Why Iranian Students Going Abroad For Higher Education, Refuse to Return Home?

Loh; News, Analytical & Educational (Monthly)
Jan. 2000, No. 7
Pages: 20 - 23

Summary: Iranian university students and professors cite the following as the main reasons for brain drain in the country: Shortage and lack of scientific and technological resources, lack of job security, shortage of income, restriction of freedom, limitation to choose jobs, and idleness of their expertise.



The fact is that going abroad for the continuation of education is neither cheap nor easy. Some students say they had spent 15 million rials just to get accepted in a foreign university. These universities which accept foreign students have a lot of requirements. A few recommendations from university teachers; the more the teacher is known to them the better. The undergraduate grade transcript, which is of course supplied by the domestic university's administration office. GRE test passing grade is also required. Another requirement is a passing grade in the TOEFL test, which is the most valid English language test. This test is not however held in Iran. There are two other tests, AILAB and IELTS, which are only valid for American and Canadian universities. These two tests are held every month in Iran. The cost to take these exams is 100 dollars per exam. The pertinent foreign university of course demands 50-100 dollars to process a prospective foreign student's file as well. There's of course no such thing as brain drain.

The brains themselves leave of their own volition while exerting a lot of efforts and spending a lot of money. There are no accurate statistics on the number of Iranian students abroad. Dr. Hosseini, who has been in charge of Iranian students in Canada for 5 years, says there are 4,000 students on government scholarship in Canada. His estimate of the total Iranian students abroad is 40,000. Some 130 Iranian students requested for transfer of their transcript to some foreign universities last year. This means they really intend to continue their education abroad. The real number is of course more than this. Those who have completed their undergraduate studies, settle their accounts with their university and transfer their transcripts themselves. The number of those interested in continuing their education abroad is on the increase every year. There is talk of sending a bus load of Sharif University students to Turkey to take their TOEFL and GRE tests there next summer.

On a trip to the U.S., Dr. Reza Mansoori, professor of physics visited some Iranians residing there. He says according to the Iranian mission at the U.N., there are 324 Iranians in the U.S. who have Ph.d degree in physics. It's certain that the number is bigger than this. There may be around 500 Iranians with Ph.d in Physics in the U.S. Also 2 to 3 percent of the specialists in America are Iranians. In Silicon Valley, where hi-tech electronic chips are manufactured, there are 5,000 Iranians working with electrical engineering degrees. The motivation for different individuals for leaving or staying is different. Most of those who leave have serious complaints about the university conditions.

Bardia Sadri, a computer science student at the University of Sharif Computer School, says, "Our school was the first computer school in Iran; however, we still do not have an assistant professor. It's perfectly natural that in such a school even the best treatise written is actually a plagiarism. For a university to award a Ph.d degree, there must be a few Ph.d professors in the related school."

Dr. Mostashari, former researcher and teacher at the university says: "Everybody says that we have Ph.d programs here, however, we know better, since we award Ph.d degrees to each other. Our libraries are not even adequate to see to the needs of undergraduate studies." There are many who do not find anybody able to help them in their field of studies so they leave the country.

Dr. Zangeneh, professor of mathematics at the university says: "If everybody stays in Iran, they can only continue their education in those fields for which there are Ph.d degree professors here. So there's naturally no variety among different fields. Anyway, some people must go abroad to continue their education." By and large, everybody knows that continuation of education is not the only motif to bring about such a wave.

Salem Darysavi says: "One gets an excellent chance to learn about oneself when one is abroad. One has all the freedom one wishes to have. Here because of the culture we have, we don't understand why something is good at some time and bad at other times. We learn more about our culture when we are abroad."

Dr. Mahdavi, professor of the Electrical Engineering Faculty says: "If I were you, I would go abroad to continue my education even if the quality may not be as good as it is in here. The only reason for this is that I will become acquainted with a new environment."

Behnam Dashtipour, who is studying at one of the American universities, in answer to our question as to why he left Iran, pointed to three different reasons: "First, the environment is much better. Next door to the place I work, there are people from Taiwan, Japan, China, Russia, America and the Philippines. Up to now I have spoken with people from 30 countries. I have learned something about the life style and way of thinking of the people of the world. This was absolutely impossible in Iran. The second reason is the superior technology, and the third reason is freedom. When I was in Iran there was no freedom. Only when I came here did I realize what freedom was. The meaning of freedom is not even clear to our intellectuals, since freedom must be felt. According to conventions in Iran I am not doing the right thing in here. However, realization of what freedom means is very valuable for me. Even if you do not agree with something here, it is better for you to know why you don't agree with it."

