Iran’s Parliament (Majlis) Research Center recently has completed a study of women in Iran's higher education. According to this report currently Iranian women constitute 65% of student population in Iran’s higher education. This is a two fold increase compared to 32% in 1983, the base year in the study. Iranian female high school graduates share of participants in the nationwide universities’ entrance exam also has increased to 65% from 42% in 1983.
This also means male students form about 35% of Iran’s higher education, and their share of participants in nationwide universities’ entrance exam has fallen from 68% to 35%, less than half of this rate in 1983. These observations indeed signal a significant shift in Iran’s higher education structure and high school graduates willingness to pursue a college degree. So many hypotheses come to mind that can furnish a lifetime of scholarship.
First it seems Iranian men are no longer eager to receive a college degree. This is an enormous shift in society’s cultural beliefs. In a society where diplomas used to say so much about one’s qualities, Iranian men decision to forfeit a college degree could be the first sign that today many consider and evaluate the opportunity cost of higher education first and foremost. Given the high unemployment rate and particularly the high unemployment rate among college graduates, this seems a rational decision. Going to college does not appeal to an Iranian man, if it does not guarantee a job.
Second it seems Iranian women demand for higher education has been increasing steadily. This phenomenon offers a paradox. If men finds it more expensive to pursue higher education how come women demand it even more. There are a number of answers that come to mind and each demands investigation. These hypotheses range from: finding a better match as a husband to finding better jobs or gaining freedom or achieving social prestige and respect. Many suggest these as answers without offering any economic model or hypothesis testing.
One also might suggest declining fertility rate, increasing marriage average age and increasing divorce rate as contributing factors. To this one must add the existing volatility in many households across country that requires husbands and wives to seek employment. Still there has been no model quantifying these factors’ contribution to this phenomenon.
Reading Salehi-Isfahani’s recent writings on education system in Iran some intriguing ideas would come to mind. Among them the question of skill development in an economy where higher education is somehow disconnected from economy and there is no market signaling needs and market demand does not affect resource allocation in higher education sector.
Since many believe that higher education in Iran is not focused on skill development, then recent observations could also mean that Iranian men have found some other venues to develop their skills and they might be paying to receive necessary education somewhere else. For example no one knows what the gender mix is in Microsoft Certificate programs in Iran, usually held by private institutes that are not considered part of higher education and can charge students hefty tuitions by the promise of higher employability.
The other obvious question is that if the increase in women enrollment means women will develop more skills than men and would be able to be more productive. Given the high unemployment rate of college graduates the answer does not seem to be positive. Then why women are more eager to pursue a college degree?
Unfortunately it seems the report is silent about these. Instead it focuses on a longtime concern of traditional social groups and conservatives in Iran. It asks if these developments would alter the balance between Iranian women and men! It also questions the productivity of the budget allocated to higher education because of these changes. It recommends a gender based admission policy in schools with 30% to 40% of the capacity allocated to male students, 30% to 40% to female students and the rest to be decided competitively.