Background of Starred Student Controversy
Starring Gains Public Exposure
In September 2006, a year after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President, a public controversy arose over allegations by some students that the Ministry of Science was depriving qualified applicants of admission to graduate and post-graduate studies on political, ideological and religious grounds.
That month, a number of students held a series of protests in front of the Sanjesh Organization (academic measurement bureau), Parliament, and the Ministry of Science, alleged that despite having passed university entrance examinations, government authorities in charge of university admissions at the Sanjesh Organization had refused to enroll them and that stars printed next to their names on their transcripts indicated they had been singled out for denial of admission.
These students, most of whom were applicants to graduate and post-graduate programs, alleged that during the selection process, the Central Selection Committee marked their exam transcripts with stars signaling different levels of exclusion from university programs.
One star officially denoted individuals who passed the entrance exam, but whom authorities had singled out because of prior university disciplinary infractions. In practice, one star denoted students who had disciplinary or other issues, such as a history of student activism, and whom the Central Selection Committee had deemed could continue their education conditionally, after they had written a recognizance letter, promising that they would not engage in “undesirable political activities.”
Two stars officially denoted individuals who have passed the entrance exam but the Central Selection Committee has singled out because their application forms were “incomplete.” In practice, according student testimonies collected by the Campaign, many of these students had prior records that the Ministry of Intelligence deemed warranted disqualification from admission. These individuals may be granted conditional admission into a graduate program on the stipulation that they promise, in a recognizance letter, to end their political activities. The students must further acknowledge that if they continued their political activities, they would lose their university admission and be forced to pay tuition for any coursework already completed. The Ministry of Science also designates the files of many Baha’i students as “incomplete.”
Three stars refers to individuals who have passed the entrance exam, but whose “qualifications” have been completely rejected by the Central Selection Committee and Ministry of Intelligence, and have thus been barred by government agencies from entering a university.
The Ministry of Science eventually officially confirmed that a policy that bars student from university admission existed and such decisions rested primarily with the Ministry of Intelligence and the Judiciary. The Ministry denied using three stars to designate these students and the students did not report finding three stars on their transcripts. However according to an activist from the Education Rights Council, which advocates for the rights of starred and Baha’i students, some students reported receiving test results with three stars printed on them in 2006.1 Other barred students, who spoke to Ministry of Intelligence officials about their cases, reported to the Campaign that these officials sometimes referred to them and their cases as three-starred, indicating that the measures against them went beyond those of one and two starred students.
Reports of starring and excluding students quickly garnered attention from members of Parliament and news outlets in Iran.
On 11 September 2006, MP Hossein Amiri Khamekani, a member of Parliaments’ Education and Research Committee criticized the government’s politicization of student selection, the rejection of qualified applicants, and the practice of requiring others to promise that they would not engage in political activities. Khamekani told the official ISNA News Agency:
Considering the large number of applicants who have not passed the university entrance examinations for undergraduate and graduate levels, and the fact that many of our youth want to continue their education into graduate and PH.D. levels …no additional limitations should be enforced.2
On 20 September 2006, the daily newspaper Etemad Melli reported that “university registrars all over the country had received new enrollment procedures, [entitled the Procedures for Non-Enrollment of Starred Students] in which registrars were told not to enroll ‘starred students’ in the new academic term,” and that “students who object … should be guided to the Central Selection Committee.”3
According to Etemad Melli, “starring students was a punitive action,” where the Central Selection Committee divided the students into those “allowed to enroll,” and “one-, two-, or three-starred,” applicants, for whom the Committee has limited or barred from enrollment.4
The Ministry of Science’s Initial Reaction
The Ministry of Science’s reaction to questions about the starring policy was characterized by three denials: (1) that no student were starred or made to sign recognizance letter due to a prior history of political activism; (2) that no students were preemptively unable to enroll, saying that most starring cases were due to incomplete applications and implying that all cases were either resolved or soon to be resolved; and (3) no applicant had received three stars, implying that no student faced a full and permanent bar to continuing his or her education.