One of the computer science students says: "If I want to continue my education here (in Iran), there are people who must endorse my qualification, such as the Basij, the Islamic Association, representative of the foundation of the leadership. After all that they must confirm my qualification secretly. This is intolerable for me to see those people who are not good enough to be a judge of something be given the authority to confirm my qualifications. My education starts out like this. The fact is that when I pass through this filter I should begin to doubt myself."

There are of course those students who have had the chance to study in a good foreign university, nonetheless they decided to stay in Iran and get their education there. Saman Moqimi ranked first in the Ph.d entrance examination in physics in 1994. He says: "If you go abroad, the outside world does not change a lot but here things are fluid and constantly changing. Even if a person does not do anything out of ordinary, his presence can bring about some sort of culture in here. If there is a powerful earthquake in Japan, at most 1,000 people are killed. The same quake in Iran will kill 1,000,000 people." He continues jokingly: "I am staying here to stop the earthquake from happening."

Ahmad Moshaie, a domestic Ph.d student says: "We think the conditions of the society should be in a way to let us do our jobs without any hindrance. We need a a smooth road to follow our goals. We don't think our university has different conditions than those in American universities. We can do scientific work in our country too. We only need to have a little intelligence and take up hard work."

Dr. Karimpour, assistant professor at the Physics Faculty is among the first generation who received their Ph.d in physics from Sharif University. The Ph.d students of that period were excellent students. Some of them received their acceptances from foreign universities but all the same they stayed in Iran.

Dr. Karimpour says: "The post-war social reasons brought about the feelings among our students that they should stay and make the higher education grow. This feeling has paled among the students and has taken the form of slogans. Nonetheless, all of us who have stayed in the country are happy enough. There might be those unsatisfied a few, but most of us do not see the solution in leaving the country."

One must talk of a coming back, side by side of leaving. Don't those students who have left ever come back again? From those students studying in Canada or America on government scholarships, only 60 percent return to the country, while almost all those who go to Europe or Asia to continue their education come back. There are very few who come back among the number of those students who pay their own expenses or are on scholarship awarded by foreign universities. In this connection, Dr. Mansoori says: "Some people would swear that should such and such go abroad he would return, but he doesn't. These people who leave the country are intelligent people. Intelligent people change in an advanced society and no one can say how they change. It doesn't matter whether they are religious or otherwise."

Elham Kashefi, who is studying mathematics at the Imperial College of London, when asked whether she would go back or not says: "For the time being I think I would go back, but I don't want to commit myself. Two years ago I used to claim I wouldn't set my foot outside the country but look at me being here now." Some would rather make a permanent home out of the host country.

Bardia Sadri says: "I won't promise to go back. If I go back it will be for a visit. If you consider the academic conditions here, those people who go back will end up with an atrophied mind. The best arrangement is to spend 6 months here and 6 months there."

There are three different situations for the student who leaves the country. He may return to the country for good, or he may not even look back, or still he may commute back and forth, returning only to forward a few seminars.

Kia Dalili, a Ph.d mathematics student, who is traveling to the U.S. for his Ph.d degree, says: "I believe I'll come back. This is my decision. This is the most I can say now. I hope the environment would not influence me to stay there for good after six months of staying there. I feel I am indebted to the Iranian people. They helped me get to where I am now. I think my coming back might change their lives a little better than what it is now. The least is that our country is so good that the people who leave, do come back too."

All the same, Maryam Mirzakhani believes: "We must concede the fact that coming back for good is difficult to decide, since the person who comes back impedes his/her own growth. I like those doctors who go back to Iran for a month every year. They are fair to both themselves and others. Dr. Vafa who is scientifically recognized worldwide, wouldn't have got to anywhere had he returned to Iran for good."

Hossein Namazi, one of the supporters of a `one month a year' visit of Iran, says: "If people do go back and stay, this would damage their profession and become laggard. Their interest and feelings would eventually wear off. Now let's assume the highly educated individuals spend three months in Iran every year, and then naturally return to their home country. They keep their interest and love for their country of origin and transfer a lot of information to their countrymen as well."

Kia Dalili does not agree with Namazi. He says: "I love working in an active and lively environment. My friends and I mostly resolve our problems at a time when we are walking with each other or we are sipping on tea. I am all for the kind of environment in which teachers and students are on very friendly terms. I also think there is no use in highly professional individuals to go back to Iran for three months every year, since the kind of relationship that I was talking about would not develop in just three months. If there is the idea of transferring of knowledge, this can be accomplished by sending articles to Iran. We must go back and create the kind of environment that I was talking about." Dr. Karimpour talks about those who are studying abroad and says: "They do get used to the ambiance and environment there. It seems awfully odd for them to jerk themselves free and come back. The fact is that those who come back are usually scientifically underachievers. This did not hold true previously, however, now that the labor market and demand for the educated is weak abroad, that can be more likely."

