Intense Competition for University Admission Drives Families to Stress and Education Policies to Reform

Djavad Salehi Isfahani
Djavad Salehi Isfahani
Djavad Salehi Isfahani Professor of Economics - Virginia Tech

December 21, 2007

The effect of Iran’s national entrance exam (concour) on education has been a subject of debate in Iran for some time (see related opinion). Preparation for the big test begins in elementary school and becomes intense during high school. When I visit Iran in the months before the concour, I am always aware of the high level of anxiety and tension in families with kids in high school (I know why I am not being invited to dinner!) To understand the intensity of the competition to enter universities, let us look at some numbers. They will also provide clues as to what students will have to give up in order to pass the test (more on this at a later time).

The intensity of competition depends on how many desirable positions are in universities and how many compete for them. The latter is relatively easy to pinpoint, the former is not. Over the last few years the number of students taking the test has declined, from about 1.5 million to 1.3. But competition for places in universities remains intense because the number of desirable slots has not increased by much.

In my earlier post I calculated the number of spaces in public universities using a rough estimate of 10 percent of those who took the test this past summer, or about 130,000 positions. Hazhir Rahmandad wondered how this number compared with the 340,000 published by the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI). The question is how many of these are desirable positions that drive the intensity of competition?

First, note that the 340,000 number includes all public university students, including those in Iran’s Open University (Payam Noor), two-year programs, and evening classes. The number I quoted attempts to exclude these programs because for most students entering them does not count as success.

Second, the numbers presented on the website of the Statistical Center of Iran are not always clearly defined. For example, entrants to public higher education in 2003-04 numbered 261,401 and in 2004-05 entrants numbered 266,470, but in 2005-06 the number increased to 340,526. Since admission rates cannot increase this rapidly, the definition must have changed. Most likely, the last number includes Payam Noor admissions which can easily fluctuate. For the latest year, 2006-07, SCI excludes entrants to Payam Noor and the number of entrants drops to 237,323.

Not all these slots are considered desirable and most students are keen only on a limited set of fields of study. Total enrollments in the most desirable fields of study in 2006-07 are as follows: Medicine = 32,590, Sciences = 179,000, Engineering = 158,177, and Agriculture = 52,547. These add up to only 442,271; the rest of about 700,000 students in higher education are in humanities and arts, which for the most part act as consolation prizes. Assuming an inflow rate of about one-fourth, this number gives you something close to the 10 percent (of the 1.3 million) that I estimated in previous post. The high unemployment rates for university graduates bear out my claim that for most students the concour is really about the chance to win a place in the top 10% (not 50 or 70%) of the concour.

The odds are actually lower for the more ambitious families. I recall a sad phone conversation with a mother who weeped because her daughter had ended up in the 4000th place a few years ago (in the top 1%) because it took her out of engineering range. In countries where a broader range of skills are rewarded in the labor market, mere low odds to enter the top programs would not ruin the self confidence of a woman with great talent and make her feel like a complete failure. In a 2002 paper, I quoted a perceptive Iranian writer, Ali Hassouri, on the effects of the concour competition on youth and their families. He wrote (in 1998) of the “few thousands who pass the entrance examinations” as not products of the formal educational system, but rather as the products of “the harsh response of parents who have realized the gravity of the economic conditions and are convinced that their children must be equipped with a degree.” He went on to note that the intense competition forces parents to deprive their children of “all forms of relaxation, even bathing!”

Anyone who is familiar with Iran’s high schools knows how hard Iranian students work. In doing the hard work to prepare for the big test, students lose much more than time for relaxation and sports. They lose the opportunity to develop fully as whole persons with life skills which they will need to do well in an increasingly competitive global labor market. After all, as young Iranians have found out, getting into a university is easier than getting a job afterwards. High youth unemployment in Iran is in part related to the fact that young graduates lack the skills required for today’s jobs, a problem well-known around the Middle East as mismatch of skills. Some of these skills are very obvious ones, such as typing and writing, others are less well known such as teamwork and self confidence, which too much competition in schools fails to develop. All these and other productive skills are not taught in schools because the concour does not test for them.

I will come back to the issue of skill formation in a later post. For now, it is important to note that school reform is closely tied with the reform of university admission policies. If universities look for applicants with a wider variety of skills that can go into a multiple choice test, they must administer exams and conduct interviews that evaluate those skills. In they do so, there is a good chance that schools and parents in Iran will teach those skills and students will strive to acquire them.

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