Soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2005, the term “starred students” entered 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 denote the barring of an applicant from gaining admission to bachelor degree programs or from continuing their education in graduate programs. In some cases, authorities have refused to release the results of applicant test scores altogether.
The Ministry of Intelligence has 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 has expanded its reach into academic environments.
Ministry of Intelligence agents used threats, intimidation, and even detention to silence students who attempted to seek accountability and legal justification for their deprivation from higher education.
The starring process constitutes a systematic violation of the rights to expression, assembly, and conscience. It represents a form of religious persecution and a serious breach of the right to education.
During the past five years, hundreds of students have been barred from higher education through this process. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran interviewed 27 students barred from higher education. Additionally, the Campaign compiled a list of 217 students who were denied their right to education. The true numbers are believed to be much higher, as many targeted students have preferred to remain silent and not make their case public, fearing further persecution and prosecution, or hoping that they can reverse their education bans by giving written guarantees to cease future activism.
Starring and excluding students from higher education has had nothing to do with academic performance or rankings in highly competitive entrance examinations to bachelor and graduate programs. Indeed, in all cases reviewed in this report, students ranked high enough on entrance exams to gain admission. Nonetheless these candidates faced systematic, politically motivated discrimination and exclusion.
In tandem with discriminatory enrollment policies, authorities also extensively relied on Disciplinary Committees in universities to summon and suspend students already enrolled in programs of higher education based on their social and political activism, involvement in student publications, and participation in student associations. Repeated suspensions through this mechanism have also resulted in effectively denying the rights of targeted students to complete and continue their studies.
Marking students’ records with stars as a punitive and exclusionary mechanism is carried out by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Research, in cooperation with the Ministry of Intelligence. These Ministries determine which students become starred, based on the following scheme:
• One star officially denotes individuals who passed the academic examination but whose application authorities have flagged because of prior university disciplinary infractions. In practice, one-star applicants are often those who the Ministry of Science’s Central Selection Committee for Faculty and Students has permitted to continue their education conditionally, after giving written guarantees promising not to engage in undesirable political activities.
• Two stars officially denote individuals who have passed the university entrance exam but whose applications the Central Selection Committee deemed incomplete. In practice, these are candidates the Ministry of Intelligence does not deem qualified to continue their higher education. These individuals may be granted temporary privileges to continue their education on the condition that they promise to end their political activities. These students must accept that if they continue being politically active, authorities will revoke their university admission.
• Three stars denote individuals who have passed the academic examination, but whose qualifications have been completely rejected by the Central Selection Committee and the Ministry of Intelligence, and despite having secured top academic positioning in the entrance examination are barred from entering the university by the Selection Committee.
The Ministry of Science used these stars as a way of simplifying a 0-5 coding system used internally. Code 1, like three stars, is for a rejected file. Codes 0 and 2, like two stars, are for an incomplete file. Codes 3 and 4 mean acceptance, and Code 5, like 1 and 2 stars, is for student who must provide recognizance.
In March 2007, reacting to public pressure from targeted students, lawmakers, and the media, the Ministry of Science announced stars will no longer be used on student transcripts, that no one would be excluded on the basis of stars, and that any candidate who passed the entrance exam would be allowed to enroll. Nonetheless, authorities have continued a de facto policy of starring students and media outlets report that authorities blocked the admission of at least 50 students who passed the 2007 entrance exam, but not all of their names are known. The list of 217 students deprived of higher education provided in this report include the names of 2 students in 2005, 19 in 2006, 19 in 2007, 49 in 2008, 58 in 2009, and 70 in 2010.
In practice, the Ministry of Science no longer prints stars, which were only shorthand for the 0-5 coding system, on the transcripts of applicants. Some applicants, with activist backgrounds, continue to receive letters instructing them to report to the Ministry of Science or, unable to access their transcripts online.
Iranians who want to attend an undergraduate or graduate program at a government university must take an entrance exam. These exams are administered once a year by the Sanjesh Organization, the testing arm of the Ministry of Science, and are effectively the sole academic criteria for student admission. Applicants are rejected or accepted based on the score they receive on the entrance exam.