Farshad Mashayekhi, who is studying at University of Pennsylvania says: "It is not really important in this world as to where a person chooses to live in. We should not be unhappy about those people who stay abroad and we shouldn't feel proud because they go back to Iran. What matters most of all is the fact that they keep in touch with their country, and try to help people there. The fact that there are famous Iranian scientist all over the world is very valuable. There is no geographic borders for science."

Nader Rasouli, who has decided against leaving the country for the time being, says: "The kind of society that invests in a person makes him indebted to itself, and the person who has left his own country can not pay back his debt to that society."

Bardia Sadri has an interesting idea about investments. According to him if there is any kind of investment on him in this country, then the kind of investment made on a person in foreign countries is relatively higher. The amount of money he spends in only one term studying there is a lot more than the whole outlay he made during the whole period of his undergraduate study in Iran.

Mohammad Mehdian, who is studying computer science in the University of Toronto, says that he will go back since first of all he feels more at peace when he is near his parents, secondly he prefers the Iranian environment and culture to that of the foreign country in which he lives in spite of all the drawbacks and shortcomings in Iran. He thinks he can be of more use in Iran. "Even if you do your job excellently in a foreign country, you are still a cog in the wheel," he says.

When I asked Elham Kashefi about what she thought about the investments made on her in Iran, she said: "I think there are much stronger feelings than the government money spent on me. First of all we are Easterners and we do not feel at ease at the side of Westerners, and still there is that patriotic feeling which keeps making you feel you'd like to give whatever you've learned back to your countrymen."

Farshad Mashayekhi, who is studying in America, talks about what an Iranian student loses by studying abroad and says: "There is no time to see Persepolis beating Esteqlal (two leading Iranian soccer teams). You can't go to Darband and Darakeh (two recreational places in the outskirts of Tehran). Come registration time, you should take up the courses you want through Internet, there's no need to stand in line from midnight."

Behnam Dashtipour, in answer to this question as to whether he would go back to Iran or not, says: "Working for only one month here gives me the feeling that I have worked for a full year in Iran. The work place in Iran is sick. I make as much as 500 million rials a year in here. The only problem here is my being away from my parents."

According to what Dashtipour says leaving Iran has nothing to do with education and things like that. The real problem is social and economic. How many Iranians do you think would go back after they have finished their education. They will stay here because education is not their problem. Their problem is money and freedom.

Dr. Mansoori talks about his discussion with Iranian specialists in America. According to him none of them think of returning, although they all would like to help Iran.

Mohammad Mehdian referring to the economic difficulties, says: "Even most of those who would like to go back to Iran, work for some time in here and save their money so that they'll be able to purchase a home for themselves when they go back to Iran."

Kia Dalili is of the opinion that in spite of difficulties one must return to his home country. "This school we have in Iran will not change into a live and active school unless a lot of those who have left the country go back, even though that means that some of those who go back turn into useless individuals. The fact that those who leave the country go back there for good is an achievement in itself, since this would persuade a lot of others to go back too. This would continue to the point where there would be no need for anyone to return."

Dr. Iraji, the head of Physics Faculty says: "If we would like to make up for the scientific underdevelopments of our country, some people should make sacrifices and these people perhaps would not be accorded the honor of being the standard bearers of science."

One side of the story is those students who leave the country and then come back. How much can these students help the country? Wouldn't their scientific knowledge be impaired seriously?

Dr. Rastegari, who has a Ph.d degree in mathematics from the U.S. says: "My activities have not become less since I've come back. My activity has only changed in style. For the time being my relationship with the students has been promoted." This is at a time when some students believe that those people who have had their education from abroad can not become useful for different reasons."

Dr. Nayebi, the professor at the electrical engineering school says: "Students work with the state of domestic industry and so they can go on doing the same thing. One of the teachers who had studied abroad told me once that in spite of the letters he has written and the calls he has made at different places, no one knows him and does not trust him to give him a job. But since I've got my Ph.d in the country, I have so much work to do that I hardly have time to get some sleep. This is because acquaintance with different people plays a major role in Iran."

Ahmad Moshaie talks about this and says: "If you want to travel there and learn some sort of science and then try to transfer your knowledge, you'll fail completely, since our teachers here can not make use of almost 90 percent of what they had learned when they were abroad."

What Dr. Malaek, the educational deputy in charge of the university, says in this regard is very noteworthy. He says: "Our student has graduated from one of the best universities in a foreign country and now he is back in Iran. They really don't know what to do with him here. Our country lacks the capacity to absorb the genius. Our country is embroiled in so many internal problems that those who stay here will be able to do a lot more resolving these problems. However, when they leave and continue their education in a place where problems are different than what we have here, there is nothing they can do to help us with our problems when they return to Iran."

