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Tapping Iran’s Dynamic Education Sector: An Introduction for Australian Institutions and Business

Tapping Iran’s Dynamic Education Sector: An Introduction for Australian Institutions and Business

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As an interim accord is reached between Iran and Western nations and the Australian Foreign Minister, the Hon. Julie Bishop MP, visits Tehran in mid-April, William Jenkins asks what opportunities are in the Iranian education sector and what Australian business and education institutions should know to engage them.

Iran’s education sector is the Middle East’s largest and most dynamic. A country of nearly 80 million, 60% of its population is under 30. It has one of the highest tertiary-education-to-workforce ratios in the world, 4.5 million tertiary students in any given year (significantly more than any other Middle Eastern nation), and ranks globally between Australia and the United States (US) as having 43% of its population holding tertiary qualifications. Remarkably by international standards, female tertiary education enrolment has also outstripped male student enrolment, with 60% of Iranian university students being women. Each year, around 150,000 Iranian students depart Iran for overseas study and many more would with available opportunities offered by reputable international education institutions.

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In short, Iran is an immense and promising market for educational service exporters – and Australia is ideally situated to engage it. Moreover, there are many ways to tap the opportunities presented by the Iranian education sector, with varying levels of engagement – these are not limited to costly overseas campuses and can be as simple and cost-effective as culturally-targeted and market-sensitive promotion in the Persian language. But, what do Australian education institutions need to consider in looking to access the large and dynamic Iranian education market?

Stretching back to the original graduate medical school at Gondishapur in the Persian Empire - the basis for modern hospital and university systems – and homeland to many of the Islamic World’s great polymaths – Iran has a proud and enduring tradition of higher education. This tradition underpins the aspirational demand for higher education in and from modern Iran. International sanctions and opprobrium applied to Iran since 1979 have meant that the country’s domestic tertiary education sector has been protected, while being extensively expanded to compete remarkably well by international standards. Iranian economic and social change have created high levels of academic attainment in the broader Iran population and Iranian students are seeking quality international education in ever increasing numbers.

With strong competition for student places in Iranian universities and a high regard for holding prestigious international qualifications, studying outside Iran is an increasingly attractive option. Many Iranian families with means are already investing in their students’ education by sending them to Australia and other international destinations for study. Australia, in particular, provides valuable and sought-after educational services and products as an English-speaking country with highly-ranked international universities at a competitive price point for international students.

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Some Australian education institutions already have campuses and hubs in the Middle East which are accessible to Iranian students. The establishment of overseas campuses, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, provides relatively easy access for Iranian students to enrol in Australian education institutions. The visa availability, proximity to Iran, and the thriving Iranian population of cities such as Dubai and others around the Persian Gulf make this an attractive option for Iranian students seeking international qualifications. Malaysia is another hub accessible to both Iranian students and Australian institutions. However campuses are a costly and resource-intensive way for Australian educational institutions and business to reach the Iranian market.

Iranian students are equally interested in studying in Australia and many with finances have been traveling to Australia to study in recent years. Most study at postgraduate level and enrol in a wide variety of disciplines. Iranian students in Australia have faced issues, primarily due to the former volatility of the Iranian currency, however, both the US and Australian governments, among others, moved to offset this difficulty at the height of the Rial’s volatility. With a new administration at the helm in Iran and a normalisation of Iranian global relations, this issue will fade in importance.

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Like any around the world, Iran’s education sector has distinct characteristics that Australian education institutions should be aware of. Iranian secondary education is similar to many other systems internationally, and high school across the country may be undertaken in three streams: academic, technical, and vocational. Iran also has a one year pre-university (and post-high school) college called pishdaneshgahi (‘pre-university’). This compulsory preparation college for students seeking to enter tertiary education provides specialised discipline training. It also means that the average Iranian secondary student only completes his or her tertiary entrance examination (the Concours/Konkur, designed on the French model) at age 19. The Concours exam is standardised by discipline and ranks Iranian student cohorts nationally each year to determine students’ tertiary entrance.

The tertiary education sector in Iran is competitive and has a wide array of public and private universities. The overall sector is regulated by the relevant government departments (Education, Science and Research, or Health) which monitor standards, set curricula and materials, and maintain schools and universities. The world’s second largest private university system, the Azad (‘Free’) University is Iranian. The quality and standards of Iranian education at the tertiary level are relatively uniform and equivalent across tertiary institutions, but some institutions specialise and are better regarded in certain disciplines.

One concern for Australian institutions is evaluating the equivalence of Iranian students for Australian higher education. On this, there are several simple aspects of Iranian education to bear in mind. Firstly, all Iranian students, regardless of their specialisation in pre-university college and university, are required to take broadening subjects outside their own discipline. This includes various religious studies courses, which have been known to be questioned by international institutions – but these are compulsory! Secondly, the Iranian system grades on a 20-point scale, with minimum GPAs on this scale required for degree awarding. Finally, many Iranian institutions often retain the original copy of a students’ diploma or degree and students are therefore provided with a certified copy to apply to international institutions. Only three Iranian universities issue degrees in English so a translation certified by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with the original certified copy in Persian, will usually be supplied by students.

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Knowing these characteristics of Iran’s education sector will help Australian institutions access the immense and dynamic Iranian education market that is ripe for Australian education services. Regardless of international developments, the Iranian market presents significant and attractive opportunities for Australia education seeking to expand their international business. Iran is emerging as a leading demand centre and hub in international education. Further, Iran’s education sector is full of opportunities itself but it is also, importantly, a gateway to education markets in Central and South Asia, with many students from those regions being educated in Iran. But education is a competitive global market. Given longstanding removal from some international norms, Australian education institutions must be aware of the Iranian education sector’s particularities in looking to engage with its vast potential for international education. With savvy culturally-targeted and market-sensitive promotion, as well as an awareness of the Iran’s education standards and practices, Australian educational institutions and business have much to gain by tapping the opportunities presented by Iran as it opens to the world.

To find out more about the opportunities in Iran’s dynamic education sector, register to attend the  2015 Australian Arab Business Forum, taking place at the University of Sydney from 21-22 May.

About William B Jenkins

William is Associate and Iran Specialist for Dearin & Associates and Erasmus Scholar at the London School of Economics and University of Leipzig. He was Developer and Lead of the flagship Arabic and Persian Languages Online Programme and a first-class honours graduate in Political Economy, International Relations, and languages (Arabic, Persian, Hindi-Urdu) at the Australian National University. He formerly worked with the Australia-Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AACCI), ACCI Productivity Unit and the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. He writes on Middle Eastern as well as Central and South Asian business, trade, economics, and history.

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