Precarious work and the purge of university lecturers: Iran’s silent battle for academic freedom

Over the last few decades, the issue of precarious work has emerged as a pressing concern affecting countless lives in both the affluent North and the struggling South—although even more so in the latter, due to the outsourcing of production since the 1980s. Primarily viewed in relation to unskilled and blue-collar workers, this phenomenon has been identified as a source of hardship and economic insecurity.

Iran is not alone in having experienced a surge in precarious employment over this time, extending into skilled work and academia. In this country, however, the problem has taken on a more insidious dimension, serving not merely as a tool to increase profits and economic exploitation, but also as a strategic tool for socio-political control wielded by government. Here the systematic infusion of precarity into all facets of Iranian society, including work, industry, and education, serves to weaken workers and civil society, rendering them vulnerable to state manipulation. The recent purge of university lecturers underscores this stark reality.

Consider this scenario: an Iranian university lecturer with a substantial body of work, more than a decade of service in the same institution, and commendable performance reviews, still finds themselves excluded from permanent faculty positions. Why? The answer is to avoid the need for explanations from university leaders or other authorities in the event of their potential redundancy — often tied to ideological differences or the tiniest critique of Iran political structure.

Instead of acknowledging ideological differences that may lead to these exclusions, or using terms like ‘redundancy’ or ‘dismissal’ when terminating academic positions, university leaders and officials issue the ominous phrase ‘end of contract’. This subtle manipulation of language provides them with a convenient legal justification to evade accountability, both domestically and internationally.

As a consequence, over the last two decades, the number of permanent faculty members in Iranian universities has drastically declined. The few available positions are strictly controlled by institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates within the universities, leaving many qualified individuals in a precarious employment limbo. In a notable example, just month, while the contracts of numerous outspoken lecturers such as Ali Sharifi-Zarchi were not renewed after years of service in their institutions, Saeed Hadadian, a government eulogist, was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Tehran. This move is emblematic of the government’s intrusion into academic affairs, further consolidating control over educational institutions.

This obsession with academia stems mainly from the fact that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian universities have been at the forefront of resistance against theocratic totalitarianism. As a consequence, university students have faced constant scrutiny, attacks on their campuses, and harsh prison sentences. Within this context, the introduction of short-term contracts for hiring university lecturers is a calculated move by the government to exploit and intimidate educators. University lecturers are now faced with the knowledge that supporting for their students or speaking out about their own working conditions could lead to the loss of their livelihoods. Essentially, the ‘permanent casualisation of work’ as strategy that emerged in the aftermath of 1980s not only freed the hands of large commercial entities to exploit workers for sake of greater profit but also emboldened autocratic governments like the Islamic Republic to use it as a tool for societal repression with legal impunity.

Over the past year, particularly following the tragic death of Mahsa –Jina- Amini in custody of the notorious ‘morality police’, and the beginning of the inspiring ‘WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM’ movement, the contracts of numerous university lecturers, some of whom had dedicated up to a decade to their institutions, were abruptly terminated for the slightest expression of sympathy with protesters or critique of university conditions. Yet, upon their release they were offered no valid explanation, outside of the use of the ‘End of Contract’ formula. Approaching the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death, this troubling trend has intensified, where dozens of university professors published their dismissal letters on social media.

This academic precariousness has a twofold consequence. First and foremost, precarious employment plunges these lecturers into financial despair, leaving them without job security or benefits to provide for their families and maintain a decent standard of living. Simultaneously, it robs universities of experienced and highly qualified educators, resulting in an alarming decline in academic standards.

It is crucial to recognise that the implications of this systemic issue extend far beyond the confines of the academic world. By silencing those who dare to speak out against the injustices they witness, the Iranian government attempts to control the overall narrative and suppress society as a whole. While in the face of adversity, physical attack on students and sieges and raids on universities, Iranian university lecturers and students have shown resilience and over the past year despite such unrelenting crackdown have organized multiple students strikes across many universities in defiance of compulsory Hijab and other discriminatory laws, it is incumbent on the international community to pay attention to this growing crisis and stand in solidarity with Iranian educators and workers who are fighting for their rights, their students, and a brighter future. International community must recognise such dangerous exploitation of precarity by authoritarian states and response to it through noble initiatives and organized opposition strengthened by cross-border solidarity. Let’s not forget that this is not just an employment issue — it’s a threat to the very fabric of our societies and the pursuit of knowledge, thus tackling it requires international collaboration.


Image: The building of the faculty of literature and the humanities at the University of Tehran (Wikimedia Commons)

Elham Mohammadnejad

Elham Mohammadnejad is an Iranian-Australian writer and photographer. She holds a master in International Law from University of Queensland. She published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Singapore Review of Books, and the anthology To Hold the Cloud

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