Economy, Business And Markets

Trading in Education

Business & Markets Desk
The abundance of candidates in Iran’s highly competitive university entrance exam, better known as Concours, has turned it into an unusual industry that lacks an effective output
Statistics on the upcoming Concours and the capacities of Iranian public schools indicate less than 5% of candidates will be able to gain a seat in elite universities, making the competition really fierce.
Statistics on the upcoming Concours and the capacities of Iranian public schools indicate less than 5% of candidates will be able to gain a seat in elite universities, making the competition really fierce.
The annual turnover of Concours business stands at more than 40 trillion rials (about $1.06 billion)

The annual turnover of the sector dealing with Iran’s highly competitive university entrance exam, better known as Concours, stands at more than 40 trillion rials (about $1.06 billion), a veteran educational coach said.

“If we factor in the average number of examinees at 800,000 and the minimum investment at 50 million rials ($1,330) for each student,” Ali Bakhtiari also told Financial Tribune.

Moreover, there are a wide range of organizations, including National Organization of Educational Testing, Kanoon Farhangi Amoozesh Ghalamchi (which has the largest population of examinees), Gozineh 2 and Meraat Educational Innovations Center that administer mock exams and earn at least 1 trillion rials ($26.6 million) a year.

Concours is a business that has created a plethora of job opportunities. Instructors, question designers, organizers of conferences, classes and mock examinations, educational and school counselors, print houses, creators of books, electronic educational tools and smartphone applications and many more are thriving on the back of Concours.

Bakhtiari said over two million people are estimated to be active in this competitive field.

With the dismal condition of labor market and manufacturing jobs, many university graduates are eager to get on this gravy train.

Concours coaching classes are the main source of income for high schools, which help them cover the other costs of running the school. Therefore, it is only natural that many organized syndicates are not willing to change the existing system and their prime goal is to ensure its continuity.

“This is while most experts and officials are aware of Concours’ shortcomings and weaknesses,” Bakhtiari said.

  A Business Like No Other

Concours was supposed to be about education in nature, yet the abundance of candidates has turned it into an unusual industry that lacks an effective output, unlike other industries.

“Just take the number of applicants who are willing to major in medicine. Over half of the candidates (580,301) will take part in the science group and most of them dream about becoming a medical doctor,” he said.

More than 929,790 high school graduates will sit Iran’s highly competitive university entrance exam, better known as Concours, on July 6 and 7 this year.

The exam will be held in five groups, namely Mathematical Sciences and Technology, Science, Humanities, Arts and Foreign Languages, and according to the National Organization of Educational Testing, the number of people who have enrolled for this centralized, nationwide competition has seen a 7.5% rise compared to last year.

Since it was established in the Iranian year starting on March 21, 1969, the 4.5-hour-long, multiple-choice exam has been geared to allocate places in Iranian universities equitably. But is it really serving this purpose?

Bakhtiari said Concours is a declining industry.

“Given the increasing median age in the Iranian population, the students’ entry to schools has gone into a nosedive. Concours is different now than it was a generation ago, when preparatory classes were packed with students. However, a handful of majors are still in great demand, such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. The rest have few takers,” he said.

Asked whether a student can pass the exam by only relying on the mainstream education system, Bakhtiari said this is possible when the system nurtures a learner’s autonomy—the ability to set appropriate learning goals and take charge of one’s own learning process—in the primary school years.

“There are many students from deprived backgrounds who have entered elite universities without a tutor or attending preparatory schools,” he said.  

Statistics on the upcoming Concours and the capacities of Iranian public schools indicate less than 5% of the candidates will be able to gain a seat in elite, oversubscribed universities, making the competition really fierce.

Bakhtiari, who has 32 years of coaching students for concours, noted that most applicants will be accepted in one university/higher education institute or another, including but not limited to Payame Noor, the self-governed Pardis universities and open universities (Islamic Azad University), regardless of their personal interest.

“Yet, there are reputable universities with their brand identity that prompt students and their families to extend themselves to pay dearly for preparatory classes and tutors,” he said.

“Even average, state-run high schools of downtown neighborhoods, charge at least 50 to 60 million rials ($1,330-1,600) for the graduation year. This is the minimum cost,” he said.

“The financial status of households and how much they cherish higher education play a big role in the capital they invest for the success of their children in Concours. I can give you an example of a family who spent 1.8 billion rials ($48,000) for their kid. When parents make such investments, they often achieve desirable results.”

Bakhtiari, however, stressed that the student’s hard work plays a major part here, as they should closely follow a strict educational regime to attain their goals.

  A True Free Market

The Ministry of Education is the body in charge of setting tuition and fees of preparatory classes, but more than half of these schools fail to implement the fixed tariffs.

Bakhtiari said these classes charge additional tuitions under various names and pretexts.

“Even in not-for-profit schools where the ministry keeps a close watch, students and their families have to pay up to 40% more than the so-called ‘tuition tariff’. When a teacher builds a brand name for himself, he normally charges ridiculously high fees. There are teachers who ask as much as 10 million rials ($266) for an hour of teaching,” he said.

“I believe there should be proper supervision on the part of the Education Ministry in this field, because the same organized syndicates we talked about are willing to direct the market toward having more income.”

On the tuition range in private classes, Bakhtiari said, “In Tehran, the fees starts from 2 million rials ($53) a session, but as I said, top teachers might charge as much as 10 million rials ($266) at times. I repeat that there is no ceiling for the cost of Concours classes. Although the ministry and National Organization of Educational Testing have occasionally tried to limit these fees, the business has proved to be ungovernable.”

Having spent a fortune on classes of reputable teachers, colorful prep test books and weekly mock exams, a student fails to sail over the trumpeted rainbow.

Unfortunately, there is no entity that families may approach to voice their dissatisfaction or file their complaint.

The expert said that in his 32 years of work in this field, never has he heard of any legal proceedings against a teacher or an institute.

“Education is a sector families respect highly. Also, the educator can easily pass the buck to students, blaming their poor performance and mediocre talents or even their psychological state at the time of the big day. There are many loopholes to evade those commitments, which leaves no room for complaints,” he said.

“Educational tools, including methodology, teachers, books, etc., play a 50% role in the success of a student. The rest is up to the students.”

  Investment Returns

Higher education can be a life-changing event for most people and a tremendous financial investment for many of them.

In recent years, people are questioning the discourse that university education is key to human betterment and prosperity.  

Bakhtiari largely blames this perception on the weak labor market.

“The same controversial commercialized system has been adapted for the entrance exam of master’s degree, thanks to the shift in the distribution of the population of university applicants. And this is only because of the weak labor market,” he said.

“Undergraduates have no option but to return to the university to achieve a higher educational level and sadly they see no bright future for themselves despite the huge investment they’ve made. For them, going to university is just a way to pass time. Families prefer to see their children busty studying. It is the healthiest form of passing time after all.”

Bakhtiari lamented the fact that the higher education does not focus on research and only pushes young, motivated Iranians to reach higher educational levels.

“As little as 0.5% of Iran’s total budget is allocated to research,” he said. 

Add new comment

Read our comment policy before posting your viewpoints