Attack on Higher Education

Talu` Golkar, a Baha’i from Tehran, has been sentenced to five years in prison, on charges of having links to the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. The sentence was communicated to her lawyer on January 14, 2014. Talu ` Golkar was one of ten Baha’is associated with the Baha’i Open University who appeared at the Public Prosecutor’s office in Tehran on March 12, 2013. After presenting their defence, they were released on bail. At present more than 10 Baha is associated with the university are serving prison terms in Raja’i Shahr prison and in the women’s wing of Evin prison for their educational activities.

European universities began to form in the latter half of 11th century, Bologna believed to be the first, just beating Oxford whose Merton College began with some involvement from Jews. Piecemeal development occurred across Europe until the 15th century which saw a flurry of university establishment. However, most universities up until the middle of the 19th century had three criteria for admitting students. They had to be male, wealthy and belong to the established or accepted religion. Elizabeth I founded Trinity College Dublin but for its first four hundred years, despite being sited in a catholic country, it was only open to wealthy, protestant males. Ironically when Cardinal Newman, a convert to Catholicism, attempted to establish higher education for Catholics in Ireland in the mid-19th Century he faced vehement opposition from the Vatican and the Catholic Bishops of Ireland. Despite their involvement in Oxford at the beginning in the 12th century, it was the middle of the 19th century, before any Jews entered Oxford as students and many of the very few Jewish students and ultimately academics kept their faith to themselves to avoid obvious discrimination. Jews were banished entirely from the United Kingdom from the 13th century until the 17th century and from the end of the 15th century virtually permanently from Spain and thus, it is likely to assume that across the Christian world and probably the Muslim world as well, Jews found little welcome in institutes of higher learning. Scotland’s first three universities were originally catholic but when the Calvinists broke away from Catholicism they did not put a strangle hold on the universities. Shortly after, Edinburgh was founded and is considered by many to be a first ‘civic’ university not tied to the church, Edinburgh becoming known as the ‘Athens of the North.’ When the United States, at first as a colony of the United Kingdom and later as an independent republic, began to establish universities their first efforts, known today as the Ivy League, were tied to non-conformist Christianity and equally elitist in their protestant male student bodies
The assumption in the west now is that higher education allows a very broad base of studies accessible to those qualified from any gender, race, religion or social background. As ideal as this is it is a very recent phenomena and in many respected democracies of the world it is still not secure. As democratic leaders focus more and more on wealth creation and competition with neighbouring rival wealth creators increasingly the press, radio and television lose their neutrality due to the need to generate income to survive and thereby become, by definition, supporters of the politics of unbridled materialism. Because the focus on wealth creation is utilitarian, funding for higher education can become more scrutinised and it can be seen as expedient to link funding mainly to studies that can be measured in terms of wealth creation. Thus, a freedom of breadth of study in higher education could be eroded for political ends even in a democratic nation.
England’s first academically free university was formed in 1826 in London by James Mill and Henry Broughton. In the United States Brown University was the first to include engineering and in 1852 William Wentworth founded Sydney University with the aim of it teaching a wide range of subjects and six years later Melbourne emulated the vision. The Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862 and again in 1890 which encouraged the spread of universities across all American states, focused very much on agriculture and engineering, so vital to a rapidly burgeoning economy. Cornell University, founded in 1865 began with an open curriculum embracing many new areas of study but in the United Kingdom, seen by many as the birthplace of industrialisation, the university authorities in England, which was the Church of England, vehemently resisted change and where industrialisation was happening no universities were permitted. It was not until the turn of the century cities across the United Kingdom were allowed universities. Thus, the campaign to open the range of subjects in universities and the diversity of students encouraged to study them was hard fought for over a century and the most virulent opposition came from the established church.
The behaviour of the ayatollahs and mullahs in Iran in respect of higher education is exactly the same as that exercised by the bishops of Christendom for centuries. Namely a narrow view of what is right taken from their own interpretation of scripture, rigid control over both the curriculum and admittance, discrimination and intransigence. Copernicus, Galileo and Charles Darwin all faced the wrath of the established church and relentless campaigns waged against them to discredit their findings. It would be worrying to think that reform in Iran might take the centuries it underwent in Europe but times have changed. Reformers in the past could not get their message to the wider world to elicit support due to the lack of communication opportunities. Secondly there were no effective and successful models in the world for the reformers to laud and prove their case. Today modern communication is a thorn in the side of despots as their atrocious actions can no longer remain hidden and now reformers have many examples of successful practice across the world. Through this it may be possible in the near future to mobilise the necessary support to influence some change.

At the heart of the provision of all education with universal access delivered without prejudice or bias at whatever level is justice. This needs to be appreciated by those privileged to have access to and receive such education and in gratitude raise a voice for their brethren worldwide deprived of this opportunity. Right now, and for several decades this form of injustice has been inflicted on the Baha’is of Iran and, as evidenced by the imprisonment of Talu and her innocent colleagues, looks set to get worse unless pressure can be put on the Iranian government to be conscious of the injustice of their stance and their actions and accompany this with a call for its immediate cessation.

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