Thermidor of Public Education: Privatization 40 Years After the Iranian Revolution

19 Nov 2020

Thermidor of Public Education: Privatization 40 Years After the Iranian Revolution

By Mohammad Reza Niknejad and Behnam Zoghi Roudsari

November 19, 2020


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.

A Political History

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.

Nevertheless, politicians in both camps continue to pursue their implementation. The privatization of education began during Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidential administration (1989-1997). And yet, over the course of that time, education saw an increase in the share of the public budget. It peaked at 15.2 percent of the public budget in 2005, the final year in which reformist forces held power.  Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration (1997-2005) consisted mainly of a constellation of organizations widely considered supporters of proto-socialist policies in Iranian government. During the late 1990s, however, these figures had undergone a fundamental rethinking, integrating liberal values such as individual freedoms and citizenship rights in their core agenda. Hence, alongside budgetary and demographic concerns, the development of private schooling during Khatami’s presidency involved a strategy of respecting individual freedom in an otherwise exclusively public system while still expanding the public sector. Interestingly, newly established private schools imposed disciplinary and ideological measures (associated with the centralized state) more strictly than the public system, a pattern analogous to the introduction of private schools in the United States. Since, the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate Hassan Rouhani administrations saw substantial budget cuts. Education’s share of the public budget dropped to roughly nine percent. This divestment from public education took place in a broader context of state-wide privatization efforts across sectors.

The privatization of education in Iran pertains to a shift in financial burdens, not to a change in educational freedom or in competition between schools to incentivize growth. A remarkable peculiarity of privatization efforts more broadly has been the transference of ownership to the private sector alongside the preservation of management by the state. Private parties have purchased shares of public banks and social security funds, yet the opaque, byzantine managerial apparatus has remained in place. At the same time, education is seen as a commodity to be financed by families while the state conforms course material and teacher recruitment to its ideological predilections.


"The privatization of education in Iran pertains to a shift in financial burdens, not to a change in educational freedom or in competition between schools to incentivize growth. A remarkable peculiarity of privatization efforts more broadly has been the transference of ownership to the private sector alongside the preservation of management by the state."


From Public Good to Private Property

Formal schooling in what is now Iran was largely private before 1923 when the state implemented a coherent strategy of educational expansion and reform. Affluent families typically sent their children to schools structured as maktabs, where teachers or the ulama taught reading and writing alongside the Quran and other Islamic holy books. Children from poor families were largely deprived of this education. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a modern education system emerged as elites learned about (and sought to mimic) educational systems in Western countries.[i] While children from higher classes were commonplace in modern schools, children from middle class and low-income families also matriculated into the new system. Free education eventually became a crucial demand made by political officials, in particular elite political and social groups advocating for Iran’s development.

The government under the first Pahlavi Shah modeled the education system on French lycées with primary and secondary levels comprised of six one-year classes,[ii] while the government under the second Pahlavi Shah removed tuition. The education provided by private schools differed from instruction in public schools in both form and content. During the final years of the monarchy prior to the 1979 Revolution, the state shut down these private schools. Education became an entirely free public good. The constitution of the newly established Islamic Republic included free education, reflecting a strong tendency toward social justice among prominent leaders of the post-revolutionary state. According to Article 30, the government is charged to provide free education from elementary to the upper secondary level for all Iranians.

Throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-89), the political economy of the education system in Iran remained as it was just prior to the 1979 Revolution. Structural continuities persisted alongside massive changes in pedagogical materials. However, in 1989 when Rafsanjani took the presidential oath, his technocratic cabinet embraced a developmental model in line with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.[iii] This model aimed to liberalize the Iranian economy through the privatization of economic sectors perceived as necessities (education included). The mandate to recover the war-ravaged economy as well as the incentive to undermine the power base of its rivals on the conservative camp led the Rafsanjani administration (although isolated and under tight sanctions in the international sphere) to embrace structural adjustments that had been prescribed globally as a panacea to developmental problems in similar situations of economic crises. Rafsanjani’s privatization efforts were in sharp contrast to the left-leaning tendencies of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had served as Prime Minister during the War. The trend towards privatization was more or less pursued in subsequent governments and backed by the country’s economic-political elite. The Rouhani administration accelerated it.

Like prior presidencies, the Rouhani Administration treated Article 30 of the Constitution as an obstacle by circumventing it. Public officials are currently further promoting private schools and other means of “lifting the burden from the government’s shoulder.” This includes but is not limited to selling or renting public schools to the private sector, increasing the working hours of formally employed teachers, hiring more teachers on short-term minimum wage contracts, chartering semi-public schools that provide distinct educational services, increasing the retirement age, and buying educational services from private institutions.

