Jaafar Towfiqi, a former minister of science, research and technology, was chief campaigner for former presidential candidate Mohammad-Reza Aref. After the parliament rejected President Hassan Rouhani’s choice for his old portfolio, Jaafar Meili-Monfared, in Aughust, Towfiqi was named caretaker minister, taking over the ministry responsible not just for scientific research, but also most of Iran’s universities.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he says students have already told the president of their expectations for greater autonomy for the nation’s higher education institutions.
“We hope that the demands will be met with the formation of a new administration and the inauguration of new ministers,” Towfiqi said two days after he was named caretaker minister of science, research and technology.
“Academia expects to enjoy more authority in hiring professors, admitting PhD students, and changing curriculum and bylaws. In general, one of the main demands of academia is that the independence of the universities must be respected within the framework of rules and regulations and the general policies of the [Islamic] establishment,” he added.
Towfiqi also said financial problems were one of the major problems facing Iran’s universities: “Given the increase in the universities’ admission of students, particularly for advanced studies, they need to have sufficient financial facilities in order to offer education of the best quality. The universities have sharply increased their capacities in recent years, while their financial facilities and equipment have not. That is why the university staff are seriously concerned about quality.”
Regarding the willingness of professors and students to take part in international scientific cooperation, Towfiqi said: “Academia expects that international exchanges would be facilitated and obstacles to communications between universities and scientific centers be removed so that the quality of education will improve.”
Towfiqi added that Iran’s academics want more input into the selection of chancellors and deans, and that students want more intellectual freedom on campus. “The security atmosphere must be relaxed so that no obstacle will hinder the activities of student associations,” the caretaker minister said. “These issues, which are the main demands of academics, were presented to the president and they expect the appointment of ministry officials who will have solutions to these problems.”
Towfiqi, who served as minister under former president Mohammad Khatami, said: “In my opinion, the country’s laws, particularly the fourth and fifth development plans, can resolve many of these problems. Many of these problems could be resolved under the aegis of cooperation between Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.”
He said the fourth five-year development plan envisaged the allocation of three percent of the country’s budget in 2009 to research activities, but it did not happen.
“This is an important index mentioned in the fourth plan. It has long been demanded by academia. It has not yet materialized, and the share remains at around 0.5 or 0.6 percent.”
“Implementation of this objective requires the president and his administration to pay more attention to it,” he said. “Officials should be convinced that investment in universities and higher education will result in economic growth and development and that this investment will have a good return for the economy.”
Towqifi also welcomed the appointment of a vice-president for scientific affairs, saying the post would fill the gap between universities and industry.
“The reason behind so much friction between the [Presidential Office’s] Department for Scientific Affairs and the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology in recent years was due to unclear tasks assigned to these two bodies,” he said. “In many cases, their tasks overlapped. However, they can complete each other through cooperation and bring a high value-added service to the country.”
Towfiqi also referred to the impact of the international sanctions on scientific and academic affairs, saying: “As the president made clear in his foreign policy plans, the main goal is détente and the development of international cooperation. This can create a new atmosphere for cooperation.”
“The new administration plans to make a distinction between scientific issues and politics, so that political challenges would not affect scientific activities and so that universities will be able to benefit from global opportunities and contribute to global cooperation.”
Towfiqi said it was unfortunate that political associations are much more active than scientific associations at Iranian universities. “This flaw must be repaired,” he said. “Moreover, besides the policies adopted by Ministry of Science, Research and Technology for the development of student associations, policies must be adopted in support of scientific associations, because these associations must be prioritized at universities, although political associations are also needed. Bylaws and regulations must be amended in such a way that students will be encouraged to join scientific associations.”
Towfiqi added: “Fortunately, the society is dominated by [a spirit of] moderation following the recent presidential election. The experience of recent years proves that radical methods are no longer effective and they disrupt scientific, cultural and political activities at universities.
“There are hopeful signs of students and academia moving towards moderation. The Iranian academy has [learned through] experience that radical methods will never pay off and they will even hamper university activities. I am very optimistic that we will see moderation in the new round of student activities. We will also see more cooperation between [student] associations of different tendencies. That’s an achievement, and I think that after twists and turns in political issues, the universities are bracing for conditions more conducive to cooperation in a political and scientific atmosphere.”
Towfiqi also said that the private Islamic Azad University is active alongside state-run universities. “Azad University is an achievement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and it has contributed to higher education in the country. Nearly 50 percent of students belong to Islamic Azad University. Therefore, cooperation between Ministry of Science, Research and Technology and Azad University is a must, and the new administration will have plans to maximize this cooperation.”
This article has been published by Asharq Al-Awsat