Iran’s universities’ steady advance in research, rankings and internationalisation

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Iran’s university student population has mushroomed in recent years and now approaches 5 million. Abbas Soroush is a professor of Iran’s Amirkabir University of Technology (AUT) and has served as its vice chancellor for education since 2014. Tony Martin asked Prof Soroush how Iran is addressing the quality, research and internationalisation challenges that face its huge and developing university sector.

In 2014, the number of enrolments to universities in Iran was reported at over 4.5 million, a huge increase since 1979. Is this growth set to continue? In what sectors has the growth been strongest? What has driven the great popularity of a university degree in Iran?

Increasing interests for higher education and its high popularity have continued generally during the last three decades. There are some backgrounds in this case which should be mentioned and explained in detail.

The high rate of population growth in the past 35 years was one of the reasons for the high demand for higher education. Also because of the sanctions our country faced, we were forced to increase our industrial production. Therefore, we decided to educate and train young scientists and engineers to work on both daily demands of the industry and R&D needs. This is another reason for the increasing number of students, especially in the engineering fields and medicine, in Iran.

Almost all fields of engineering are highly demanded; among which are electrical, mechanical, chemical and petrochemical, civil and environmental, computer, and biomedical engineering. Although the country’s economy depends to some degree on oil, the other industrial products are also booming; also the need for knowledge-based productions, which has been another reason for the increase in the number of engineering students, has been the centre of attention.

In general, engineering fields have seen the biggest growth in recent years due to their ability to create economic growth and respond to the increase in demand. Of course, medicine and its related fields, such as pharmacology are attractive for students due to daily needs of the society.

Iran has a long tradition of high quality education. With the many restrictions that the country has suffered in recent years, how has this quality been maintained? What forms of university accreditation exist to monitor quality?

The administrative body and faculty members of the universities in the country have mostly graduated from top universities of the world. They always try to put their experiences gained during their own education into practice and provide a high-quality education to keep the academic standard in the country at the highest possible level. In addition to the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology (MSRT), the Islamic World Science Citation Centre, ISC, a top accreditation system in the country and region, assesses universities based on both quality and quantity of their education and research. Also a few NGO accreditation centres in the country do evaluate the universities.

Evaluating universities against their global counterparts through rankings has become an important measure of a university’s standing in the world. What is Iran’s approach to world rankings and to other international forms of academic evaluation?

In recent years, our universities have attended and joined various world rankings summits and institutions to introduce a quality higher education system to the country. The history of the recent decade shows that Iranian universities have been successful in this respect, and that they are gaining better places in the well-known world university rankings. Our approach in the Iranian universities is to spread and consolidate our international academic ties, to systematically evaluate and accredit our universities with the help of national and international accreditation centres, and to present ourselves more frequently in regional and global summits and conferences. We always look for new opportunities to build a network of trust between ours and other universities across the world.

It is not long since Iranian universities have started to present a true and representative picture of themselves to the world by submitting updated related data and statistics to the world university rankings, such as QS, Times, Shanghai, and Leiden. The results have been amazing and we all see yearly climbing trends in the ranking positions of the universities as well as an increase in the number of universities included.

We read that postgraduate provision at both master’s and PhD levels is low, compared with Iran’s undergraduate provision and that of other countries’ corresponding ratios. Why is this? Are measures being taken to increase postgraduate provision at a national level?

Iran was a cradle of science in earlier times. In order to revive the golden time of Persian science and technology, Iran’s scientists are now trying to reach the world’s top positions. Despite political and technological limitations, Iran has made considerable advances in science and technology through education and research, especially during the last two decades.

Research plays an important role in the development of any country. In Iran, increasing the ratio of postgraduate students to undergraduate students has been one of the main policies of the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. Currently this ratio is increasing on a yearly basis and the target is to reach a ratio of about 30% till 2023. In this respect, the Iranian universities are trying to expand their postgraduate programmes to meet this target.

Iran’s universities have suffered from low levels of investment. What collaborations have been possible with European and other regions’ universities to enable its students and faculty to benefit from their more advanced resources?

We have adapted the growth of our universities mostly with internal investments. However, we welcome mutual collaborations with other universities from Europe and also the Far East. As I mentioned, we are open to new opportunities and welcome universities and organisations that are looking for investment; a number of organisations from Europe and Japan are funding the conduction of researches shared between faculty members of Iranian and non-Iranian universities.

