Star-Crossed Students and ‘Incomplete’ Files: How Iran Bars Dissidents and Minorities from University

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Milad Poursia

Barring religious minorities and political dissidents from universities has been a policy of the Islamic Republic’s policy since the 1984 – before which the universities had been closed by order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1980-83 cultural revolution.

With the 1984 approval of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education deprived the followers of proscribed religions, including Baha’i citizens, along with people accused of “moral corruption” and “opponents” of the Islamic Republic, from university education.

Legal requirements were published in 1988 on the dismissal of students. Authorities had to “prove” the moral corruption of the accused, demonstrate their “armed struggle” against the Islamic Republic, and show their efforts in “propagating materialism” and “promoting non-heavenly religions”. But these requirements did not limit the numbers of those barred from university: instead it turned into a tool for security agencies and their justification for expelling or barring political critics and Baha’is from the universities.

Thousands of young people in Iran have lost work opportunities and the means to earn a living as a result of these decisions.

According to Zia Nabavi, a former member of the activists’ group Council for the Defense of the Right to Education, the practice of expelling dissident students from universities declined after the 1980s, during the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

But a new system was introduced after the first term of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Students who were suspected of being political dissidents, or Baha’is or other groups, had a star marked against their name. The star meant that they were in danger of being expelled or barred from completing their studies – or even from taking the national university entrance exams.

A group of those barred from university during the past 20 years recently shared with IranWire some of the bitter experience of bouncing between the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology and the National Education Evaluation Organization, during a recent discussion on the the Clubhouse social network.

The Education Evaluation Organization: A Place to Interrogate University Candidates

The first master’s degree entrance exam was held during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, in the winter of 2005, which was also when the “star” system began to single out suspected dissidents and minorities. Starred students would receive news of being barred from entering university right after the exam results had been published in national newspapers.

The difference between starred students and others was reflected in the “Description” section of their transcripts. Some students saw two stars in this column while others saw the number 2 in the same place. But both were codes between the security agencies and the Ministry of Science, on the one hand, and candidates on the other, so that they would know they had been denied entry without any written documentation.

The division of labor between undergraduate universities and the Teacher and Student Recruitment and Selection Center was done through a committee at the National Education Evaluation Organization, to manage the process of barring students during the early years Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Saeed Ardeshiri, a student member of the Office for the Consolidation of Unity [Tahkim-e Vahdat], was among those who experienced the first wave of starred students. Ardeshiri had been admitted to Allameh Tabatabai University in 2006 to study social sciences but was later barred from studying. He spoke about this during the Clubhouse discussion.

“Seventeen starred students were expelled after announcing entrance exam results mentioned the code ‘2’ in their transcripts. But more than 1,400 others students were able to study by being summoned to security agencies and signing commitments in disciplinary committees.”

Ardeshiri, who was also one of the first members of the Council for the Defense of the Right to Education, said about the number of those deprived of education at the postgraduate and doctoral levels: “According to our follow-up, a total of 15 people were deprived of continuing their education in 2006 alone. In the following years, this statistic increased exponentially. For example, in 2007, 50 people, and the following year, 75 people were starred. And this is just what we were able to obtain about the total number of starred students.”

In 2006, a number of starred students who had been denied university entry signed a protest letter. Ardeshiri said: “Many signatures were collected all over the country. But only one professor signed our petition. The rest refused. But soon professors were also expelled from universities … today dozens of professors in Ahmadinejad and Rouhani’s governments have been barred from teaching and dozens of government officials have filled the universities [in their place] to benefit from illegal scholarships and powerful positions.”

The method of barring students changed in 2007. The transcripts codes were replaced by messages on the website of the Education Evaluation Organization which said “Defect in file” and an instruction for candidates to visit the “Fifth floor of the Evaluation Organization.” This year was also the first time that Gonabadi dervishes and their families, like Baha’i citizens, joined the ranks of those deprived of education.

Zahra Tohidi, a political activist who now, after years of being deprived access to education, has finally been able to study for a doctorate in sociology, spoke of her first experience in 2007: “After seeing ‘Defect in file’ on the website of Evaluation Organization for myself and a number of the classmates deprived of education, we decided to refer to the Evaluation Organization. On the fifth floor, Morteza Nourbakhsh, a former director and a member of the Professor and Student Selection Committee, showed a list of applicants and said that the Ministry of Intelligence had given it to them and that these people were not allowed to continue their studies. In the names, we came across someone who had no political activity, and we were all surprised by his deprivation. During the conversation, it became clear that his father was a Gonabadi dervish, and we guessed that the deprivation had occurred for this reason. In the subsequent follow-up, we found out that, unlike student activists, the intelligence office did not even allow him to enter to ask about the reason for his deprivation of education.”

Hassan Rouhani and the Promise to Remove the Star System

Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 was accompanied by a promise to resume using the star system. But after coming to power the government limited also forced those students who had been marked to re-take the entrance exam.

Baha’i citizens are among those who were barred from entering university since 1984 in Iran. The only changes they have seen were in 2005, when after much criticism from human rights organizations, they were allowed to take the entrance exam. But this did not mean that they were assured of access to university – in most cases they were still unable to study. But before then Baha’is had not even been allowed to take the exam that is a prerequisite for studying at Iranian universities. And still today they are told that their files have a “Defect” or are “Incomplete” or that they have been disqualified for other reasons.

Ardeshir Fanaian, the pseudonym of a Baha’i citizen who took the entrance exam many times in the hope of entering the university, said in the Clubhouse room that each time he took the test he encountered the same “Incomplete” message. Fanaian added that the few Baha’is who managed to enter universities after taking the entrance exams would almost all soon be summoned to a university or assessment body to state their religious affiliation. “If they insisted on being Baha’is, they would be expelled from universities immediately,” Fanaian said.


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