IRAN: Student stars that punish, not reward

Puyan Mahmoudian was ranked sixth in Iran's national graduate entrance examination in chemistry. Despite this impressive academic achievement he was denied admission to the graduate programme because of his undergraduate student activities.

Safoura Eliasi took the national graduate admissions examination in restoration of historical monuments in 2009. "I ranked third nationwide. This meant that I could attend any university that offered this programme. They allowed me to choose my discipline. But when my examination transcript arrived, it indicated that I had 'failed the academic requirement'," she said.

These are just two of the so-called 'starred' students, whose records bear a sinister star barring them from undergraduate or graduate study despite doing well in the annual entrance exams administered by the Sanjesh Organisation, the testing arm of the Ministry of Science. The exams are usually the sole academic criteria for student admission.

The system of exclusion has come to be known as 'starring' and those barred are known as 'starred students', with the stars referring to different categories of restriction.

"Effectively, depriving students of higher education became a method of punishing dissent and a systematic campaign of targeting those critical of authorities," said the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, whose just-released report Punishing Stars: Systematic discrimination and exclusion in Iranian higher education includes testimony from 27 'starred' and excluded students.

"These decisions are a form of extrajudicial or arbitrary punishment, having minimal legal legitimacy or basis in broad regulation," says the report, which was released to coincide with National Students Day in Iran on 7 December.

Elisasi, targeted because of her involvement in student publications, said she prepared "a long letter of complaint" to the Administrative Justice Court.

"An interesting point was that when I went to the Sanjesh Organisation to review my transcript ranking, they told me that there was no application with these specifications! It was as if I had never taken part in the examination," she said.

Some 217 individuals are named in the report, but director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Hadi Ghaemi, told University World News many more were too frightened to give their names. "There are well over a thousand of these starred students, I guess," Ghaemi said. "And others have come forward since they have seen our report."

The 217 deprived of higher education included 19 named individuals in 2007, 49 in 2008, 58 in 2009 and 70 in 2010. "It is definitely getting worse," Ghaemi said. "Year after year the numbers have increased. Particularly in the past two years there has been a huge jump."

This was particularly the case after the June 2009 presidential elections: "There has been very much a systematic attempt to expel anyone critical of the regime," Ghaemi said.

Soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 starring became synonymous with discrimination against students because of their political beliefs, the exercise of freedom of expression and, in the case of Baha'i students, their religious beliefs, said the Campaign.

It reported that higher education authorities and those responsible for admissions began to flag the academic records of student activists, government critics and students of the Baha'i religious minority, with one to three stars. In some cases authorities refused to release the results of applicant test scores altogether.

One star denotes students who passed the academic exam but are permitted to continue their studies by the Ministry of Science Central Selection Committee only after written guarantees not to engage in undesirable political activities.

Two-star candidates are those who passed the exam but are not deemed 'qualified' to continue higher education. They may be granted temporary reprieve if they promise to end political activities, under threat that their university admission can be revoked.

Three-star individuals who passed the exam have been rejected by the Central Selection Committee and Ministry of Intelligence and are barred from entering university.

The authorities can also exclude and discriminate against students already enrolled at university. "Disciplinary committees at each university have been used to summon students and issue suspension sentences," the Campaign said.

For many students "these suspensions, typically for one to two semesters, have been renewed several times, effectively resulting in the inability of suspended students to complete their academic work towards graduation," it continued.

Several students told the Campaign the university disciplinary committee "summoned and suspended them simply for protesting the process of banning other students. The efforts of these students to organise and seek accountability and transparency regarding starring led to their own exclusion from higher education," the report said.

Baha'i students were barred or expelled usually after their faith came to the attention of education officials.

"The Ministry of Intelligence has played a prominent role in this process, underscoring the politicisation of student selection and enrolment," said the report, adding: "By increasingly using university admissions and disciplinary mechanisms to bar targeted students, the ministry has expanded its reach into academic environments."

During the 2009-10 academic year, the authorities accelerated their politically motivated targeting of student activists by denying admission to individuals who had participated in mass protests following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

In March 2007, in response to public pressure including from targeted students, lawmakers and the media, the Ministry of Science announced that stars would no longer be used on student transcripts, that no one would be excluded on the basis of stars and that any candidate who passed the entrance exam would be allowed to enrol.

Nevertheless, says the Campaign, "the authorities have continued a de facto policy of starring students." At least 50 students who passed the 2007 entrance exam had their admission blocked, according to media reports, though not all the names are known.

"Originally with members of parliament there was some sympathy [with the students] and there were investigations in 2006, but ultimately they [parliamentarians] could not prevail," said Ghaemi.

Many students have been forced to go abroad to continue their studies: "Some are in limbo," Ghaemi said. "In general these are bright young people but they have nowhere to go to study unless they enrol abroad and that is not easy to do, in some cases there is the language issue. Only a small percentage end up abroad," he said.

"This process has affected some of the best and brightest students in Iranian universities," he said.

* This week, in the Student View column, we publish Puyan Mahmoudian's testimony as recorded by the Campaign.