Children of the revolution

August 4, 2000

Iran's young are hungry for change - and they know that education is the key to transforming the Islamic republic, writes Desmond McLernon

The 21-year-old Islamic Republic of Iran has had a turbulent history. The repression of the western-supported Pahlavi dynasty was ended by a popular uprising in 1979, only to be followed by the strict control of an Islamic state. In the early years after the overthrow of the shah, a bloody eight-year war with Iraq left 1 million Iranians dead and the economy in ruins.

Today, the driving force for social and political change is young people and, as the recent violent attacks by conservative forces on students at Tehran University vividly show, centres of higher education help to both foment and channel that energy.

Iranian university education is divided into three sectors: the government-funded national universities (providing the highest quality education, with about 25 students competing for every place, and which do not charge fees); the Islamic Azaad universities (which demand lower entry qualifications, but have more campuses in many smaller cities and towns, and charge some fees); and a small number of fee-paying private universities.

Gaining a university place can depend not only on the demanding entrance exams, but also on other factors, such as family connections to a "martyr" - a relative killed in the Iran-Iraq war.

At postgraduate level there are about 9,000 students in Iran's universities. The option of studying abroad has become prohibitively expensive for most Iranians. Before the revolution, there were 70 rials to $1, compared with 8,600 today. Even an associate professor in engineering is paid a salary of only about $300 a month, although the price of staple items is also very low.

A small number of government scholarships exist for PhD study in the West, but these do not necessarily go to the most academic students. For example, women must be married, and any overt political dissent would militate against selection. So some of the brightest students, especially in science and engineering, still apply directly to western universities for postgraduate scholarships.

Unlike some countries in the region, Iran has a rising level of internet connectivity and home access is possible but unusual. Still, universities are more likely to provide an internet gateway than secondary schools, where a single computer is often all that exists. This is as much to do with cost as with political concerns.

Ironically, the software and computing platforms of choice - Microsoft and Intel-driven PCs - come from the "Great Satan", the US embargo notwithstanding. But Iranian universities have one advantage over their UK counterparts - the most recent version of any software is virtually free. It appears that Iran is not a signatory to international copyright laws, meaning many computer programs are readily available for just a few pence. It is the same for western books and films.

Despite the country's theocratic foundations, much has changed in Iran since President Khatami's landslide election victory in 1997 (although he still faces significant conservative opposition). These changes are mirrored inside the universities, where a high-quality education is valued and much sought after. Students are friendly, politically aware, often liberal and surprisingly well-informed in a country where state television is dominated by the unlikely combination of mullahs and football. But happily, it is also one of the few states that "protects" students from McDonald's.

In Iran, the symbolic value of change is often more important than the substance of change itself. Nowhere is this better epitomised than in the wealthy suburbs of northern Tehran. Overlooked by the Elburz mountains and far removed from the suffocating downtown smog, middle-class women students "observe" the hejab (Islamic dress) by wearing long black designer coats, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Pierre Cardin headscarves.

They drive Mitsubishi 4x4s to nearby bookshops, where the works of Nietzsche, Kant and Marcuse sit in a surreal accompaniment to bland titles such as The Table Decorating Book or Needlepoint Techniques, Projects and Patterns.

Iran is still a state with little political freedom, but it is also one full of contradictions. While Islamic laws govern women's dress, and CDs or cassettes of female singers cannot be sold, about 50 per cent of university engineering graduates are female - possibly the highest proportion in the world.

Iranian women are unlike those in any other Muslim country - visibly represented in nearly all the professions. As one university professor wearing the traditional full black chador (appropriately meaning "tent" in Farsi) remarked: "Never compare the position of women in Iran with those in feudal Saudi Arabia (another Islamic state). We have had two and a half thousand years of history - Saudi Arabia was nothing but a desert until oil was discovered this century."

So with a young population that is hungry for change, the importance placed on education in shaping social and political consciousness is best summed up by the following anecdote. When an Iranian mathematics professor recently asked an ayatollah from a seminary in the holy city of Qom why the only "science" his students were taught was metaphysics, the lecturer replied: "Because then we can control them." Just like the Jesuits - plus ca change.

Desmond McLernon, of the school of electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Leeds, recently visited Iran to deliver a series of research seminars to university postgraduate students.

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