Iranian Election Candidate Queried on Academic Credentials

12/06/2013 17:30 | Updated 12 August 2013

Hassan Rowhani, one of the candidates in Iran's presidential elections set for Friday 14 June, is not the first politician of recent times to have his academic credentials questioned. According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, despite Mr Rowhani revising his official biography there are still queries over the timing of his studies, especially in the light of his political career.

The case against Mr Rowhani follows the probe of the Iran Election Watch website which could find no record of Mr Rowhani having obtained a doctorate in law, as claimed, from the long-established University of Glasgow. The ensuing clarification from the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), headed by Mr Rowhani in Tehran, claims that he in fact graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University. Evidence for this has been provided in the form of a link to a newspaper website which mentions Mr Rowhani graduating under his family name of Hassan Feridon in 1999. The question which remains is how Mr Rowhani could have possibly completed a doctorate during the late 1990s given that he would, at the time, have been busy as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. There is also a question about why a campaign video for Mr Rowhani bypasses chronology to haphazardly insert mention of his doctorate in a narrative concerning his life pre-revolution (see from 02:30).

It should be noted, as others have not, that the library catalogue of Glasgow Caledonian University clearly show two thesis entries for Hassan Feridon dating 1995 and 1998. Although the library catalogue does not specify the nature of these theses, their length (256 and 445 pages, respectively) does suggest they are M.Phil. and Ph.D. theses, as the profile on Mr Rowhani's website now mentions. Further, the theses have indeed been written on broadly legal topics.

Perhaps the question to Mr Rowhani (rather than to the editors of his campaign film) can be answered with reference to the requirements of British doctorates. Typically, a doctoral candidate is required to have demonstrated through written thesis, and oral examination, an original contribution to knowledge (see 1.4 of GCU's degree regulations or Part B, p. 2 of the QAA's UK Quality Code for Higher Education). But unlike the type of graduate programmes in the US, most British doctorates do not include compulsory courses or compulsory teaching. In the sciences, lab-based experimentation ensures regular university attendance by a doctoral student. But in the humanities, a student might get away with meeting his or her supervisor once a year to discuss progress. It follows that there is scope for an overseas student of significant previous experience to translate his or her work (or even have it translated) and then defend it at infrequent meetings and a final exam. For students from countries with a strong oral culture who seek an academic rubber stamp (for example, where haggling is part of day-to-day life and is learnt from childhood) - talking the talk at a viva poses a surmountable hurdle. Given the significantly increased university fees that overseas students pay, a university might be content with this arrangement.

Many overseas students undergo great difficulty to obtain British doctorates - even more so than the difficulty their British counterparts go to. But the lack of regular compulsory elements in most British doctorates means that students can find ways to obtain doctorates for work conducted in another language. Whatever is the case with Mr Rowhani's PhD, it is certainly possible, in specific instances, to obtain a doctorate in the UK without truly going through a process of new learning and without being part of the academic life of a university.

Amir Dastmalchian is a researcher and teacher affiliated to both the University of Geneva and King's College London