Medical Education.
Higher education is offered at the following types of institutions:
- Specialized (fine arts, engineering, medicine)
- Comprehensive Technology (applied sciences)
- Payam-e Noor University (distance learning)
- Teacher Training Colleges
- Higher Education Institutes (non-university)
- Technical Institutes
All universities were closed between 1980 and 1983 while the curriculum was being revised and the system became nationalized. In 1988, non-profit private universities were allowed to apply for charters to operate. Payam-e-Nour University began operations that year as the country’s first distance education provider.
In 2009, there were 103 universities operating in Iran, and a total tertiary student body of 3,350,000 students, 51 percent of whom were attending a private institution. The vast majority of students in the private sector attend the Islamic Azad University (IAU).
Established in 1981 (although not formerly recognized until later), IAU is the country’s largest institution with over 1.6 million students. It was established in response to unmet and escalating demand for higher education. It currently has international branches in Dubai, Lebanon, Oxford, Afghanistan, Tanzania and Armenia, in addition to some 350 campuses across Iran. The institution has its own entrance examination, enrolling 50 percent of its students in the humanities. Other prominent private universities include Shahrood University of Medical Sciences and Qom University. There were a total of 29 private universities in 2009.
All programs at private universities must be approved by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution and recognized by the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology.
Universities are composed of largely autonomous faculties (daneshkadeh). The vast majority of programs at private institutions are at the undergraduate level, with just 5 percent offered at the graduate level and very few offering Ph.D. programs. Public institutions enroll approximately 10 percent at the graduate level.
The University of Tehran is ranked by the Academic Ranking of World Universities as one of the top 400 universities in the world (301-400). It is the only Iranian university to make the top 500. Sharif University of Technology has appeared on the list in previous years and is ranked by Times Higher Education as among the top 350 universities in the world (301-350).
Higher education institutes were mostly upgraded to universities in the 1980s and 1990s. Most remaining institutes are generally private and located in smaller cities or regional centers. Most do not offer graduate programs.
Quality assurance of higher education institutions comes under the auspices of the Supervision Council and the Evaluation Department of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology.
Higher Education Programs and Qualifications
Associate Degree (Kardani – formerly Fogh Diplom)
Kardani programs are offered as either five-year integrated secondary and tertiary programs or as two- to three-year postsecondary qualifications.
Entry to integrated associate degrees is based on the successful completion of basic education (grade 8). The program consists of three years of secondary education in the vocational/technical stream followed by two years at a college or institute of higher education. Students that complete the first three years of the program and chose not to continue, graduate with a Technical High School Diploma. Those that complete the five-year program can, if they choose, gain advanced standing into a bachelor program at a university of technology (typically the third year).
Entry from secondary school is based on the completion of upper secondary (grade 11) and in some instances the passing of an entrance examination. Kardani programs require the completion of 72-78 credits for graduation, with one credit being equal to a 45/50-minute class over one semester.
Previously known as the Licence, the Karshenasi requires between 140 and 146 credits at a university or other institution of higher education, and a minimum of four years of full-time study. Students must achieve a minimum grade point average of 12 out of 20 for the award of the degree.
Undergraduate curricula offer a wide range of general education and elective courses along with the degree specialization, which typically is concentrated in the last two years of the program.
Dentistry, pharmacy and veterinary degrees require six years of full-time study. Medical degrees require seven years.
Degrees awarded after a two-year program following an associate degree are known as Karshenasi napayvasteh (non-continuous degree.)
Master (Karshenasi Arshad)
Previously known as Fogh Licence or Fogh Lisans, the Karshenasi Arshad requires the completion of 30 to 45 credits, with an overall GPA of 14/20 or better and the completion of a thesis. Programs are typically two years in length.
Continuous master degrees in professional fields lead to the award of Karshenasi-Arshad Payvesteh. Professional degrees require between 190 and 290 credits, or five to seven years of study, depending on the major, in addition to a thesis. Medicine requires 290 credits, with seven semesters of study, and an externship of nine months and a state internship of 18 months in addition to the completion of a thesis. Dentistry requires 11 semesters of study, or 5.5 years; veterinary medicine requires 227 credits or six years of study; pharmacy 203 credits; and architecture seven years of study.
Doctor of Philosophy (Doktura)
Doctoral degrees require the completion of 12-30 credits, a comprehensive examination, publication and defense of a research dissertation, and an overall coursework GPA of 14/20 for the award of the degree. Program duration is between three and six years.
Assessment and Grading
A 0-20 scale is used at all levels of education throughout the country. The minimum passing grade for school courses is 7 (except for Persian which is 10), with an overall cumulative grade of 10 required for graduation.
Students at the higher education level are assessed by examination at the end of each semester. The minimum passing grade for undergraduate courses is 10, for graduate courses 12, and for doctoral coursework 14; however, overall GPAs of 12, 14, and 14 are required for the award of the respective degrees.
WES suggests the following grading equivalencies for higher education:
Document Requirements for Credential Evaluation
Institutions will provide degree certificates, diplomas and academic transcripts upon request.
At the secondary level, WES requires secondary transcripts issued by the Ministry of Education’s Bureau of International Scientific Cooperation.
At the tertiary level, WES requires applicants to submit copies of all final degree certificates issued by institutions attended. In addition, WES requires that academic transcripts issued by the institutions attended for all postsecondary programs of study be sent directly by the institutions.
For completed doctoral programs, WES requires a letter confirming the awarding of the degree to be sent directly by the institutions attended.
Three universities issue documents in English: Sharif University of Technology, Shiraz University and Air Kabir University (in addition to engineering programs at several universities.)
English translations are usually authorized by the Ministry of Justice of the Islamic Republic of Iran and sealed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Registration and Personal Status Department. However, this does not confirm authenticity.
This file of Sample Documents (pdf) shows a set of annotated credentials from the Iranian education system, beginning with a secondary completion certificate, and followed by pre-university credentials, associates, bachelor, MBA and Ph.D. documents. For a more in-depth discussion of the documents seen here, WES is offering a free free interactive webinar on April 12.