The first reaction by a government official to student protests about starring came from Morteza Noorbakhsh, Head of the Ministry of Science’s Central Selection Committee.
On 18 September 2006, without referring specifically to starring, Noorbakhsh admitted that “some of the students signed recognizance letters at the time of their enrollment.”5 However, he added: “None of the individuals who passed the graduate admission examination have been asked to provide promises not to engage in political activities.”6 Noorbakhsh stressed that officials requested students to sign recognizance letters because of university disciplinary records and not their political activities. He explained that:
Some of the students who, during their undergraduate studies, have had a record of disregard for educational, research, and moral rules, have provided guarantees that they would act within the university regulations during their graduate studies, and if they did not observe the university regulations, their admission would be nullified.7
In the face of a growing controversy, however, Ministry of Science officials began criticizing the media’s coverage of the starring story. The Ministry also tried to counter many of the claims made in the press, particularly any political motivation behind starring and the existence of three-starred students who were completely barred from higher education.
Speaking to semi-official Mehr News Agency on 23 September 2006, Noorbakhsh said:
[News coverage about] Starred students merely creates public anxiety [and that] among all accepted candidates in the graduate entrance exam, the files of fifty-four of them were incomplete, and after review by the Ministry of Science, the cases of all these candidates but eight, have been resolved.8
In a different interview, published by Mehr on 23 September 2006, Noorbakhsh began to offer more denials but also more details about the starring process:
There is no such thing as a three-starred student, and what has been reported on this in the media, by news agencies and on websites is false. … This year’s graduate entrance examination results, like the previous year’s, were accompanied with one or two stars, but, unfortunately, some newspapers and websites related this [act] to the students’ political activities during their undergraduate studies. … The existence of ‘stars’ is in no way indicative of a political screening of the admitted applicants and I deny the reports about this. [These students] were accepted academically, but their files are incomplete, and we will complete their files by October….When a student has two stars, it means that he had an incomplete file or that when disciplinary committees or other relevant organizations requested information about their situation, the responses had not been received by the time the results were announced.9
On 24 September 2006, then Minister of Science Mohammad Mehdi Zahedi denied the existence of “starred students” and in particular those who were academically barred for their political or student activism, saying:
Regarding non-enrollment of some of the students who have been admitted to universities, on grounds of political activities, membership in Tahkim-e Vahdat Student Union, and dismissal of students for political reasons, these are complete lies and falsehoods, and, unfortunately, some media intensify it. … If they are telling the truth, they should formally provide one instance of people who were claimed to be starred, and who were not registered because of the prior-mentioned problems.10
Starred Students Come Forward
On 25 September, the day after Minister Zahedi challenged critics to come forward with examples of starred students, Etemad Melli Newspaper reported that Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, lawyer and member of the Center for Human Rights Defenders, had “agreed to represent 17 starred graduate students who have been unable to gain entry into the universities.”11
Mohammad Ali Dadkhah said that the 17 starred students he represented were only a small part of the overall number of starred students, adding, “The Executive Branch’s interference in the admission of individuals who have met the academic requirements for gaining access to higher education is dubious.”12
On 29 September 2006, members of the Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat Student Union held a press conference where they revealed more details about some starred students, including their names and backgrounds.13 Ali Nikounesbati, a member of Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat’s Central Council, provided reporters with documents showing seven students who passed the entrance exams but were later kept from continuing their education. Nikounesbati named several three-starred students in particular, Hannan Azizi, Siamak Karimi, Yashar Qajar, Zahra Janipour, Mohsen Fatehi, Mehdi Aminizadeh, Mohammad Hossein Naeemipour and Hamed Hassandoust, and explained that “although they achieved academic admission to the university, they were kept from their education [by] the Selection Committee, based on a report by Ministry of Intelligence.”14
Nikounesbati explained that there are no judicial convictions that would allow for barring these students:
