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Surging Costs Of Releasing Academic Degrees Sparks Outcry In Iran

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To curb increasing Iranian emigration, the Islamic Republic now withholds university degrees until substantial payments are made.

Iranian education authorities have hiked the costs of releasing academic degrees more than 30 times under the pretext of preventing brain drain. Iran is demanding exorbitant fees from the graduates of the so-called governmental universities who already went through the corruption-struck national admission exam to get the state-promised free education. 

According to Hamoun Sabti, the secretary of the Transparency Watchdog Commission – an NGO affiliated with Iran’s Conservatives, “the average fee for every semester of study for some bachelor’s degrees has surged from about $20 to $600.” It means that for a four to five-year program, an Iranian must pay a minimum of $5,000 for official documentation of a degree that offers no employment or income guarantees. The average monthly income for Iranians ranges from $100 to $300. 

The rates had not changed significantly for over a decade until last year, when the Ministry of Science officially raised the fees six to 10 times. However, the graduates are asked to pay even more when they apply to receive their degrees. Ranges differ according to subject and level with master’s and PhD graduates paying the most and healthcare majors facing costs in excess of $2,000 per semester. For a PhD in a healthcare major, a five-year program in Iran, the cost for the degree from a state university can go over $20,000. 

The decision was made about a year after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei criticized the growing trend of brain drain and emigration of elites, tacitly giving the green light for stringent financial policies aimed at reversing the trend and holding the country’s brightest minds hostage. 

Iran’s ruler Ali Khamenei during a meeting with a group of university students

According to official statistics, more than 3,000 nurses and 10,000 physicians migrate annually, with an average of 16,000 students leaving Iran each year to pursue further education. The Tehran-based Nilgam Center, an agency providing services to Iranians seeking to emigrate, claims that between 2010 and 2020 roughly 500,000 migrants left the country permanently. In April 2020, the Stanford Iran 2040 Project, reported in April 2020 that the population of Iran-born emigrants increased from about half a million before the 1979 revolution to 3.1 million in 2019. The top destinations were the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Last year, more than 34,000 students and graduates signed a petition, calling on the Transparency Watchdog Commission to intervene. The head of the NGO, former lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli, wrote to President Ebrahim Raisi, asking him to annul the decision, but to no avail. 

Sabti emphasized that such a decision should have been announced before implementation to prevent dissatisfaction in society. “If it is necessary to increase the fees by 30 to 50 times, the previous executives should be accountable for why it has not happened until now.If the increase is unreasonable, why causing dissatisfaction in society?” he noted. 

Critics argue that the new rates should not apply to those who graduated before the fee increase, but authorities insist that the law applies to everyone. Last month, Iran’s Administrative Court of Justice voted in favor of the Science Ministry – the main authority that issues degrees – upholding that “the time of payment, not the time of study” is the base to calculate the fees. The ruling was issued following separate complaints filed by 26 students and graduates against the Ministry. Several university newsletters called the decision “taking university degrees hostage.”

Technically, the Islamic Republic justifies the fee – officially called the Cost of Canceling Free Education Service Commitment — as compensation for the years a graduate must work in service to the country, twice the education timespan. However, in the absence of official employment opportunities, degree-holders must pay even higher than private university tuition to obtain their degrees. According to a report published earlier in the month by Nature, Iran’s universities are among the least trusted in the world. 

Sabti said, “Some argue that the new rates will reduce brain drain and prevent the emigration of elites from the country. This notion is akin to believing that increasing gasoline prices would solve major cities’ traffic problems. Unfortunately, we have seen that with the rising cost of gasoline, the traffic problem has not been resolved.” 

While the Islamic Republic authorities justify the policy as a measure against brain drain, it is also perceived as part of the cash-strapped government’s efforts to pocket more from people’s wallets. According to reformist commentator Abbas Abdi, the government compensates for its inefficiency in boosting revenues from oil sales by raising taxes and tariffs imposed on the general population.