Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sharif University: the Star Students of the Islamic Republic

While with Simin in Stanford of 1952, I thought it is interesting to have a little Stnafordian view on Iranian students of today:


Forget Harvard—one of the world's best undergraduate colleges is in Iran.

In 2003, administrators at Stanford University's Electrical Engineering Department were startled when a group of foreign students aced the notoriously difficult Ph.D. entrance exam,the whiz kids weren't American wasn't odd; students from Asia and elsewhere excel in U.S. programs. The surprising thing, say Stanford administrators, is that the majority came from one country and one school: Sharif University of Science and Technology in Iran. [...]

Stanford has become a favorite destination of Sharif grads. Bruce A. Wooley, a former chair of the Electrical Engineering Department, has said that's because Sharif now has one of the best undergraduate electrical-engineering programs in the world. That's no small praise given its competition: MIT, Caltech and Stanford in the United States, Tsinghua in China and Cambridge in Britain.

Sharif's reputation highlights how while Iran makes headlines for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incendiary remarks and its nuclear showdown with the United States, Iranian students are developing an international reputation as science superstars. Stanford's administrators aren't the only ones to notice. Universities across Canada and Australia, where visa restrictions are lower, report a big boom in the Iranian recruits; Canada has seen its total number of Iranian students grow 240 percent since 1985, while Australian press reports point to a fivefold increase over the past five years, to nearly 1,500.

Iranian students from Sharif and other top schools, such as the University of Tehran and the Isfahan University of Technology, have also become major players in the international Science Olympics, taking home trophies in physics, mathematics, chemistry and robotics. As a testament to this newfound success, the Iranian city of Isfahan recently hosted the International Physics Olympiad—an honor no other Middle Eastern country has enjoyed. That's because none of Iran's neighbors can match the quality of its scholars.

Never far behind, Western tech companies have also started snatching them up. Silicon Valley companies from Google to Yahoo now employ hundreds of Iranian grads, as do research institutes throughout the West. Olympiad winners are especially attractive; according to the Iranian press, up to 90 percent of them now leave the country for graduate school or work abroad.

So what explains Iran's record, and that of Sharif in particular? [...]

Part of the explanation, says Mohammad Mansouri, a Sharif grad ('97) who's now a professor in New York, lies in the tendency of Iranian parents to push their kids into medicine or engineering as opposed to other fields, like law.

Sharif also has an extremely rigorous selection process. Every year some 1.5 million Iranian high-school students take college-entrance exams. Of those, only about 10 percent make it to the prestigious state schools, with the top 1 percent generally choosing science and finding their way to top spots such as Sharif. "The selection process [gives] universities like Sharif the smartest, most motivated and hardworking students" in the country, Mansouri says.

Sharif also boasts an excellent faculty. The university was founded in 1965 by the shah, who wanted to build a topnotch science and technology institute. The school was set up under the guidance of MIT advisers, and many of the current faculty studied in the United States (during the shah's era, Iranians made up the largest group of foreign students at U.S. schools, according to the Institute of International Education).

Another secret of Sharif's success is Iran's high-school system, which places a premium on science and exposes students to subjects Americans don't encounter until college. This tradition of advanced studies extends into undergraduate programs, with Mansouri and others saying they were taught subjects in college that U.S. schools provide only to grad students.



Pedestrian said...

All of this is true Naj ... But there's a lot that goes unsaid.

The most important being that Sharif and Tehran are ONLY attended by the superbly rich kids of Iran. The same may be true for Harvard and Stanford in the U.S. (at least at the undergraduate level) but the difference is that the latter group has to pay for it while at Sharif, they get to ride their BMWs and come to school for FREE.

Even 10 years ago there was a better balance between the socioeconomic status of Iranian students at top-notch universities. But that's all a thing of the past. I don't see why they should be granted this gargantuan sum of public money while outside of Tehran and Esfahan, there are many kids who are struggling with horrendous conditions.

Naj said...


I wonder where you get your "superbly rich" statistics from. As far as I remember (i mean during my time) The top rankers of the concours ended up on Sharif. There were quotas for people from the provinces so not all of Sharif was tehrani-attended.

None of my friends or family members who went to Sharif were rich, but truly truly talented.

Wealth does not help people score well in examinations. The article is pointing out how well Sharif graduates PERFORM. Money cannot buy talent, nor sell it.

Thus, I beg to differ ;)

Pedestrian said...

Money can not buy talent. But amongst the truly talented, there may exist barriers so that only the financially privileged can gain admittance.

I graduated from University of Tehran's engineering faculty last year and I have lots of friends at Sharif.

And I am a firm believer that there is something sickening about this system: the fact that only those from financially privileged backgrounds can get in.

This has something that has happened in recent years - by my professor's account, in the last 5.

These students the article talks about at Stanford. I know every single one of them who did electrical or computer engineering in 2005-2006 (word gets around, and they were either my friends or people I knew through them) ... these kids are pretty well off.

The konkoor these days is so extremely competitive that it has become next to impossible to pass it without spending huge sums of money.