Authorities at the Ministry of Science have justified depriving admission to students who have passed their entrance exams by relying on two regulations issued by the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council: the Moral Selection Regulations for University Entrance Applicants, adopted in 1987, and the Student Selection Criteria, adopted in 1988.
These resolutions require that the Central Selection Committee gain approval for student admissions from non-academic government organs, including the Ministry of Intelligence and the Prosecutor of the General and Revolutionary Courts. These agencies can block, or make conditional, an applicant’s admission irrespective of his or her performance on standardized examinations or academic merits.
Under these regulations, authorities can reject a university applicant if they are drug addicts, are “reputed to be morally corrupt,” or are “enemies” of the Islamic Republic. The resolutions make clear that a reputation of moral corruption “must be obvious and without need for investigation,” and that “protesters” are different than “enemies.” Since at least 2006, the Central Selection Committee and Ministry of Intelligence have barred numerous applicants based on a broader set of criteria including campus or political activism. Based on these regulations, students who enter university must belong to “Islam or other recognized religions (i.e. Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism).”
The resolutions also allow the Central Selection Committee to make admissions conditional upon an applicant signing a recognizance letter promising to “reform their behavior” and not participate in the activities the government has deemed undesirable. These letters often include promises that if the student resumes the activities in question, he or she will be expelled and forced to repay tuition and fees that are otherwise covered by the government.
Authorities have also put in place a process designed to exclude and discriminate against targeted students already enrolled at universities. For this purpose, Disciplinary Committees at each university have been used to summon students and issue suspension sentences. In the case of many students, these suspensions, typically for one to two semesters, have been renewed several times, effectively resulting in the inability of suspended students to complete their academic work towards graduation.
Students who spoke to the Campaign described in detail the arbitrary nature of their exclusion from higher education and the mechanisms leading to this outcome. They also recounted their intensive efforts to seek accountability and remedies for such decisions.
Students who reported being barred from universities were either activists or Baha’is. Activist students were involved in various social and political issues including women’s rights, academic freedom, political dissent, human rights and the rights of political prisoners. Some students worked on campus publications, organized forums or protests, or were members of Daftar Tahkim-e Vahdat Student Union and other campus organizations. In most of these activities, students were critical of government and university policies and authorities targeted them in connection to their activism. Baha’i students were barred or expelled usually after their faith came to the attention of education officials.
The interviews reveal that authorities targeted students and deprived them of further education regardless of their academic merits. This process has affected some of the best and brightest students in Iranian universities.
For example, Puyan Mahmoudian was ranked sixth in the graduate entrance exam in Chemistry. The entrance exam is highly competitive and receiving top ranks is thus an indication of Mahmoudian’s academic excellence. However, despite his impressive academic achievement, he was starred and denied admission to the graduate program due to his student activism during his undergraduate studies.
Other students told the Campaign they had fallen victim to multiple suspensions by Disciplinary Committees Several students told the Campaign that the university Disciplinary Committee summoned and suspended them simply for protesting the process of banning other students. The efforts of these students to organize and seek accountability and transparency regarding starring led to their own exclusion from higher education.
Zia Nabavi, Sadegh Shojaii, Mahdieh Golroo, and Saeed Feyzallah are examples of student advocates who themselves ended up being banned from continuing their higher education. These students were excluded from continuing their education in 2007 after organizing activities in support of banned students.
The systematic banning of students from higher education has been applied through the starring process to Baha’i students as well. This report includes interviews with Baha’i students who detail how they were prevented from admission altogether, regardless of their academic performance. Baha’i students who had already managed to enroll at universities before the starring process was instituted, were identified and expelled from universities or denied graduate admissions by becoming starred.
In 2006, when the news of starred students and their exclusion from higher education became public, authorities in President Ahmadinejad’s administration denied the existence of such practices. Ministry of Science officials specifically denied that political motives influenced their admissions process, that any recognizance letters required students to cease activism, or that there were any three-starred students or students wholly barred from admission. After affected students and their supporters organized protests and took their case to the media and members of Parliament in 2006, authorities made contradictory and conflicting statements. Throughout the 2006-2007 school year, the issue of starred students was an ongoing controversy drawing repeated government reactions.
