Academic brain drain raised by MPs after years of denial

The number of students and academics fleeing Iran, including many top professors, is causing a sizeable brain drain and has reached such high levels that it is being openly discussed in the Iranian parliament, after years of government denial.

In the past, the government has denied that a major problem exists, but oppressive regime tactics coupled with crippling international sanctions and salaries made uncompetitive by the falling currency value have led to more and more highly educated Iranians fleeing the country.

The protracted issue was brought to the forefront again during a Majles-e Showra-ye Eslami (parliament) session in the capital Tehran this month when lawmakers from different regions of the country expressed concern that the talent exodus could aggravate the country’s economic crisis.

“From March 2019 to March 2020, some 900 professors left Iran. A professor with 40 years of experience receives IRR140 million [US$560 at the free-market dollar exchange rate] each month. However, a member of the [university] managing board receives IRR500 million [US$2,000] a month. How could it be possible to compare the two?” said Reza Monadi, a member of parliament (MP) from East Azarbaijan and the chair of the Education and Research Commission.

The concerns aired during the parliament’s open session on the government’s budget for the Persian New Year on 7 March were shared by many lawmakers. The 290-member parliament is dominated by fundamentalists.

“I would like to draw the attention of my colleagues to the massive brain drain and emigration of youth from the country. This is one of Iran’s serious problems currently,” said Anoushirvan Mohseni-Bandpei, another MP.

“We are facing the devaluation of the national currency. Thus, despite reaching [top academic] heights after 20 years of experience, [faculty members’] income is less than US$1,000. Yet, our neighbouring countries offer between US$10,000 and US$15,000 to faculty members of universities, and elites,” said Mohseni-Bandpei.

On 20 January, even Tasnim, a news website affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, quoted Mohammad Vahidi, deputy chairman of parliament’s Education and Research Commission, as saying: “145,000 people emigrate annually, of whom 105,000 have a university degree. In fact, every day about 20 engineers and experts holding degrees like bachelors or PhDs leave the country.”

Academics have had to take on second jobs to make ends meet (including driving taxis), which would have a knock-on effect on the quality of education in universities, according to the report.

Unemployment among Iranian university graduates was high before the pandemic – at 40% of all the unemployed – and has risen since, while those in employment have seen their buying power eroded by inflation.

In 2020 the currency lost almost 49% of its value against the US dollar and a drop in oil prices has deepened the economic crisis, with Iran already badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic – the worst affected country in the region.

Parliamentarians called for effective measures to reduce the brain drain, such as special incentives for graduates and better planning to make use of the country’s highly qualified talent. However, a past scheme to provide loans to new science and technology graduates has had little impact.

Denial in the past

The last time the issue captured the limelight was in 2016 when many local media outlets reported the International Monetary Fund’s brain drain statistics that ranked Iran highest among all developing countries, with an estimated 150,000 people exiting Iran yearly. The regime largely ignored and rejected the figures, which others have put as high as 180,000 or 200,000 leaving the country every year.

Turkey-based Iranian journalist Siyamat Mulla Muhammadi told University World News not much has changed since. “There is still the denial and rejection of the brain drain. What has aggravated the situation in the past few years is the crippling international sanctions [in connection with Iran’s controversial nuclear programme] that have led to devastating inflation and joblessness in Iran,” he said.

A research paper, “Migration and Brain Drain from Iran”, by Stanford University’s Iran 2040 Project indicates the total number of Iranian-born emigrants increased from about half a million people prior to the 1979 revolution to 3.1 million in 2019, corresponding to 1.3% and 3.8% of the country’s population, respectively.

Overall, top destination countries for Iranian migrants include the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.

It estimated that a total of about 700,000 Iranian-born individuals have attended foreign universities. “Iran’s ongoing brain drain crisis can be attributed to the compounding effects of multiple factors, most notably: decades of poor governance, political repression, human rights abuses, bleak economic outlook, corruption, and socio-demographic factors”, the Iran 2040 Project noted.

Issue is out in public

A segment of the Persian-language media outlets in the country have recently been writing about the issue.

According to Iranian diaspora groups, even the state-run Fars News Agency, affiliated to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has reported an increasing number of students and professors leaving Iran.

“Why are we witnessing an increase in the brain drain phenomenon and less and less students willing to seek higher education [inside Iran],” noted a report by the state-run Mardom Salari daily.

The semi-official ISNA news agency in Iran in January quoted a top official at the University of Mashhad as saying that lack of support for faculty members has led to the increase in the brain drain and emigration of professors from all universities.

Some departments in the country’s universities, such as mechanics and computers, have lost more than 30% of their professors, it said.

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology were contacted for comment, but did not respond.