Janipour has an outstanding sentence, but no qualified court has issued a ruling that he is not fit to continue his education. Or Mohsen Fatehi, a former member of Tehran University’s College of Social Sciences Islamic Association, has a Disciplinary Committee ruling, but no qualified court has issued a ruling about his lack of qualifications to continue his education. Yashar Qajar was imprisoned for several months last year, but he was never charged and there are no rulings in his case,” said the Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat Spokesperson. [Hannan Azizi] has never had any political activity.15
Nikounesbati alleged that authorities deprived Azizi, whose father is a journalist, and Naeemipour, whose father is a former MP, of university admission because of their parents’ activities.16
Mehdi Aminzadeh, a member of the Central Council of the Iranian Islamic Alumni Association (Advar Tahkim), said during the same press conference:
In 2006, I was admitted in Qom Mofid University’s Graduate Program in Political Science. After I registered, I was called in by the University’s Registrar’s Office on the first day of classes. They showed me a letter from the Sanjesh Organization’s Selection Unit, which stipulated that I am not qualified to continue my education. I went to see Mr. Noorbakhsh, Head of the Central Faculty and Student Selection Committee, and he said that Ministry of Intelligence had written a letter in which they have talked about my contact with illegal political groups, saying that I was not entitled to continue my education…During my entire education, I have not once gone to the Disciplinary Committee. I have several judicial cases. I have gone to prison, but in none of my cases has a judicial order been issued for me to be … deprived from [my] right to continue [my] education based on [my] political and ideological beliefs…. [T]hese [sanctions] have neither a Sharia nor legal basis. … Could Disciplinary Committee or judicial rulings be used for a punishment larger than the one those rulings have already stipulated, depriving students of their rights?17
During the same press conference, Mohammad Hashemi, Spokesperson for Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat’s Central Council alleged that:
One hundred one- and two-starred students have been registered conditionally and after they signed guarantees. … Despite what Ministry of Science authorities say about the guarantees being only about the necessity of observing the rules and regulations, the guarantees are mostly about the necessity of cooperating with university authorities and security and intelligence organizations, practically barring the students from political activities.18
On 4 October 2006, ISNA published the complete text of the letter sent from the Central Selection Committee to starred students:
Greetings. This is to inform you that your case in this year’s entrance examination has been reviewed. Unfortunately, according to the student selection criteria adopted by the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, you have not been admitted. Therefore, if you would like to object to the decision issued by the Secretariat, please submit your reasons for requesting an appeal and answer the following questions, within one month following the receipt of this letter for the next steps. Results of the further review will be sent to your address. This is a reminder that the mentioned terms are stipulated on the back of this letter.19
The ISNA also published a text of a recognizance letter, provided to the agency by Noorbakhsh, which two-starred students were required to sign before enrolling in their university programs:
I, …., son/daughter of ….., with Birth Certificate Number…., issued in ….., born on ……, acknowledge that I have been allowed to conditionally enter the university by the Central Professor and Student Selection Committee Secretariat, and promise to observe all ideological, moral, and political principles within the framework of current laws and regulations, particularly the university’s disciplinary regulations. In case I make any movements against the content of this letter, the related officials will be allowed to revoke my admission and to prevent me from further education. Obviously, should this happen, I am committed to re-paying expenses related to my education.20
Students Seek Answers From the Parliament
On 24 September 2006, several starred students met with members of the Iranian Parliament’s Commission on Education and Research, and presented details and documentation about their denial of university admission.21 On 25 September 2006, after the meeting, Shahriar Moshiri, an MP and member of the Commission, said, “The Minister of Science must present [any] documentation and evidence used to deprive [admission to] several graduate students this year, and provide an explanation for this [action].”22
Ali Abbaspour Tehrani Fard, head of the Commission, said, “With the follow-ups we have done with the Ministry of Science, all ‘starred students’ will be registered.”23 Fard stated that “our recommendation was that all of these students be registered, and if they have committed an offense, it must be dealt with according to the university disciplinary regulations.”24 While refusing “to express what groups of students had become starred,” Fard acknowledged that the main reason for denying most “starred students” university admission was “political,” saying, “I am not aware of what type of students they have been, but what is certain is that political activities in universities must be according to the law.”25