No, money can not get you in. Wealth does not determine how well you perform. But if you are smart and willing to work on your own, if you have the ability to perform, you are only able to achieve your aim if you have the money to spend on konkoor.

From the year I was there, 2003 to 2006, not ONE SINGLE student was admitted from a state owned public school. NOT ONE (and I know this as a fact!).

And except for NODET students, which compose 10 to 20 percent of the student body depending on the year, the rest all come from private schools which cost at least 3 to 4 thousand dollars a year.

Add to that the tutors and prep classes which all students need in some form nowadays, and you really go beyond those numbers.

Not many Iranians can afford that.

Now go to NODET in Tehran and Ahvaz (the two NODET high schools that I have visited) and again, the socioeconomic standing of their students is above average.

Because in order to get in, you need to come from a really good junior high school.

Ad nauseum ....

I am not undermining the strength or the vitality of these students who do get in. Hey, I've studied with them. They are brilliant in every sense of the word. But the system has gone grotesquely unfair - irrespective of how a certain group perform.

Naj said...

I also know that living in Tehran is neither cheap nor easy for a provincial talented student. So many of them may not even entertain the idea of getting into tehran universities.

As for fairness, this is the SAME story all across the board.

I studied in Iran some 15 years ago, so I cannot judge what is happening now. But I visit Tehran U, and what impresses me is HOW TALENTED those kids are. I don't care about their SES, whether they are rich or poor. They can be draped in gold, and be talented, as far as I care.

The unfairness you talk about is not particular to Iran. Iran is a capitalist society. You speak of free education in Sharif U. Well, I am sure you are aware that one can now 'pay' to go to this university, without passing the exam. Those who have excelled in concours, ARE good!

When I was preparing for that competition, I was surrounded by my filthy rich friends, each of whom had a tutor for, even, ensha'. (Actually I wrote their ensha for them ;) )
These kids were swimming in money, concour books, classes, tests, etc.
They all ended up in Azad University. Those who actualy made it to Tehran U or Polytechnique or Sharif, where the hard-working ones.

I know someone who ranked less than a hundred and was accepted int Tehran U medicine; but she decided to go to a small city; and so she exchanged her place with one of my filthy rich, and seriously dumb friends!

Anyways, concours will be abolished soon. But no matter what school Iranians go to, there is a STRONG cultural incentive (thanks to Iran's history, and also proximity to Russia, and the education system set up after old Europe) for taking education in Iran serious, and that is why on average, we fare better than our American buddies ;)

Anonymous said...

To pedestrian:

1. I don't know of any private schools in Iran that cost 2-3 thousand dollars (examples: Kamal, danesh, kosar, energy atomi, roshd etc all cost 500-600 dollars a year, and you can get aid, of course).
2. Most of the students in Sharif don't come from Tehran, and thus probably don't qualify as being "superbly rich" even by Iranian standards. The students who drive to Sharif with BMW's are part of the Sharif-Akhen program (sharif's academic alliance with some unranked, random german university, for which students have to pay 20k a year to attend)

3. I also know ALL Sharif students who are in Stanford right now (being an EE grad student at Berkeley), and can tell you first hand that 90% of them are from lower middle class backgrounds.

4. Sharif's students are all hard-working (and usually bright, academically speaking). Sharif itself would probably be top 400-500 in the world, and is not that highly ranked (ex. Times Higher Education supplement ranks it as 529th). Good students doesnt necessarily translate into great university

shabby hag said...

I really don't know where this "superbly rich" students came from . studying in Iran right now i can say that there's definitely no such thing and sharif nowadays has reputation for having middleclassed and shahrestani students even some tehrani rich students don't chose sharif and go to tehran university instead where they can be with the more rich guys.

Naj said...

Only the truly talented would WANT to go to Sharif. It's not the kind of university where your rich daddy can buy your degree.

Also, it is not located in a trendy part of the city, like Tehran U, or Polytechnique, or Elm o Sanat, or Shahid Beheshti are!

Also, isn't Sharif in the Traffic Zone, thus closed to BMWs? :) okey I am teasing now!

Yup that ' "ONLY" rich ' comment needs substantiation. Thanks for all who relieved me of the worry that Sharif has succumbed to "capitalism" too!

Germán 兄弟 خِرمن said...

Unfortunately, Western empty academicism (as opposed to Iranian wisdom as that of Mowlavi) only generates arrogance, and it is not rare to find this human corruption among Sharif students. What is the point in worshiping intelligence, as if intelligence was something good on itself? It is the same as outward beauty. The most intelligent people can do the best as well as the worst things (radiation therapy versus nuclear weapons). Intelligence, academicism, are cheap without guidance. This is why Mowlavi said,

"Everyone has become a Gold seeker, but the ordinary do not know it when they see it. If you cannot recognize it, join a wise man"


"If in this world you are the most learned scholar of the time, behold the passing away of this world and this time!"

He knew much better than the careless worshiping we nowadays bestow on our Western academicism that has only got us stuck in terms of progress towards attaining knowledge. It is just sad seeing Iranians unappreciative of the much better features they have.