Educational officials benefit from this process through direct and indirect means. For example, they might charter private educational institutions to themselves. Ahmad Meidari and other critics of this effort have decried a demonstrable conflict of interest. Free education is gradually disappearing over the course of this process. While public schools are supposed to provide free education, in practice they take tuition fees from families, legalized and justified by the fact the public budget cannot maintain a modest quality of education. Meanwhile, as public schools are becoming increasingly overpopulated, families with sufficient means pursue private education.  Advocates of privatization state otherwise. The Islamic Parliament Research Center claims that privatizing education “[enhances] the quality and competitiveness of education” and “[develops] innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity.”[iv] It is worth noting the resonances of the above reasoning with privatization rhetoric in the United States.

The State of Education

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.

The Rouhani administration has accelerated privatization in the face of a budget deficit and economic and political problems more generally. The Ministry of Education along with public institutions of higher education have been the most impacted sectors. The Rouhani administration’s efforts contradict the original promise of the Constitution. First, as declared by Article 30, the government’s failure to provide sufficient educational services is a violation of law. In addition to pressures from budget and ideological leanings toward a free market orthodoxy, personal interests of educational officials can be mentioned as ulterior motives for adhering to this agenda. A recent initiative to manage conflicts of interest in the education sector shows that 225 public officials were involved in private educational institutions.[v] Second and furthermore, insofar as these policies are leading to the gradual disappearance of free education, the trend stands in violation of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares free education a right.[vi]

Education is a key indicator of class inequality. While UNESCO recommends governments allocate four to six percent of their GDP and fifteen to twenty percent of their public budget to education, Iran allocates 1.5 to 2 percent of its GDP to education and 10 percent of its budget. Meanwhile, the portion of expenditures of the schooling system directly financed by families in Iran (in the form of tuition fees to private as well as public schools) is estimated to be at least thirty-three percent , corresponding to the average budgetary expenditure per family in lower-income countries.

In 2017, the richest ten percent expended thirteen times more than the poorest ten percent in total expenditure and forty-seven times more on education. In 2018, the two ratios increased by twelve and fifty-five, respectively. Furthermore, the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare of the Islamic Republic of Iran found that of seven thousand students in Tehran’s public universities, sixty-three percent came from the top thirty percent wealthiest families with less than eight percent from the bottom thirty percent. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Inequality in education is also apparent in the political economy of test preparation. Minister of Education Mohammad Bathaei stated that the private economy of the kunkūr, Iran’s university entrance exam, is roughly $9.5 billion. For perspective, in 2019, education received 10.7 billion dollars of the total budget. In 2019, nineteen of the forty highest scorers on the kunkūr were from Tehran, sixty-six percent were from private and semi-private schools, and thirty-three percent were from the National Organization for the Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET). In fact, students from NODET comprised ninety percent of students from outside of Tehran who ranked high on the test. Overall, according to acting Minister of Education Javad Hosseini, more than eighty percent of students admitted to state universities were coming from six of Iran’s thirty-one provinces.       

Since 2015, teachers’ unions have continuously organized demonstrations and rallies in opposition to these trends. These demonstrations have been accompanied by statements, letter writing campaigns, and op-eds in major news outlets. Curbing the privatization of education and calling for better wages have been key demands throughout these different waves of protests. Other central demands of the teachers’ movement have been the improvement of the quality of education, the release of teachers imprisoned due to labor organizing, and general lobbying for the repair of weathered school buildings and for better educational environments, as well as agitating for the reduction of the student-teacher ratio, for the security of retired teachers, and for better health insurance.


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.

[i] Ahmad Kasravi, Tārīkh-i Mashrūtih’yi Iran (Muassasi’yi Intishārāt-i Amīr Kabīr, 1984), 38.

[ii] Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2018), 85.

[iii] Payam Mohseni, “Factionalism, Privatization, and the Political Economy of Regime Transformation” in Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation, eds. Daniel Brumberg and Farideh Farhi (Indiana University Press, 2016), 37-69.

[iv] Daftar-i mutāli‘āt-i āmūzish va farhang, “Barrisī’yi tārīkhī’yi tanavu’yi madāris dar Iran (mulahizāt-i sīyāsat-guzārī) (Markaz-i pazhuhish-hāyih majlis-i shawra’yi islāmī, 1399/2020).


[vi] Education International has discussed privatization of education on its website as follows: “The growing private sector involvement in education systems during the last decade has contributed to changing the way education is governed, funded, and provided. Policies involving education privatization, including public-private partnerships, vouchers, charters, and low-fee private schools are increasingly being promoted to expand educational access and improve learning outcomes through increased choice and competition. There is considerable evidence that education privatization inhibits equity of access and participation, reduces education to a commodity versus public good, and infringes on education as a human right.”