Partial reprieve for students barred from universities

Iran’s Ministry of Science has announced that students recently barred from universities because of student or political activism will be allowed to continue their studies. But only students who have faced restrictions since 2011 will benefit from the reprieve.

The interim head of Iran’s Ministry of Science, Jafar Tofighi, in the new administration of President Hassan Rohani who was elected in June, insisted this week that the ministry would no longer target students for their political or personal beliefs and that there would be no more ‘starred’ students, Mehr news agency reported.

A special committee to review ‘starred’ and excluded student cases had been established in the ministry, Tofighi was reported as saying.

The reference to being ‘starred’ is to different categories of restriction, from suspension to expulsion. The records of barred students are marked with between one and three stars, preventing them from undergraduate or graduate study even if they have performed well academically.

But Shargh Daily newspaper said the ministry had decided to only allow enrolment of students who had been ‘starred’ in 2011 or subsequently. Students banned or expelled from universities prior to 2011 will have to retake the national university entrance test, according to Shargh.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, or ICHRI, reported that hundreds of students had been starred and barred since 2005.

“Starring became synonymous with a mechanism for discrimination against, and exclusion of, students from higher education based solely on their political beliefs, the exercise of their freedom of expression and, in the case of Baha’i students, their religious beliefs,” according to ICHRI.

In an 18 September statement, ICHRI welcomed the government’s decision. However, it would encourage the ministry “to consider allowing all ‘starred’ students to return to their programmes of study without forcing them to retake entrance examinations, a requirement that will fall short of restoring justice for a group of young Iranian citizens who have been deprived of rights guaranteed to them by the Iranian constitution”.

According to ICHRI, the topic came up during this year’s presidential election campaigns.

Tofighi, who was at the time head of the campaign of reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, was reported by the Iranian Students News Agency as saying: “I don’t deny that this issue existed during the reformist cabinet [of Mohammad Khatami]. It was possible that some students would become starred during the entrance examinations.”

But he claimed at the time that this did not mean they would be banned. “Becoming starred meant that their admission cases would be reviewed again.”

During the 2009 election, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the existence of ‘starred’ students, even though some of them gathered in protest to prove they existed. Many of those students were subsequently prosecuted, and several were imprisoned.

Student responses

Mehdi, a student who became starred in 2007, said his hopes had been raised by Tofighi’s statement. However, he told Shargh: “In order to be admitted in the 2007 entrance examination, I studied for months. I scored in the top 100 students in the exam that year and I could have studied in the best universities in the country.

“They took my rights away, because I attended a small gathering in the dormitory to protest the dormitory’s hygiene conditions.

“I am very happy for the post-2011 starred students who can return to university, but we have the right to return to the university and to receive our report cards, too. I believe that the Ministry of Science must reconsider this decision.”

Siavash, a 2008 starred student, agreed that participating in entrance exams took time and energy. “A large group of starred students have become involved with jobs and work activities, and they are no longer able to participate in the entrance examination.”

According to ICHRI, the Ministry of Intelligence played a prominent role in the starring of students. The ministry “is engaged in monitoring and detaining critics and dissidents throughout the country.

“By increasingly using university admissions and disciplinary mechanisms to bar targeted students, the ministry expanded its reach into academic environments,” ICHRI said.

Changes afoot

Last week a group of 70 protesters, including students of Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran who had been suspended or expelled, demonstrated outside the university calling for the right to continue their studies.

Many students were disciplined and expelled for their political activities during the eight years that Sadreddin Shariati was head of the university. Iran’s new administration removed him on 2 September and a new interim head, Hossein Salimi, was appointed.

Salimi told local media that “peaceful relations between the university and the students” would be one of his top priorities.

In recent years, many professors were also expelled or forced into early retirement because of their political positions. This was particularly evident at Allameh Tabatabai University, where several economics professors were dismissed for links to reformists.

The Academy of Sciences of Iran, in a letter to new President Hassan Rohani last month, called for an end to “the security-laden atmosphere dominating the universities”.

Interim Minister Tofighi said 130 complaints against university administrations had been filed with the ministry by people who claimed their rights were violated during the Ahmadinejad administration.

He added that there was some evidence that a number of faculty members were forced into retirement because of their political beliefs, and that the ministry was determined to address their complaints.