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NUMBER 51, SPRING 2008

The University Entrance Exam Crisis in Iran

Shahrzad Kamyab
Shahrzad Kamyab is an international education consultant. E-mail: Shahrzad.Kamyab@yahoo.com.


In Iran, as in many other countries where a university entrance exam is the sole criterion for student selection, limited space and resources have restricted many talented and enthusiastic applicants seeking access to higher education. Consequently, the phenomenon of the university entrance exam has caused discontent and conflict.

In June each year, high school graduates in Iran take a stringent, centralized nationwide university entrance exam, called the Konkur, seeking a place in one of the public universities. The semiprivate Azad University holds a separate entrance exam. The competition is fierce, the exam content rigorous, and the seats at universities limited. In recent years, although the government has responded to demands for improved access and to a rapid increase in the rising number of applicants by enlarging the capacity of universities and creating Azad University, public universities are still only able to accept 10 percent of all applicants. Last year 150,000 students among 1.4 million participants were admitted. Almost 60 percent of accepted applicants were women, as the participation of women in higher education has doubled over the last two decades. In contrast to public universities, which require no fees, Azad University charges high fees and administers its own entrance exam, which is very similar to the Konkur but somewhat less stringent. Although Azad University is one of the largest universities in the world, with almost a million students in campuses around the country, the percentage of students admitted is comparable to public universities. Applicants are willing to pay such a high fee to enter Azad University to gain employment and a higher status in the society upon graduation.

History and Trends
Konkur is a comprehensive, 4.5-hour multiple-choice exam that covers all subjects taught in Iranian high schools—from math and science to Islamic studies and foreign language. The exam is so stringent that normally students spend a year preparing for it; those who fail are allowed to repeat the test in the following years until they pass it.

A very lucrative cram industry offers courses to enthusiastic students. The Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology has established the Education Evaluation Organization to oversee all aspects of the test.

As the sole criterion for student admissions into universities in Iran, Konkur has gone through many phases. In prerevolutionary Iran, the exam was—as currently—a comprehensive test of knowledge and assessment of academic achievement for admissions. However, the problem in this era was that the selection methods provide advantages to candidates from urban areas, especially those from the upper and upper-middle classes with better education and preparation. Thus, almost 70 to 80 percent of university entrants came from large urban cities.

In the early years of postrevolutionary Iran, the purpose of testing shifted from being just a mere test of knowledge to an instrument to ensure the "Islamization of universities," aimed at admitting students committed to the ideology of the revolution. The university entrance exam judged admissions candidates not only by their academic test score but also by their social and political background and loyalty to the Islamic government.

In the early 1980s, a quota system was introduced to further democratize the selection criteria by allowing preferential treatments to underprivileged students. A year after the Iran-Iraq war ended, a law was passed to help handicapped and volunteer veterans to enter universities, reserving 40 percent of university seats for war veterans.

An additional criterion for student selection was introduced in the early 1990s to localize the student population, giving priority to candidates who applied to study in their native provinces. This policy was to prevent student migration into the larger cities. The requirement of service after graduation also was instrumental in providing education and health to the needy areas.

Ongoing Problems
Despite attempts made in recent years to reform university selection criteria and to promote the equalization of educational opportunities, the Konkur remains an impediment to equal education access. Both quantitatively and qualitatively, the quota criteria have worked against students whose academic performance is superior to those favored by the quota system. Another factor that contributes to the phenomenon of student elimination is the lack of infrastructure and facilities in spite of the expansion of infrastructure and establishment of an "open" university, Azad University. Azad University, a semiprivate university, favors its autonomy in governance, but its degrees and curriculum are overseen by the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology.

The other drawback is the nature of the test itself. As in many other countries where only a long multiple-choice, mostly memory-based exam is used to select qualified applicants to enter universities, Iranian schools have been turned into factories for exam cramming.

Konkur, especially in recent years, has further contributed to the massive brain drain from Iran and has created psychological and social problems such as anxiety, boredom, and hopelessness among the youth who fail the test.

Reform Options
In Iran, admission to university—especially prestigious public universities like Tehran University or the highly selective Sharif Polytechnical University—remains a means of achieving elevated status in a society where education is a major determinant of class mobility. Graduates of such universities have a better chance of securing the increasingly limited jobs in the prestigious professions in Iran—medicine, engineering, law—making success in the entrance exam the first and perhaps the most important hoop through which Iranian youths must jump.

As the Konkur crisis persists, authorities are contemplating a replacement mechanism for student selection. One of the options being considered is to use the cumulative grade-point average (GPA) of the final three years of high school to admit students. While this policy seems more humanistic and fair than using a single exam to measure students' preparedness, it still cannot ensure fairness or reveal students' aptitude for further learning. Perhaps incorporating interviews, essay writing, and aptitude tests, in addition to GPA would be a more effective way of measuring students' qualifications to enter universities.

Another long-term approach to remedy the Konkur crisis in Iran would be to rely on midcareer education and training in place of the precareer pattern of university education by introducing the community college concept into the education system of Iran. This approach could serve to divert less academically inclined students from participating in the university entrance exams and hopefully eventually alleviate the Konkur crisis.


[Online] Available: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/newsletter/Number51/p22_Kamyab.htm