On 20 September 2006, the newspaper Etemad Melli reported that the Ministry of Science had issued new procedures instructing universities not to enroll starred students. On 22 September 2006, the top official in charge of university admissions, Morteza Noorbakhsh, director of the Ministry of Science’s Central Committee of Selection, originally denied the existence of discriminatory policies and claimed that starred students were those with “incomplete files.” He further threatened students not to pursue their cases.. But on 24 September, Mehdi Zahedi, the Minister of Science, called the existence of starred students a “lie,” denying that any students had been excluded or blocked from enrollment because of political activity.
Some of the starred students took their cases to members of Parliament, while others organized protests and publicized their plight in the media. On 4 October 2006, the text of letters sent to starred students was published in the Iranian media which included the following: “According to the student selection criteria adopted by the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, you have not been admitted.”
Eventually, on 20 December 2006, Zahedi acknowledged the existence of starred students, but accused them of having criminal records relating to “prison, flogging and rape.” He further added, “…the individuals referred to as having three stars on their record have been disqualified by authorities other than the Ministry of Science,” in a reference to the prominent role of the Ministry of Intelligence in this process.
Students who sought legal counsel to bring their cases to court and seek judicial remedies were told that these decisions are based upon resolutions of the Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution, “which is above the law.”
To the Government of Iran:
• Ensure students and university applicants can exercise their right to expression, association, assembly and religious freedom without interference by authorities and without having fear of persecution, arrests or being expelled or denied university admissions.
• Establish a formal mechanism, within the Ministry of Science, that allows students to appeal decisions of the Central Selection Committee. Ensure this mechanism has independent power to overrule decisions of the Committee.
• Re-instate students barred from education based on their political or religious beliefs or activities. Ensure such students can seek financial restitution in civil courts.
• Release all students detained and prosecuted for activities related to, or advocating on behalf of, those deprived of education.
• Release all student activist and prisoners of conscience that have been detained and prosecuted for exercising their freedom of expression, assemble, and association.
To the Iranian Parliament:
• Launch an impartial investigation, conducted by a committee including representatives of independent student associations, to review all cases of students barred or expelled on allegedly political and discriminatory grounds. This committee should hold public hearings and bring students who allege being subjected to such bars and expulsions to testify. The committee should have the power to subpoena members of the executive branch and security authorities to testify.
• Expand the jurisdiction of civil courts so they can adjudicate cases brought by students regarding deprivation of education.
• Amend all university admissions regulations so to remove any discriminatory or arbitrary criteria for disqualification including religious requirements and vague determinations that an applicant is an “enemy” of the Islamic Republic.
• Amend all university admissions regulations so to remove any role for non-educational bodies, namely the Ministry of Intelligence.
• Amend university rules and regulations, including Disciplinary Committee regulations that allow for suspension of students on discriminatory, vague and arbitrary grounds, including insulting Islamic and national beliefs or acting against national security.
To the Iranian Prosecutor General and Judiciary:
• Investigate, prosecute and hold accountable members of the Ministry of Intelligence responsible for threatening, intimidating, arresting, persecution and expelling student activists based on political and ideological grounds.
• Adjudicate civil claims brought by students regarding deprivation of education. Provide financial restitution for students that suffered undue delays in attaining degrees or losing academic credit because of illegal deprivation of education.
To the Universities and Institution of Higher Learning Outside Iran Partnering Universities:
• Require partner Iranian universities provide a transparent account of any exclusionary policies.
• Provide admission and scholarships to Iranian students barred from Iranian universities.
Violations of International Law
Iran ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1975 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1975. The ICCPR protects freedoms of opinion, expression, association and assembly. The Iranian government systematically violates these rights by barring or expelling students on the basis of their beliefs, expression of views critical of the government, membership in student organizations, or participation in public forums and peaceful protests.
The ICCPR Iran prohibits Iran from discriminating against persons on the basis of religion. Additionally, under the ICCPR, restricting access to education on the basis of one’s faith violates freedom of religion. By adopting regulations, policies and practices that bar Baha’is from higher education the Iranian government continues to breach the ICCPR.
The ICESCR establishes the “right of everyone to education” and stipulates that, “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all,” without discrimination against religion or political opinion. Iran fails to meet its ICESCR obligations by discriminatorily denying education to activists and Baha’i students.