Dr. Hosseini gives a tangible example and says: "We are asking a person who has worked on mobile telephone, which is in a new hi-tech domain of science in the world, to go and teach electrical circuits. This is really a waste of money and energy, and then we tell the luckless fellow since you are indebted to your country you must go to such and such city off the beaten track and teach English. Unfortunately we are not making good use of those educated who come back to Iran."

Mohammad Mehdian says: "What's the use of asking those who are still abroad to come back while we are hardly taking advantage of those who have already come back. What's the use of our asking the ones still in foreign countries to come back! If we have the scientific development of the country in mind, we have to definitely give our university teachers the necessary monetary and spiritual backing."

What must be done? The present condition gives rise to the question as to what position the government should adopt in relation with the students' leaving the country?

Dr. Mansoori, a university professor of physics, says: "I have always tried for the university of Sharif to be in a way so as not to persuade anybody to leave the country. I was among the first to oppose the dispatch of students to foreign countries. Of course you can not force anybody to stay. But this is beside the country's policy. I have no doubt in my mind that it is to the advantage of the country if students do not go abroad for the continuation of their education. Of course I am not saying that the government should spend the money they have allocated to the education of students in foreign countries on importing cheese. They must spend this money on domestic universities. They have promised time and again to do just this but so far they have failed to do so."

Dr. Akbari, a university mathematics professor, says: "We should neither encourage students to go abroad nor force them to stay in. We must create the kind of climate in which students do not see any difference between the Iranian universities and the ones in foreign countries. Only when we have achieved this parity between the domestic and foreign universities can we hope a significant number of students would decide against leaving the country."

Dr. Karimpour is of the opinion that the government should flesh out the domestic Ph.d programs. This task however, should be performed at those universities which enjoy high standards. The government should also arrange for university teachers to take short trips abroad. Dr. Hosseini is against completely stopping the dispatch of students to foreign universities. "The dispatch of students to foreign countries has the advantage of identifying the newer technology as well as maintaining direct communication with the world's scientific centers. America and Canada have a great number of students in other countries. Nonetheless we'd better cut down on the number of students we're sending abroad. The money we save in this manner can be allocated to domestic universities or grants to teachers to do research work abroad at much lesser costs. When the government sends a student to Canada, it has to lash out 120-150 thousand dollars per student, while the same government does not spend more than 20 thousand dollars on a domestic Ph.d student."

Dr. Mostashari is of a different opinion. He says: "We have made a good investment by sending 10 students abroad out of whom 4 would never come back. This is not as bad as the fundamental investments that was made in Mobarakeh Steel Mill (in Isfahan) which is in debt. If anyone manages to cut down 10 percent on the expenses of this year's petrochemical contract (with foreign companies), this saving translates into 450 million dollars, so if among 10 students sent abroad, only one comes back and be an achieved Ph.d, he has earned the expenses made for the rest.

Almost everybody is against students' going abroad to continue their education. Dr. Mahdavi, an electrical engineer professor says: "Stopping young people from going abroad would create complexes among them and there is no advantage in it. If a young person leaves the country through illegal means, we should not expect him to come back. Even when he comes back his only motive is to hurt those who had prevented him from leaving in the first place."

Dr. Mobed, electrical engineering professor talks about the students' return and says: "When a student stays away too long in a foreign country, he feels alienated upon his return to his home country. To solve this problem we must find ways for the students abroad to make regular visits of their country while they're engaged in getting an education."

Dr. Minoo had been away from Iran for 33 years. It's some years since she has come back to Iran. She says: "Some young people waste many months and much energy to be allowed to leave the country. When they finally manage to leave, they are filled with bitter feelings from the red tape and bureaucracy in here. This bitter feeling about the state of affairs is so strong among some that they embark on burning all the bridges behind themselves so as not to ever want to come back."

The argument for leaving the country in order to continue one's education abroad is a long and deep rooted issue. However, do we pay enough attention to this issue?

Yashar Ganjali has been studying at Waterloo University in Toronto, Canada. He says: "The annoying feeling that I have is that there is nobody supervising you from higher up. There's nobody to think about these conditions. They do not bother themselves to think as to why young Iranian students are going abroad. There is no macro planning in the higher levels. Do we want these educated people to come back?"

Elham Kashefi, who is studying in London, says: "I can not say that I do not agree with leaving the country, since I have left myself and I am here now. However, what is so annoying to me is the fact that why is everybody leaving? It's really terrible. As soon as a kid gets the chance, he leaves the country. I don't think many of these people who leave would ever go back to Iran. This is really tragic."

* Parts of this report under the title of "and this is a little bit tragic" have been used from Noghte Sare Khat, the Publication of Sharif Technological University Students (May & June 1999, No. 21).

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