Privatising the school of thought in Iran

Privatising the school of thought in Iran
Comment: Students at Tehran University recently protested against what they see as creeping privatisation and the soaring cost of education in the Islamic Republic, writes Soheil Asefi.
6 min read
10 Dec, 2015
Almost 900 public schools across the country have been privatised thus far [AFP]

Chants rang in the air as students of the University of Tehran marched in their campus in opposition to the privatisation of universities across the country.

"Violation of the constitution, threatening of student activists, commodification of education," one cry spread.

The student protesters issued a statement, concluding: "University is not anyone's personal property and must remain for everyone!"

Following a recent protest, Masoud Nili, a known neoliberal economist who currently serves as senior adviser to Hassan Rouhani, cancelled the launch ceremony of card reader machines at the university. The representatives of Tejarat Bank have also reportedly left campus.

Privatisation 'against the constitution'

In the decades after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the country experienced many changes in its education system.

Though, like many other economic sectors, privatisation was not a rapid process, the number of private schools have been increasing in recent years.

Nevertheless, the privatisation of public spheres - including schools - in Iran today, has been taking place while the Islamic Republic's constitution clearly acknowledges "free education and physical training for everyone at all levels, and the facilitation and expansion of higher education".

The process of privatisation started with Rafsanjani's attempt to spark a series of "economic reforms", implementing the IMF's structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s.

Shortly after Rouhani's election, Aliakbar Parvizi, the governor of the North Khorasan province, officially declared that according to the government's plans, schools should gradually be privatised to reduce costs.

The student protesters' manifesto

"We are students and we are not demanding anything but our most basic and absolute rights. We don't think food, accommodation, free amenities, and equal access to educational facilities would be so demanding for the authorities as to instil fear in them.

"The current trends of Iran's economy are nothing but Structural Adjustment Programmes. It is unrestrained privatisation opening the space to corporate contractors - and the only outcome of this process is catastrophic discrimination in the enjoyment of the right to free education.

"This giveaway of the university and higher educational system to the private sector has been taking place by those who were supposed to be our primary supporters, the Ministry of Science and the Student Welfare Fund...

"We are students! We are thinking of our environmental degradation. We do not allow the authorities to violate the constitution and put our natural resources up for sale, drying up the old trees of Amirabad Street like the plantain trees of Valiasr Street and the water resources like Lake Urmia."


Humanities on 'the free market'

It is not the first time that Ayatollah Khamenei was talking about the study of social sciences which "promotes doubts and uncertainty" in the Iranian academic arena. 

"Many of the humanities and liberal arts are based on philosophies whose foundations are materialism and disbelief in godly and Islamic teachings," he once said.

Almost three decades have passed since prison investigators unsuccessfully tried to force Amir Nikain - the author of one of the only sources of learning about dialectical materialism for a generation of Persian speakers - to renounce dialectical materialism upon state TV.

They wanted him to do so in favour of Morteza Motahhari's Islamic texts. Nazemi is now lying in Khavaran cemetery.

Putting aside the tragic story of social science in Iran, what is at stake now is the ongoing process of commodification of education. Along the same lines, the general manager of the Ministry of Education in Tehran has declared that enrolment in human sciences has been banned in public schools.

In other words, a neoliberal education - humanities on the free market - has made another step towards its goal in Iran.

"In 1991, the proportion of students who were studying for free at universities to students who pay for their college tuition was 50-50, whereas this ratio in 2003 has dramatically changed - so that 84 percent of students pay for college tuition, and only 16 percent of students had free education," said one faculty member of the Institute of Research and Planning in Higher Education in Tehran.

According to statistics, despite the obstacles, Iran is one of the few of the so-called "developing countries" with a great success in girls' education - though recent stories of a massive dropout of female students in Khuzestan might help map the status of inequality across the country.

Khuzestan is one of the richest oil producing provinces of Iran.

When it comes to commodification of education in Iran today, one has to consider two factors.

First its infrastructure, the way in which neoliberalism has been spreading around the world - including in Iran - while the second factor is superstructure, which can be identified in the pursuit of the origin of the hegemony of the status quo.

The evidence has shown that its only achievement is causing more classism, and drawing more lines between people who are already divided.

     Iranian teacher union leaders who attempt to organise teaching staff are prosecuted under 'national security charges'

Teacher union leaders behind bars

While the mainstream media viewing Iran as "the biggest thing for the global economy since the Berlin Wall fell", the famous slogan of "big market, small government" is perhaps one of the most frequently heard from the theocracy's Supreme Leader, the rival political factions and elements of the pro-West "opposition" - both within the country and the diaspora. 

While critical educators in the West are positioned to help young people understand why and how their schools are under attack - to connect the dots with the structural crisis of capitalism - this project in Iran aims to strengthen the power of part of Iran's bourgeois.

At the same time, independent unions are not allowed to operate in Iran, and Iranian teacher union leaders who attempt to organise teaching staff are prosecuted under "national security charges", and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

The wrong role models

In short, the lack of a dynamic and participatory education system based on a democratic structure has created the political space for the owners of the private schools to fish in troubled waters.

Though the process and positioning of privatisation in a comparative perspective might shed a light on the history of the one step forward, one step back game, one has to view it in a broader context.

While higher education institutions are increasingly run as corporate entities in the West, the Islamic Republic has also been trying to reach the standards of "the international community" by moving towards the dismissal of the last traces of the historic achievements of the incomplete 1979 revolution.

Soheil Asefi is an independent journalist based in New York. Follow him on Twitter:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.