Starred Students Face Reprieve
Iran’s Ministry of Science announced yesterday that Iran’s most recent “starred students” can enroll in universities. “Starred students” are university students who, over the past eight years, were banned from continuing their higher education as a result of their student and/or political activities, or their religion. According to Shargh Newspaper, the Ministry of Science has decided to allow enrollment of students who were starred in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The students who were banned from continuing their education prior to 2011 will have to re-take the nationwide university entrance tests, according to the Shargh report.
Soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005, the term “starred students” entered the Iranian discourse on higher education. Starring became synonymous with a mechanism for discrimination against, and exclusion of, students from higher education based solely on their political beliefs, the exercise of their freedom of expression, and, in the case of Baha’i students, their religious beliefs.
Authorities under Ahmadinejad’s administration, tasked with managing the country’s institutions of higher education and relevant admissions processes, began to flag the academic records of student activists and government critics, as well as Baha’i students, with one to three “stars.” These stars denoted the barring of an applicant from gaining admission to bachelor degree programs or from continuing their education in graduate programs. In some cases, authorities refused to release the results of applicant test scores altogether.
The Ministry of Intelligence played a prominent role in this process, underscoring the politicization of student selection and enrollment. Generally, the Ministry of Intelligence is engaged in monitoring and detaining critics and dissidents throughout the country. By increasingly using university admissions and disciplinary mechanisms to bar targeted students, the ministry expanded its reach into academic environments.
The issue of “starred students” was a hot topic during the presidential election debates in 2009. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the existence of “starred students,” several of them gathered to prove that they existed, and that they they had been banned from education by virtue of their student activities or their religion. Many of those students were subsequently prosecuted, and several of them, including Zia Nabavi and Majid Dorri, are currently in prison.
During the 2013 presidential election campaigns, the topic came up again. According to ISNA, Jafar Tofighi, the Interim head of Iran’s Ministry of Science, who at the time was heading reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref’s elections campaign, said, “I don’t deny that this issue existed during the reformist cabinet [of Mohammad Khatami]. It was possible that some students would become starred during the entrance examinations. But becoming starred [at the time] did not mean that the student would be banned or kept from continuing his/her education; becoming starred meant that their admission cases would be reviewed again. This problem was never a political problem during the reformist government, deserving of criticism, because the view of the reformist government was not to make things more complicated and unresolvable. This issue became more social during the Ahmadinejad’s two terms, and led to certain social criticism.”
Not everyone is happy with this announcement, however. Mehdi, a student who became starred in 2007, told Shargh, “I was deprived of my most natural right in society—the right to education—for six years. During these six years, we had no point of support in the Ministry of Science and the Sanjesh [Selection] Organization, and when Mr. Tofighi made a public call, we found new hope. But the Ministry of Science’s response to our requests will violate our rights again. In order to be admitted in the 2007 Entrance Examination, I studied for months. I scored in the top 100 students in the exam that year and I could have studied in the best universities in the country. They took my rights away, because I attended a small gathering in the dormitory to protest the dormitory’s hygiene conditions. I am very happy for the post-2011 starred students who can return to the university, but we have the right to return to the university and to receive our report cards, too. I believe that the Ministry of Science must reconsider this decision.” Siavash, another 2008 starred student, said, “Officials of the Ministry of Science made me a starred student for baseless reasons and did not allow me to enter the university. The Ministry of Science’s answer cannot solve our problem, and they must think again of something to do for us. Participating in Entrance Examinations requires a lot of energy and time. What sin did we commit to be banished from college on unfounded reasons? A large group of starred students have become involved with jobs and work activities, and they are no longer able to participate in the Entrance Examination.”
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcomes the Ministry of Science’s decision to allow the most recent starred students to return to their classrooms. The Campaign encourages the Ministry to consider allowing all starred students to return to their programs of study without forcing them to retake Entrance Examinations, a requirement that will fall short of restoring justice for a group of young Iranian citizens who have been deprived of rights guaranteed to them by the Iranian Constitution’s Articles 3, 19, 20, 22, 30, 36, 37, and particularly Article 23, which stipulates, “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”