featured image

Tehran University’s “special accommodations” for Afghan female students or absurd policies of discrimination and deception?

In January 2023, the president of the University of Tehran seemed to offer a lifeline to the women of Afghanistan who were suddenly shut out of universities because of a Taliban ban. Tasnim, a Iranian state news agency, reported that the University of Tehran was planning to provide special accommodation to female students from Afghanistan. In the article, the university’s president, Seyed Mohammad Moghimi, is quoted as saying that his university would not only reduce their fees, but also allow them to pay in Iranian rials instead of euros, which would save them money due to the high exchange rate.  

“It is clear that the policy of Tehran University is that you dear ones are part of this big family and any problem that arises for you is important to us and we consider it our problem,” said Seyed Mohammad Moghimi, while addressing a group of Afghan students. “We are ready to accept Afghan female students who are banned from studying in Afghanistan, provided that their academic credentials are at the level of the University of Tehran.”  

As part of those special accommodations, he announced that the University of Tehran will give a ten percent discount to female students who were already enrolled at the university in 2023 and a 20 percent discount “for those students deprived of education in Afghanistan and who apply new.” 

The news of the discounted admission offer for Afghan female students was good news for many who were deprived of university education in Afghanistan. But now, many women trying to continue their academic education at the University of Tehran are complaining that the promises made by its president, Seyed Mohammad Moghimi, are not matching the reality that they are being forced to deal with.  

Shakiba* used to be an economics student in Kabul. In addition to her studies, she earned a monthly salary of 35,000 afghani by working in a government office. When the Taliban returned to power she was forced to return to her village. “When I was working and going to university, I felt very good, and had a sense of pride as a woman who has financial independence, but I lost everything after the Taliban,” she explains in an interview with Zan Times. Talking from her room in Tehran, she continues, “I spent two years of Taliban rule at home with difficulty, there were days when I fought with my father and my brothers all the time. I didn’t feel good, I felt inferior. I, who had worked more than my brothers for years and paid all the household expenses, was suffering because I was now under their control. I used to lay my head on the pillow from night to morning, but I couldn’t sleep.”  

Shakiba admits that she wasn’t interested in going to Iran but saw continuing her studies at the University as the only way to escape from Afghanistan and her difficult life. She applied for a master’s degree and soon received an offer of acceptance from the university.  

According to its website, the University of Tehran is 170 years old and is considered one of the best universities in Iran. It is the first choice of many budding Iranian scholars. The university tells Zan Times that it received 1,576 applications from Afghan nationals between 2021 to 2023, with 879 applications accepted at the bachelors and master’s level, and another 157 applications at Ph.D. level.  

When she received that offer of acceptance, Shakiba says the university fee for social sciences per semester was 14 million tomans [one toman is equal to 10 rials, meaning 14 million tomans is roughly 305 euros] and she was told that with the 20 percent discount, her university fee would be 12 million tomans. But she entered the University of Tehran in October 2023, she was told that the university fees had increased by 30 percent and she had to pay 17 million. Shakiba says that the suddenly increased university fees weren’t the only additional expense. She also had to pay for her accommodation and food costs – those costs are roughly double what she originally estimated. 

Though Shakiba came to Iran with the money she had saved from her job, she didn’t imagine having to pay so many extra costs in the first semester. Now she does not know how she can afford to pay her university fees and expenses until the end of her degree. In addition to those financial costs, Shakiba also says there is blatant discrimination against students from Afghanistan at the university. For example, while the university has provided dormitories for female students from other countries, she says that only a few Afghan female students have been given dormitory rooms. 

“In October 2023, because Afghan students [male and female] were not given places in a dormitory, about seven doctoral students went to the office of the university president to discuss this issue,” a 33-year-old Ph.D. student explains to Zan Times. “Some university administrators did not allow us to meet with the president of the university, with one telling us, ‘‘Afghans eat salt and break salt container.’” Like Shabika, she complains about discrimination and racism against Afghans on campus, noting that students from other countries can easily visit and talk to the university president, but Afghan students are not given this opportunity. 

For this report, Zan Times talked to 10 female students in the master’s and doctoral programs at the University of Tehran. They all had similar complaints: discrimination and racism; increases of their university fees beyond what was expected; demands that they pay those fees in euros’ equivalent in rial, rather than in Iranian currency; exclusion of Afghan students from government dormitories; and the lack of access to health insurance.  

The result is that the University of Tehran is far more expensive for students from Afghanistan than its president indicated with those promises from January 2023. According the female students from Afghanistan who talked to Zan Times, Afghan students who do not have scholarships are required to pay a fee each semester of 17-20 million tomans (400-460 

 euros) for master’s degrees and 28-30 million tomans (580-660 euros) for Ph.D.s. In addition to those university fees, students from Afghanistan have to pay for accommodation, food, and health insurance. Those with scholarships can buy health insurance for one million tomans a year (22 euros or US$24), while other Afghan students are completely deprived of health insurance services and are obliged to pay huge amounts every time they visit health centres.  

The costs being incurred to study at the University of Tehran are more than most students from Afghanistan can afford. Many have asked their families to help them with expenses but given that years of economic crisis have drained most household reserves to the point that the United Nations estimates that one in three people in Afghanistan do not know where their next meal is coming from, it’s not surprising that most of the students who talked to Zan Times say they will not be able to afford to finish their studies and graduate.  

Zan Times reached out to the University of Tehran about the discounts offered to female students from Afghanistan, and the other problems – ranging from sudden jumps in fees to discrimination – that those same students say are occurring at the university. In an almost 1,500 word response in Farsi, Mahmoud Reza Delavar, vice-president for international affairs at the University of Tehran, did not directly respond to queries from Zan Times about the discounts promised by the university’s president to female students from Afghanistan in January 2023. Instead, much of the response focused on discounts and scholarships provided to Afghan students, mostly prior to 2023  

In the email response, Mahmoud Reza Delavar denies any discrimination against Afghan students, stating, “On the contrary, we have always received complaints from citizens of other countries, that University of Tehran always gives more privileges to Afghan students due to linguistic and cultural similarities.”  

Delavar also explains that all students must “pay the new approved tuition for the same semester of entry,” not when they get their acceptance letters, adding, “This law is true for Iranian students even in the national entrance exam.” (Iran’s consumer inflation rate was 46 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.)  

As for Afghan students complaining about being denied admission into dormitories and their high cost when they do get accommodation, the University of Tehran responds by stating that “the cost of the dormitory for international students (all nationalities) in each semester is calculated based on the tuition fee of an Iranian student with a 25 percent annual increase.” Delavar also states that, as they come from countries at war, students from Afghanistan and Iraq have been charged the monthly equivalent of 500,000 tomans (US$12 or 11 euros) since 2023. 

Students from Afghanistan who are trying to pay for their university expenses by getting jobs in Iran say that Afghan refugees experience even more problems and discrimination in the workforce. 

Raihana*, a doctoral student in social sciences at University of Tehran, has been trying to find a job to pay for her education costs and other expenses. Though fortunate to receive a 75 percent discount scholarship, which means that she pays only four million tomans (87 euros or US$95) a semester, the costs are still too much. “I have been looking for a job many times, even as a salesperson,” says the 32-year-old. “But when the Iranian employers find out that I am an Afghan, I face unusually irritating questions or am bluntly told that they are not hiring Afghan nationals.” 

Even those who can finish their degrees worry about their future job prospects in Iran and Afghanistan. “Afghan students in Iran have no future,” says Shakiba. “We came to Iran taking refuge from our problems, so we can study, but we are burdened with many more problems here.” 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writer.  

Sarah Hossaini is the pseudonym of a journalist in Iran.