Melodie Karbassian, an Iranian undergraduate at the University of Hong Kong.

South China Morning Post: As a high school student in Iran during the early 2000s, Ali Asghar Heidari would read about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in science magazines and dream about one day studying at the storied US institution.

But when it came time for Heidari, 29, to dive into research in his chosen field of machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, he soon found studying in the United States as an Iranian would be no easy task.

In the US, Heidari would have faced exorbitant tuition fees and living costs stemming from a tumbling Iranian rial and restrictions on financial transactions with his homeland – consequences of the Trump administration’s reimposition of sanctions on Tehran following its exit from the Iran nuclear deal. That is assuming he would have been able to get a student visa in the first place.

Although students were officially exempted from Trump’s travel ban on citizens of seven countries including Iran, issuances of student visas to Iranians have slowed as tensions have ratcheted up between Washington and Tehran. In 2017, just 2,201 Iranians were granted student visas, compared with 2,650 in 2016 and 3,241 in 2015, according to State Department data.

Ultimately, Heidari decided to look East, taking up a research intern position at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) school of computing earlier this year.

“NUS has lots of first-class researchers and professors,” said Heidari. “They provide lots of facilities for students and the atmosphere is really happy and multicultural and productive.”


Nearly one in three Iranians wish to leave the country in search of greater opportunities, according to a 2016 survey carried out by University of Tehran sociologist M. R. Javadi Yeganeh. That suggests significant untapped potential for Asia to lure more students from overseas – especially if Iran’s isolation by the West is prolonged.

While there is a dearth of recent data on student flows from Iran, Reza Mansouri, a physics professor at the Sharif University of Technology Tehran, said Washington’s increasingly hostile relations with Tehran could influence more students to gravitate towards Asia.

“Even if they have the visa, the chance of being able to stay there a long time has been decreased,” Mansouri said of students hoping to study in the US. “So they are looking for other jobs in Asian countries.”

Iranians of ability and means have a long history of going overseas to study, with many of the country’s top officials holding degrees from Western, often American, universities. In 2014, President Hassan Rowhani’s cabinet included more US PhD holders than that of then US president Barack Obama.

“There is a perception among Iranian students that if they want to pursue a career outside, they have to have a foreign education,” said Moghset Kamal, a professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University in Turkey.

But while the US remains an attractive study destination for Iranians, the number opting to study in Asia has risen from a trickle to a steady flow in the past two decades, amid mounting tensions between the West and Tehran, and increased efforts by Asian universities to lure international students. The number of Iranians studying in the region rose from 596 in 1997 to nearly 12,000 in 2012, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, with popular choices including Malaysia, Singapore and China.

The Iranian government does not regularly release statistics on students attending foreign institutions, but in the most recently reported figures in 2013, nearly 10,000 students were in Asia – about 20 per cent of all Iranian students overseas that year.

“Iranian students have been interested in continuing their education in medicine, engineering and, to a lesser degree, humanities and social sciences in Malaysian, Singaporean and Philippine universities – not only because of the rising educational quality and the global recognition of their degrees, but also for the relatively successful internationalisation of education in these countries,” he said.

Malaysia, in particular, has long had a reputation as an attractive option for Iranian students, owing to its visa-free entry and English-language instruction.

In 2013, the fellow Muslim-majority country, which has set an ambitious target of attracting 200,000 international students by next year, was home to 8,883 Iranian students, compared with 7,341 in the US, according to Iranian government figures.

“Malaysia is most popular because it opened its doors long before,” Kamal said.

Kaveh Bakhtiyari, 34, a PhD candidate in cognitive science and system engineering, settled on the National University of Malaysia after his initial plans to study in Britain or the US ran into financial and other obstacles related to sanctions.

“Malaysia was a stable and modern country, at the same time affordable, with good and reputable education, easy to get a visa for, and most importantly the education was also in English,” Bakhtiyari said.

“Since I am from a middle-class family, I could not afford the expenses with my own funding. And also getting the US or UK visa was very difficult, but, of course, not impossible.”

Other less common choices include South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.
“There was a wide range of reasons why I decided to study in Hong Kong,” said Melodie Karbassian, 18, who is a business and economics undergraduate at the University of Hong Kong.

“Not only are the universities of Hong Kong of very high rankings, but I was able to pursue my studies in a fertile ground for opportunities. The level of safety and convenience in Hong Kong admittedly has spoiled me.”

Mahsa Paknezhad, who is undertaking a PhD in medical processing at NUS, decided on Singapore after she was rejected for a visa to study in Britain based on her bank’s inclusion on a sanctions list. Universities in the US and Australia, meanwhile, warned her she would struggle to get visa approval as she had previously studied computer network security, a field considered sensitive by Western governments wary of Iran.

“My father went to Singapore some 30 years ago and he told me how safe and organised Singapore is,” Paknezhad said. “I found that NUS has a very good rank and this was one of the reasons I was interested.”

For scholars like Heidari, who hopes to land a university position, it is no longer a given that opportunities lie in the West. For many, the future looks East.

“Singapore is a very open and hi-tech country,” he said. “I work with top researchers and professors from different countries such as China, Japan and Australia.”