“Free education is our inalienable right; For-profit universities weaken the lower class; Equal opportunities is our certain right; We do not want private education; Unpaid labor in university, unemployment after university, professors-project fixers”: these were some of the slogans shouted by students on Student Day, December 7, at the University of Tehran. Students were opposed to privatization of universities and the withdrawal of student welfare facilities by the government. Students declared that education in Iran is suffering from commodification and the government is damaging students’ basic rights by transferring educational and scientific centers to the private sector.
The privatization of the education sector in Iran intensified since the summer of 2014. At that time, the Ministry of Education and Training of Iran carried out a plan under the title of “support package of independent schools,” according to which the private sector could use the facilities of public schools. Pursuant to this plan, the establishment license for independent schools will be issued within 20 days and in some cases, public schools will leave their building and equipment to private schools. Hamid-Reza Haji Babaee former minister of education at the time described the transferring of public schools to independent schools as a strike on Iran’s education and training.
Privatization in Iran is in conflict with Article 30 in the constitution that states: “free education by the end of secondary school is provided for all citizens.” The government has announced that it will run this plan to reduce costs and the deficit, but critics say that this policy and private sector operators trying to increase their economic returns hurt the quality of education and put students’ families under financial pressure. This also negates the principle of free education and access to education. Privatization has influenced not only the sphere of education, but also the cultural sphere. Because of the high price of paper, lack of government assistance and the decrease in people’s purchasing power due to inflation and unemployment, many book publishers have had to shut down bookstores and instead start a more profitable business -mostly in food industry such as coffee shops and restaurants. Regretfully evidence suggests that the stomach and issues related to it has a priority over thought in Iran today.
Iran is perhaps one of the few countries where all the parties within its political system support privatization and a capitalist economy. The only matter that remains controversial is the speed and scope of privatization. While in other countries socialist and leftist parties support programs of social justice, welfare programs and the rights of workers and low-income classes, after the closure of the left parties in the early years of the Iranian revolution in 1979, there is now no other possibility and space for them to rule in Iran. There is also no leftist magazine in Iran. Besides the lack of financial resources, the political structure does not tolerate the sound of leftists and the few left-wing student newspapers that were published in recent years were banned shortly after their publication.
In the absence of an independent left-wing movement in Iran, during the previous years extremist conservatives like Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad with slogans of social justice were able to win the attention of a wide range of suburban and rural areas of Iran. Iran’s religious neoliberals using funds and available magazines, such as Mehrnameh,World, Donya-e-Egtesad and Tejarat-e-Farda (Tomorrow’s Business) to criticize the populism of Ahmadinejad and portray him as a leftist and socialist so that the right-wing policies justify themselves. But the reality is that in practice, perhaps no government compared to Ahmadinejad’s was successful in executing the policy of privatization and the removal of subsidies thus damaging the interests of low-income urban areas.
Privatization in Iran began after the end of the eight-year war with Iraq. By that time Rafsanjani’s government needed to start the engine of capital accumulation and economic growth for the sake of economic recovery, but what he chose to do was the implementation of structural adjustment policies, privatization and liberalization of prices and through it the growth of financial bourgeoisie of real estate and contracting interests. The result was unprecedented class differences, high rates of unemployment, institutionalized stagflation, environmental degradation and health and education systems benefiting the rich. At that time speculation and jobbery (crony capitalism) began.
Iran’s private sector is not productive. The private sector in Iran is reluctant to get involved in long term returns or low yields activities. The private sector’s approach; from selling dollars at Istanbul crossroads to the structure of modern banking technocrats is brokerage. Quasi-governmental organizations also use this situation. In universities and educational policy-making centers neoliberal economists have the upper hand. A quick look at the assistants and economic advisers of the Rouhani government also indicates that the Chamber of Commerce is the main supporter of the privatization and sets Iran’s economic policies.
Unlike Western democratic countries in which Socialists, Communists and social democratic parties can express the demands of critics of privatization, the free market economy and the negative consequences of it in the form of campaign slogans and come into power through the election process, in Iran there is no room for parties of the left. This has resulted in the expression of political and economic demands by students, intellectuals, journalists and trade and labor rights activists, but without having the power to get organized in the form of syndicates and unions. The absence of a counter voice to the Iranian right-wing media which is allowed to operate and is supported by the government has made neo-liberalism in Iran a bigger monster than it ever was. A monster that is devouring the social welfare system and violating the principle of the need for government support for the welfare of citizens.