The Islamic Republic of Iran is a developing nation that sits along the Persian Gulf in Central Asia. Currently, it has an estimated population of more than 87.5 million, and as of 2019, about 27% of people were living below the international poverty line, according to the World Bank. With that percentage on the rise in recent years due to the devastating impacts of COVID-19, higher education in Iran has suffered significantly. Fortunately, several organizations are working to provide a fair chance at higher education for underserved people.
A Brief History of Higher Education in Iran
The 1979 Islamic Revolution redefined the political structure of Iran by creating the Islamic Republic. As the nation began to desecularize, almost all universities stopped operations until 1983 during the revision of curricula. Simultaneously, post-revolutionary policy emphasized funding for creating rural infrastructure but invested little in ensuring equal access to secondary education and creating job opportunities. Consequently, employment prospects have faced limitations, even for students who completed higher education in Iran.
For instance, the 2016-17 Iranian census reported unemployment rates of 34.6% and 45.7% for college-educated men and women, respectively. Therefore, Iranian young people have increasingly left the country to pursue higher education elsewhere and university enrollment rates within the country have substantially dropped. For example, in 2014-2015, there were 4,811,581 students enrolled at Iranian universities, and this number decreased by more than a million to 3,616,114 students in 2017-2018.
Growing poverty in Iran has only exacerbated the dropping rates of college graduates, with many families unable to afford even basic education for their children. As of 2019, an estimated 7 million Iranian children were “deprived of education” due to poverty. Furthermore, financial difficulties forced about 25% of enrolled students, especially females, to drop out of school.
Particularly in rural communities, a lack of sufficient educational facilities, funding to maintain schools and increasing tuition rates are heightening barriers to secondary education. Simultaneously, low university admission rates, high college graduate unemployment rates and nominal government support for college students are dissuading struggling families from applying for higher education in Iran. Equally, exorbitant international fees make education abroad an impossibility for some 33% of Iranian families who, according to estimates, are now living in extreme poverty.
In light of recent sanctions and other economic shocks, Iran’s GDP growth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has been modest. While this has limited the government’s ability to provide support for college students, organizations like A More Balanced World (AMBW) have remained committed to providing funding and opportunities for students who cannot access education due to poverty.
With programs in 11 countries around the world, AMBW’s Iranian program funds first, secondary and university-level education for students from struggling families. Its scholarships and sponsorships are having a profound impact on Iran’s youth. For example, AMBW supported Siavosh, a student from Iran’s Hamadan Province, beginning in the eighth grade, making it possible for him to complete his education at an elite school and pursue his dreams as a weightlifter.
Another organization investing in higher education in Iran is Keep Children in School (KCIS), which is working “to break the cycle of poverty by providing financial support for educational needs of underprivileged children.” Focusing specifically on countries including Iran and Afghanistan, KCIS supports primary through university-level education and offers opportunities for donors to provide individual sponsorship for children in need. To date, the organization’s financial assistance has facilitated the education of more than 1,800 young people.
Education, especially higher education, can be a gateway out of poverty, allowing disadvantaged young people to gain control over their futures and secure meaningful livelihoods. While there appears to be a need for efforts that focus on creating a more sustainable job market within Iran, organizations like AMBW and KCIS are helping the country’s youth obtain the higher education needed to reshape the future.