I just stumbled across an interesting debate on LinkedIn, via the HE Managers network. A member posed the question of whether higher education is a human right enshrined by the UN declaration of Human Rights.

I have seen this argument used many times, especially back in the days when I was involved with NUS politics. I don’t find it a very convincing or well founded argument.

The UN declaration states:

Article 26
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

I think viewing HE as a basic right and therefore provided free of charge, tends to debase the fundamental force of this article of the declaration.

The declaration is a global statement of human rights and should only ever be seen through that lens and not interpreted for individual countries of regions (eg USA, UK, Europe, South America), because we are all at different stages of development.

In the global context, we must accept that we haven’t reached an acceptable level of basic literacy and numeracy and our focus should be on that as the basic right and working to make sure it achieved globally.

The fact that other countries are further developed and can offer basic literacy and numeracy with ease (if you ignore debates about the standard and quality of that education) should not mean that we change our interpretation in our favour.

Higher Education is a fantastic thing, a wonderful achievement for those countries with well developed structures and those students who benefit from it. It makes a strong enough case on its own merit and we should not rely on a document that was not intended to extend the privileges of people living of developed nations.

Our focus should be on the final clause of the article, that HE should be equally accessible to all. It isn’t at the moment and we have a lot of work to do.

I must return to that Alternatives to Bursaries list!!


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