On 30 September 2006, Etemad Melli newspaper published a short interview with Minister of Science Zahedi in which he “vehemently” denied allegations that the government has barred qualified students from enrolling in universities on political grounds.26He added that [the media’s] reporting these allegations were ‘major sins.’ “Of course I am not a mujtahed, but you can ask the [religious] scholars.”27 However, when Etemad Melli pressed Zahedi on the issue, he confirmed that there were one- and two- starred students and that officials required some students sign a recognizance letter.28
We told the universities that it was necessary to take guarantees. Taking the letters of recognizance from the students does not mean that they are facing disciplinary action; it is to remind and warn them of the university environment and to remind them to observe morality in this environment.29
Zahedi’s most novel admission came when Etemad Melli asked him if, besides starred students, the names of other students might have been omitted from the published list of those who had passed the entrance exam.30
To which Zahedi replied:
What was being discussed before was about the one- and two-starred [cases], but what you now say is different. If someone’s name has not been announced, he must have had special issues or special violations, which relevant [government agencies] have reported.31
Members of Parliament soon publically criticized the screening policy Zahedi described, including MP Shahriar Moshiri, who on 4 October 2006 said:
In addition to the “starred students,” we have also had those who passed the graduate programs entrance examinations, whose names did not appear on the list of accepted students at all. … I have the necessary papers and documents [to confirm this practice]. I have also warned the officials, if these students are not registered by [the coming] Saturday and Sunday, I will distribute their names and copies of the letters they have been sent by the Sanjesh Organization, announcing the reasons they have not be registered, during Parliament’s open session.32
Reacting to the support shown certain MPs for the plight of these “starred students,” and banned students, Mohammad Hosseini, then Legal and Parliamentary Deputy of the Ministry of Science, said, “Some people, without knowledge about these types of students, have expressed an opinion.”33
Throughout October and November, the Ministry of Science continued to deny that any of their screening was related to a student’s activism or criticisms of the government and that authorities had designated any three- starred students or barred anyone from enrolling in universities. The Ministry claimed that it had resolved all, or nearly, all of the starred students’ cases and no, or very few, unregistered students remained.
Reacting to the repeated government denials, starred students launched a second wave of protests. On 14 November 2006, they gathered in front of the Ministry of Science, demanding they had a right to continue their education. Mehdi Aminizadeh, one of the starred students told the reporters:
The Minister of Science has repeatedly stated that “starred students” don’t exist. We are here to say that we do exist; don’t deny our existence in the media. … Activity in the Islamic Associations and Tahkim-e Vahdat Student Union, activity in student publications, judicial rulings against parents of students, and ethnic problems are some of the instances for which the Ministry of Science has starred the students in the past, depriving them from education.34
On 17 November 2006, Minister Zahedi said, “The gathering of those students who call themselves three-starred in front of the Ministry of Science is sheer political maneuvering, and I strongly deny the existence of such students.”35
On 5 December 2006, starred students had another gathering, this time in front of the Iranian Parliament. MP Fard, Head of the Education and Research Commission, reacted by saying:
Because of the resolutions passed by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, there are those who have been refused [university admission] due to security issues, and their number is fewer than 10 to 12. There have always been a specific number about whom this has been the case, but this year the issue has intensified due to the existence of the “starred students.” But according to … the Ministry of Science, all “starred students” have been registered.36
That same day, a group of students, identifying themselves as two- and three-starred students, gathered in front of the Karaj Teacher Training University. The group stated that their “graduate level admissions to the [university] had been suspended” and that they had not been able to register.37
On 20 December, Minister Zahedi accused starred students of having criminal records related to “prison, flogging, and rape of people,” and said these “individuals described as three-starred students have been disqualified by authorities other than the Ministry of Science.”38
Zahedi’s comments were met with protest by the students, and even by some members of the Parliament.