Turning to Amirkabir University of Technology, we note that it has one of Iran’s highest level of international students. What is the appeal of AUT to attract so many? How has the university been able to achieve this recruitment? What do the international graduates take home that they might not take from other Middle East or Asian universities?

The main reason for attraction of international students to AUT is its high national and regional academic position. Undoubtedly AUT is one of the Iran’s highly ranked universities, especially in engineering, presenting a large number of engineering fields and curricula (16 faculties, each with a number of specialised subfields). We have widespread ties with wellknown universities and student centres of the region and are able to attract their students for further studying at AUT. International students at AUT take home a lot of knowledge and academic experience, in addition to the sweet taste of Iranian rich culture and hospitality.

AUT is not only a welcoming place for students from the neighbouring countries, but also it welcomes students from Europe, Central Asia, the Far East, and even North America. AUT has recently hosted a number of undergraduate and graduate students from Europe; they are spending their sabbatical periods of studies in Iran.

AUT has a much higher proportion of postgraduate students than most of Iran’s universities. Why is this? What is AUT’s contribution to global research in the engineering and science subjects in which it specialises?

AUT is the oldest engineering university in the country with efficient contacts and strong ties with industry. Our faculty members and researchers in AUT have close relationships with the industry and try to fulfil its needs by conducting required researches. In order to meet this goal, we admit a considerable number of graduate students annually. Currently the ratio of postgraduate students to total students at AUT is about 50%. Increasing the quality and quantity of postgraduate programmes and research activities, especially at the PhD level, has been one of the important policies planned by the university leaders, especially since 2004. This is met also by actions such as defining multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary academic fields. AUT accepts also national and international postdoctoral students.

In addition, commercialisation of technology-based researches has been one of the important policies of the university. The Innovation and Technology Centre of AUT, INOTEC, provides a productive platform for enterprise growth and commercialisation. INOTEC aims to integrate the assets and research activities of AUT, technology commercialisation and industry collaboration in the form of knowledge-based companies, and is becoming a regional and international hub for technology innovation. The main goal of this centre is to create evolution in wealth factors of companies whose products are produced through knowledge and information-based activities. This centre has a steady management team, actively engaged in fostering the transfer of technology and business to tenant organisations. The university has increased its international activities, especially in global research collaboration.

What message would you like to convey to university leaders around the world to encourage them to engage with AUT and with Iran’s higher education in general?

Amirkabir University of Technology is one of the pioneers among technological and engineering universities in Asia. The university has expanded its size and enhanced its quality to the point that it is referred to as “Iran’s pioneer among engineering universities”. In addition, AUT has been home to many talented scholars and scientists recognised nationally and internationally by their high-quality researches. Currently, AUT has 550 faculty members and over 12,500 students (35% female and 65% male). The university aims at optimising its work by focusing on developing new courses especially at master’s and doctoral levels. This diversity of programmes allows AUT to expand its horizons, reach out globally, and hold a bright international outlook. Presently, AUT has 16 departments that offer both undergraduate and graduate programmes (16 BSc, 166 MSc and 68 PhD programmes), 16 centres of excellence and 24 research centres. AUT has been ranked the first technological university in Iran and 229th worldwide in Leiden Ranking.

At the country level, more and more universities are sitting in the world university rankings; one main reason for this is the quality of research being undertaken in the Iranian universities and their research centres.

Abbas Soroush is a professor of the Amirkabir University of Technology, and has served as the vice chancellor for education of the university since 2014. He received his PhD in 1996 in geotechnical engineering at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Alberta, Canada. Professor Soroush served as the chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, at AUT from 2000 to 2005, and as president of the Iranian Geotechnical Society between 2008 and 2014. Having established close relationships with the dam industry both at national and international levels, Dr Soroush was a member of the executive board of the Iranian National Committee on Large Dams (IRCOLD, ICOLD, 2006–2014). He has been chairman/ secretary of 12 international review expert panels for large dams in Iran. Professor Soroush has presented a number of keynote lectures in International conferences, including 15ARC (Hong Kong, 2011) and Indian Geotechnical Conference (Kochi, 2011). Professor Soroush has published about 70 journal papers in high ranking international journals and presented 110 papers in international and national conferences.