Reforms are needed to avoid producing impaired PhD holders

We live in a global community where education has been transformed in recent decades from training people to be literate to expediting global collaborations and international exchanges. In this world, it is vital that the voices of students and teachers who are the immediate recipients of educational decisions and policies are heard.

Higher education aims to eliminate illiteracy, inequality, injustice and unfairness, tackle malpractice, immorality and corruption and train tolerant, competent members of society who can live successfully outside the university campus.

Universities highlight these ambitions and aspirations in their mission and vision statements. They are, however, more complicated entities than one might imagine and, as such, represent a microcosm of society.

If we talk about actors, we must be cautious when it comes to the power of individual higher education stakeholders to control circumstances and events, to affect and alter decisions taken, to lead behind the scenes, to uproot those who might go against those missions and visions, and to get the authorities and the public on their side.

If we consider universities as the stage where higher education happens, then we need to list the main actors whose roles, rights, voices, values and power shape higher education. This can include individuals, charities, ministries, governments, shadow organisations, semi-government bodies, the private sector and other stakeholders.

Sometimes it seems as if higher education’s main stakeholders (researchers, academic staff, administrative staff, students and parents) have the least rights and power when it comes to decision- and policy-making.

Our article aims to capture the views of recent PhD graduates as well as new academic staff in Iran.

School education

Our participating PhD holders believe that what happens throughout the K-12 educational cycle is a mere process of data transmission – a copy and paste exercise as teachers merely transfer already available materials in the textbooks to students’ minds. The extensive focus on the importance of testing and assessment leaves no place to cultivate students’ creativity; rather, students are considered empty vessels whose minds need to be filled with their teachers’ words.

Teachers are obliged to work according to the rules and regulations imposed on school principals by the Ministry of Education of Iran. Our education cycle is governed by a centralised system of decision- and policy-making. So, the same rules and prescriptions apply to all regions which, in most cases, have totally different capacities, needs and teaching-learning issues with which to contend.

As students’ success is portrayed through their entry to higher education there is an unfair competition when it comes to obtaining a place at university or other higher education institutions through an annually held nationwide high-stakes test.

The test was the sole basis for consideration in past years. Now, however, students’ educational background is also considered as a criterion for their admission to universities. Nevertheless, the nationwide test is still the main gatekeeper for those who intend to pursue higher education studies.

The dream of higher education

Students and their parents are convinced that having formal higher education qualifications is a guarantor of ‘success’. All our educational policies are aligned to this idea of students’ future success. What happens throughout K-12 is that students are empowered to succeed in a gatekeeping test.

Teachers throughout K-12 are also obliged to cover all the content based on the syllabi which are usually test oriented, and students’ success is assessed within a product or output cycle rather than a process-oriented evaluation of their progress. There is no focus on creativity.

No knowledge or wisdom is forged through the contents of the textbooks and materials they use or the tests they take. Rather, data is transferred from the textbooks straight to students’ minds.

The same testing or assessment emphasis is also prevalent within educational cycles during students’ higher education studies at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate levels. As PhD students we are obliged to be trained for end-of-academic-semester assessments based on the curriculum and syllabus we study at the start of the semester.

There are some instructors who prefer assessments based on their students’ progress throughout the term. However, the prevalent teaching, management or leadership approach within each department, faculty and university in general is to align with educational policies that are formulated outside the campus. No creativity, critical thinking or 21st century skills are embedded within the higher education curricula and syllabi.

Passing exams

PhD students are required to pass their exams in a final testing phase if they aim to work on their dissertation. We are not trained to learn the basics of vital life skills; rather, we are left to our own devices as soon as we commence our work on our PhD dissertations.

We are not able to think critically and out of the box to understand how to plug any gaps in the knowledge literature; rather, the psychological pressure on students leads them to try to find a simple path to completing their dissertations.

In most cases, there are no collaborations possible between universities and public or private organisations off campus so students can learn about their needs as well as their social shortcomings. Rather, it seems that our PhD dissertations are usually written in a vacuum.

Students graduate with the ‘Dr’ title in front of their names as well as PhD in their signature. The dissertation committee announces that “from now on, we call you Dr X and you can use this title in all your correspondence where applicable”. The educational cycle of a student reaches its end as soon as the dissertation is defended. In most cases, there is no student-teacher or mentor-mentee relationship available after more than four years of postgraduate studies.

The main reason for doing a PhD in Iran is for students to increase their chances of being recruited by their university or other higher education institutions across the country. In Iran, and also in most developed countries, we see an imbalance between the number of university graduates and available jobs.

Rethinking education from K-12 through to higher education

Our education policy-makers need to consider urgent reforms if we want to train a competent generation that can contribute successfully to society on graduation. We need a change in focus from:

• A centralised to decentralised education system;

• Theoretical teaching to an emphasis on training competent graduates;

• Output-based assessment to process-based assessment; and from

• Passive teachers and students to active ones with decision-making powers.

If we fail to change the earlier clichéd style of teaching and learning, we will be left with an ever-increasing number of university graduates with ‘Dr’ before their names and PhD in their signatures. And we will have a generation of PhD holders who are held back and psychologically impaired.

Iman Tohidian is a PhD student of Higher Education Administration. Dr Ali Khorsandi Taskoh and Professor Abbas Abbaspour are faculty members at the Department of Educational Administration and Planning, Faculty of Psychology and Education, Allameh Tabataba'i University (ATU), Tehran, Iran.