MP Moshiri publicly defended these students against Zahedi’s accusations:
The Minister of Science’s statements surprised me, because these students do not have a record of rape, nor prison sentences, nor any other criminal cases…I followed up and it turned out that in the Ministry of Science’s reports [about these students], there have never been any particular violations attributed to these students, and none of the cases mentioned could have been used as cause to prevent them from their education. In the reports, nowhere was it mentioned whether the student should or should not be registered. All these students were admitted in the entrance examination, and some of them ranked between second and tenth position. … However, next to their report cards, there was a secret number, meaning that their admission must not be announced.39
The Minister Confirms Most Allegations and Parliament’s Scrutiny Intensifies
On 24 December 2006, the Ministry of Science held a press conference where the Minister clarified the government’s starring policies. Authorities kept reporters from several press outlets that had published critical pieces about the starring controversy, including Etemad Melli, Ayandeh-No newspaper and ILNA News Agency, from attending the press conference.40
At the press conference, Minister of Science Zahedi told the reporters:
Since the topic of starred students has come up, the Ministry of Science has never denied the issue. But what some media have reported, with political motivation, were lies, which were denied by the Ministry of Science.41
He said that he had only denied “the existence of three-starred students.”42 Zahedi also expressed that, “it is perfectly normal to mark students with stars,” and that the “Ministry of Science had [done so] according to the explicit word of the law.”43
Zahedi outlined again the starring system and implied that the Ministry had used recognizance letters:
If there is one star in front of a student’s name, it means that this student has previously had some problems with student violations during his education. This will be pointed out to him so that he will not repeat the same violations during his next term of education.
Two-starred students are those students whose selection files are incomplete. Even so, if we have said that one- and two-starred students don’t exist, it is because all these students have been registered, and not even one student’s admission has been made conditionally.44
While denying that there was such a thing as three- starred students, and without using the term, Zahedi did concede that there was a third group of students deprived of education, what Shahriar Moshiri had called “black listed” students.
Before the results are announced by the Sanjesh Organization, there are some students [on the list], next to whose names there are digits. This means that according to relevant authorities, these students are not qualified to enter the university. The Ministry of Science has nothing to do with this, as this has been decided according to resolutions made by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution Council. Even so, these individuals could object to the relevant [government agency] and request an appeal about the case, and rest assured that the Ministry of Science would do its best to alleviate their problems.45
At the press conference Noorbakhsh also outlined the underlining regulatory system behind the starring process. Stating that the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution’s regulations required the Central Selection Committee to investigate the background of each university applicant’s political, ideological, religious, and moral backgrounds by sending various government agencies information requests.46
Noorbakhsh explained that the Committee then codes applications for undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate programs. “Code 1” is indicative of the applicant’s rejection, “Codes 0 and 2” are indicative of incomplete files, “Codes 3 and 4” represent those who have been admitted, and “Code 5” means that the student will have to sign a letter of recognizance.” Noorbakhsh specified that, “Code 1 represents rejected [candidates], meaning those about whom Ministry of Intelligence or the courts have written negative reports, based on [having] a prior existing file.”47 According to Noorbakhsh Sanjesh coverted these codes into a simpler starring system in order to more easily convey the information to university administrations across the country.48
Noorbakhsh stated that there were a total of 56 starred students and another ten candidates in the third category, who had been rejected during the selection process by the Ministry of Interior, the Judiciary or other government agencies. Despite earlier claims about the non-existence of three-starred students, he said that, “They are students whose general qualifications have not been approved by the relevant government agencies.”49
After this press conference on 26 December 2006, three MPs wrote to Minister of Science Zahedi the Minister of Intelligence Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehiabout, asking for a review of the cases of 17 students who had met with members of the Parliament in September alleging authorities had denied them university admission.50
By January 2007, the controversy surrounding starred students eventually causes the Parliament’s Education and Research Committee, to form a five-person sub-committee to review it and determine why some qualified students had been denied university admission.
