Originally posted, January 2009

Educational attainment has improved considerably in the Islamic Republic of Iran over the past three decades. During this period the improvement for women has been greater than for men. In recent years, women have gained access to education at different levels and in many fields.

During the first decade after the revolution, Iran experienced a baby boom due to the suspension of family planning. Consequently, Iranian educational institutions were inundated by a wave of young people in need of training during the second decade after the revolution. In addition, because of parents’ support for their daughters’ education and the changing attitudes of women about themselves, more women sought an education. These circumstances led to a dramatic increase in the number and share of females who entered schools and universities.

As a result, statistical differences between the number of male and female students have declined in the third decade of the Revolution. Since 1979, achievements of women in higher educational levels are improving, and the number of female students and graduates in different fields has increased noticeably in recent years.


Statistical analysis of literacy rates in the years 1966, 1976, 1986, 1991, and 2006 indicates that educational attainment improved considerably in the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially for women. Over this period, the literacy gap between women and men has narrowed. Before the Islamic Revolution (specifically, in 1978), over 60% of the Iranian female population was illiterate. In the post-revolutionary years, women have shown an increasing willingness and effort to become literate and highly educated. Currently, more than 55% percent of first-year university students are women.

According to national census data, in 1966, only 17.42% of the Iranian female population or 1,628,000 was literate (Table 1). In the same year, the male literacy rate was 39.19% (3,928,000). These figures were 47.49% for men and 35.48% for women in 1976.

The first post-revolutionary national census in 1986 indicated that the women’s literacy rate had climbed to the level of 52.1% and that 9.8 million women had become literate by that year. Based on the second post-revolutionary national census in 1996, 74.2% of the Iranian female population over the age of six (25.7 million) were literate. This figure was 74.7% for men (26.5 million). Finally, the 2006 census showed that 80.3% of the total female population over the age of six was literate. The corresponding figure for the male population was 88.7%.

As illustrated in the charts below, Iran has had two educational gaps: between men and women (see Diagrams 1 and 2) and between rural and urban residents (see Chart 3). The data show that the gap between men’s and women’s literacy rates has narrowed, as has the gap between rural and urban residents’ literacy rates. The narrowing of these gaps over time is depicted in Table 1.





Enrollment in Primary and Secondary School and in Technical Schools

The number of students and gender enrollment ratio for primary, secondary and technical schools for the four academic years 1976/77, 1986/87, 1991/92, 1996/97, and 2006/07, are shown in Tables 2 through 5.

An analysis of the trend in education by gender from 1976 to 2006 points to an increase in gender equality at the primary and the secondary school levels. In addition, the downward trend in population growth during the recent decade has led to a decrease in the total number of students at various educational levels (Chart 4). In the academic year of 1999/2000, the number of students was 19,187,000 persons and reached 14,931,000 persons in the year 2006/07.



Indicators of Educational Quality

Indicators of educational quality are shown in Diagram 5. Educational indices of the quality of “student to school,” “student to classroom,” and “student to teacher” have trended upward during the 1970s, 1980s, and half of the 1990s, but improved overall during the 2000s, owing largely to a reduction in the number of students and an increase in the number of teachers.

Enrollment in Universities and Institutes of Higher Education

Over the years, the number of university student in public and private universities rose considerably. But, according to statistics presented in Tables 4 and 5, the number and proportion of girls who study in universities and higher educational institutions increased compared to boys. During the last decade, the number of girls in public universities and the private Islamic Azad University grew almost 4.3 times and 2.4 times respectively. For boys, these figures were 2.6 and 1.9 times respectively. During the academic year’s 1991/92 to 2006/07, the share of female students enrolled in public universities rose from 28% to 58%. The share also increased in private universities.

Both tables show the number of enrollments and gender ratios at various higher educational levels. Over the years, the number and share of women at various higher educational levels rose considerably. Tables 8 and 9 present details on the student bodies of public universities and Islamic Azad University in the 2006/07 academic year.

Statistics on the enrollments of female students in universities in the academic year 2006/07 indicate that women constitute about 70% of university students in medical sciences and basic sciences, about 60% of students in humanities and arts, and 47% of students in agricultural and veterinary sciences. The proportion of women in universities is low only in technical and engineering fields.

The figures and trends presented in this essay suggest that Iranian policy-makers should focus their attention on increasing male enrollment at universities and improving female labor market opportunities lest the human capital gathered at universities not be wasted.

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