The Greatest Asset: Funding the Future of Education in Iran
Iran's higher education sector is one of the country's greatest assets, with both women and men achieving degrees. Iran's Organization for Investment, Economic and Technical Assistance issued a report in 2013, highlighting the potential of the academic sector in Iran. It stated that in that year, the country had 4.5 million active university students studying at bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels.
Scimago, in an index of global academic prowess, ranked Iran 16th worldwide in 2015. Previous editions of the index also conjectured that by 2018, Iran could become the fourth largest contributor of academic publications in the world, and the country would notably rank first among Islamic nations.
It is therefore important to support these institutions so they can continue to thrive and grow. Prior to working in Iran, I spent a considerable time in the United Kingdom. As a student in the UK, I learned about the possibility university leaders have to take advantage of alternative investment streams to support academia. Now back in Iran, in my role at Hekmat University in the Holy City of Qom, I have come to recognize that standard channels of revenue, such as tuition, can only do so much to support the growth and development of higher academic institutions.
In my daily duties at Hekmat, I am responsible for the welfare and academic progress of students during their time with us. What is clear is that these students deserve as much time and attention as possible to help them reach their goals. But for a university to offer time and attention to its individual students and faculty, funding is necessary. Iranian institutions can do more to secure this funding in innovative ways, based on model examples from the practices of other countries.
Investing in Learning Outcomes
The academic community in Iran ought to begin intelligently seeking new sources of funding. There are a few ways this can be done.
First, universities can seek to commercialize innovations. Science and engineering departments in particular can conduct large research and development projects by working with major corporations. Ideally Iran's scientists and engineers should be given the opportunity to develop their scientific models with the added support of the private sector; I must add that this is an ideal way to validate if the new innovations are even commercially viable. Universities can add to their intellectual capital as research institutions through partnerships with private-sector businesses.
Small-scale initiatives, such as startups, are also relevant. Iran’s buzzing startup scene should be considered by universities attempting to engage and support students post-graduation. Tehran University has created a successful model for such engagement through its partnership with Sarava Pars' Avatech Accelerator program.
The emphasis on developing universities as post-graduate research centers has been a focus of education policy in some countries, such as the UK, in recent years. During my stay in the UK, I noticed that the Tony Blair government was adamant about getting students in practical courses. And, beginning in 1998, the fruit of this investment helped the UK develop new industries. The value of the creative economy to Britain now stands at $120b annually. In contrast, the over-emphasis on exam performance above practical learning in Iran has weakened our overall ability to compete on an international level.
Second, education should be made available to a wider range of learners who may not be able to be full tuition-paying students of the university, but who may find value in distance and online learning. Distance learning was first developed in Iran with the inception in 1987 of Payam-e-Noor University. The institution now has 487 branches around the country, with some in very remote areas. This system has helped bring many people to higher education.
Looking forward, with the advent of mobile media and applications, we as an academic community should push for more distance learning to be done online, and possibly adopting the increasingly popular model of massively open online courses (MOOCs). Mature students are also beginning to take up a larger proportion of our classes. This in itself is an impressive feat. In recent years we have noticed 40% growth of this student segment. We believe that this portion of students will ultimately put the knowledge they’ve gained into practice in a shorter period of time than younger graduates. Online education can help so-called life-long learners retain access to top education while still in their careers.
Third, universities should begin capital campaigns to help drive the next phase of growth and development. Better campus life, including extra-curricular activities, would help improve the university experience for many undergraduates. But students often must live far from school, with a costly and inconvenient commute. If university administrators, with the help of private sector development firms, could offer quality undergraduate and post-graduate accommodation the overall campus life would improve, offering the chance for students to develop their skills further with such offerings as added classes and evening discussions, or simply time to enjoy and participate in extracurricular activities.
New campuses can also help with growth. Tehran University has made an effort, for a multitude of reasons, to shift many of their students out of Tehran to Pardis, 30 kilometers outside of the capital. This is an ideal way to create new growth for the university as many of the buildings and facilities on the older campuses are not set up to accommodate new kinds of university programs.
Overall, we must use these three new channels of investment—research centers, online learning, and campus development—to feed funding back into the new undergraduate intake. By doing so, we can develop our student potential and encourage re-investment in the cohort, which follows after them, through the fruits of their innovation and hard work.
Ultimately this is the way Iran’s academic institutions must go, but it will require a huge amount of reorganization and cooperation with companies and public agencies. The new revenue streams will ensure the tertiary education sector remains Iran’s great treasure for years to come.
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