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This is a fascinating report on the state of education in Iran, forty years after the revolution, emphasizing the resistance to privatization. The authors are Mohammad Reza Niknejad and Behnam Zoghi Roudsari. The authors shared the article with me. I was surprised and delighted to learn that my book Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools was translated into Persian. I almost cried as I thought about the madness of international politics, preventing likeminded educators and scholars from communicating about shared concerns.
The privatization of education is hotly debated across the world. It hardly represents a uniform set of policies with experts, economists, civil society organizers, and state officials weighing potential gains and losses. Iran has been no exception to this pattern. As most theoretical literature predicts, the privatization of education in Iran has caused harm. According to experts, it exacerbates class divisions, consolidates social gaps, and leads to serious detrimental consequences in the classroom. With over a century of experience with institutions of modern education, Iran has its own unique history of debate and struggle over privatization and its implementation. This article provides an overview of that history and an assessment of the current state of education in Iran.
Sharp critiques of privatized education are voiced across the political spectrum in Iran. The Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Syndicates of Iran, for instance, an umbrella organization consisting of forty-four teachers’ unions across the country, released a statement on 2 May 2019 bringing to fruition a mass protest that had called for the “suspension of outsourcing plans and the abolition of private school licensing.” It called on the state to “[provide] higher quality, free and equal educational services in public schools.
Months later, in November 2019, after mass protests against fuel hikes, the Coordinating Council denounced “shock therapy,” joining the resistance against austerity measures. They remarked that privatization had “[transferred] national wealth and resources to powerful groups…and had pushed more children from classrooms into the streets and into work.”
The failure of privatization represents one of the few agreed-upon issues between reformist and conservative politicians over the past three decades. Its failure can be measured with reference to the goals outlined in “the 20-Year Prospect of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Issued by the Expediency Council, it constitutes a key legal document encouraging privatization in Iran. The goals it outlines include: achieving full employment, controlling inflation, and expanding GDP and per capita income. Fifteen years after it was issued, Iran is far from achieving these goals...
Despite antagonism between the Islamic Republic and the United States, Iranian education officials have followed the lead of their American counterparts in privatization efforts. They have done this in various ways, placing teachers on short-term contracts; commercializing the educational sphere; and outsourcing the design, implementation and assessment of exams to private contractors.
Before the era of privatization, teachers received formal training in teacher training colleges and universities and were granted thirty-year contracts. Legal adjustments have changed former institutional settings to the extent that under new outsourcing contracts with specific conditions (which are widened daily), schools can employ teachers on day-to-day contracts. These teachers are paid for by the day and in some cases by the hour. They are neither paid for their three-month summer vacations, nor for holidays and weekends. They are typically paid a small fraction of formally employed teachers and can be dismissed at any time without notice. Numbering around forty thousand, these teachers were especially hit hard by the coronavirus crisis.
The Deputy Minister of Education Mojtaba Zeinivand notes that, at present, 10.18 percent of students in Iran are in private schools and that, by March 2021, the figure will reach fifteen percent. This trend might result in irreversible harm to the quality of education. Poorer classes and to a lesser extent urban middle classes will be deprived of educational opportunities.
The government’s tenacious efforts to enforce privatization plans have been matched with strong opposition by officials from different parts of government, academics, and education experts. In recent years, teacher’s guilds have organized against the privatization of education with widespread protests, as with the Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Syndicates of Iran in 2019...
As this narrative demonstrates, the privatization of education in Iran is a consequence of the lack of a well-defined role of education in a broader strategy of developmental planning, rather than a result of centralized decision-making by right wing policy-makers with a neoliberal agenda. The privatization of education has been part of a broader privatization process that can be described as a paragon of overloading a low capacity state with complex tasks resulting in increased corruption and insignificant developmental outcomes. A minority of closed circles of educational officials, acting in coalition with the highest classes of society and who maintain strong access to policy-makers, are still pushing these policies at the expense of the majority of society and in defiance of social cohesion and national prosperity. In a recent unprecedented reform initiative, more than two hundred educational decision-makers have been identified as holding a specific conflict of interest, shareholding, or an ownership stake in private education institutions.
These self-serving policies have serious and long-lasting consequences, including but not limited to political grievances and instabilities as well as the consolidation of class divides and inequalities. The current, myopic horizon of Iranian politics, primarily concerned with factional competition and the disastrous economic consequences of sanctions, all too easily overlook these consequences. Educational reform should not be postponed until other components of the system of governance are reformed. An alternative path forward can materialize by forming inclusive coalitions that give voice to key stakeholders in education and empowering them to formulate better policies. This would, in turn, signal a feedback to higher levels of decision-makers. The surprising power of small changes would, we hope, lead to a virtuous cycle of reform.