According to MP Moshiri, who served on the sub-committee, the MPs were charged with “reviewing admissions files from the Ministry of Science and Ministry of Intelligence about students who had been deprived of education, and to evaluate whether the evidence used to disqualify several students from continuing their education was sufficient.”51
On 18 February 2007, Moshiri, reported that:
Findings have been unprecedented in the country. … Upon going to the Sanjesh Organization’s website, a group of students realized that they had passed the graduate entrance examination, with high ranking scores, but the Sanjesh Organization has refused to announce that these students have passed [publically].52
These students, who have not received any stars, have all been heads of Islamic Associations and the Tahkim-e Vahdat Student Union. Due to their political activities, the Sanjesh Organization has not announced news of their passing the entrance test.… After follow-up, we found 13 such students whose situations we are currently studying.53
The Ministry of Science Claims to Resolve the Matter
In March 2007, even though most of the three-starred students continued to remain deprived of education, authorities allowed several one- and two-starred students to conditionally register after singing recognizance letters. Noorbakhsh later confirmed this, saying, “The registration problems of some graduate applicants have not yet been resolved.”54 He stressed, however, that “this limitation was not imposed by the Science Ministry, and several [other government bodies] had deemed this necessary.”55
On 1 March 2007, Abdolrasool Pourabbas, then Head of the Sajesh Organization, promised that the results of the 2007 graduate entrance examination would be announced without any stars or any other markings. He said:
We have made arrangements so that no applicants would face any problems with star markings or any other markings, which might show a conditional selection, and so that examination applicants know their situation before the results are announced. Therefore we will no longer have what has come to be known as ‘starred’ applicants.56
Pourabbas added that “the 2007 graduate entrance exam will not lead to conditional selections under any circumstances.”57
Noorbakhsh also promised:
In this year’s graduate student examination there won’t be any rejected students starred students, and any candidate who receives passing academic grades will be able to register. This will not have any ill effects on the general qualification of the candidates.
Of course this does not mean that the activities of the [Central Selection Committee] will cease, but [it] will take a broader approach [to selection]. … Ultimately, if a candidate has received passing academic grades but has moral and disciplinary problems at the university, his issues will be resolved by obtaining commitments [he will conform to university policies].58
“Invisible” and Recurring Stars: The Policy Continues
After the 2007 exams, Etemad Melli reported that, despite having passed the graduate entrance examination for that academic year, at least 50 students were barred from education by the Ministry of Science’s Selection Committee, and this time the students had received what the paper called “invisible stars”—meaning that authorities had screened out their applications but had not used stars on their exam transcripts to identify them.59
Nikoonesbati, Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat’s spokesman, told ILNA News Agency:
The results of the graduate student examination were published in a way that once again we observed problems for student activists, … and a number of them were not able to receive their transcripts via the Internet, and they have been asked to go to the Sanjesh Organization.60
He described “a new method for starring students,” saying:
Last week, the results of the graduate entrance examination were published, and based on the information we have gathered, so far nearly 50 students have been unable to receive their report cards. After going to the Sanjesh Organization, these students have been told that they must go to the security organizations that have issued such orders, in order to solve their problems. After that they will be able to enroll … By referring the students to other [government bodies], officials of the Ministry of Science, try to avoid accountability…. Once again, contrary to the statements by the officials from Ministry of Science who claimed during the academic year 2007 there will no “starred students”, we observe that this year students were given stars again.61
When asked by a reporter why some of the 2007 test takers were not able to access their transcripts, Noorbakhsh replied, “I do not know, I don’t have an answer to give you about this.”62 He added students who have been deprived of education “must go to the Sanjesh Organization.”63
Minster of Science Zahedi, when confronted by reporters’ questions about the fate of the [unresolved] “starred students” in early May 2007, told them: “I’m surprised you raise this forgotten issue. The problem of starred students is over.”64