Right to HE does not exist in a vacuum, say young people

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay described higher education as a public good and a human right in her opening address to the third UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC2022) in Barcelona, Spain, on 18 May. Down on the conference floor, delegates, including young people, were discussing what the right to higher education means in practice and which other rights are needed in order to deliver on this.

“All too often we forget that education is lifelong learning so it doesn’t stop at primary or secondary level,” said Koumbou Boly Barry, UN special rapporteur on the right to education, addressing WHEC2022 delegates at a round table on the right to higher education by video address from Burkina Faso.

“The right to higher education is a right for all, according to their ability, as it allows people to develop the capacity to participate in civic, political and economic life as well as contribute to sustainable development.”

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

In order to exercise this right, young people need to enjoy other rights too. “Lots of people don’t have access to higher education because they don’t get the right education beforehand,” said Eréndira Rodríguez de León, an engineering student at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey.

“In Mexico, we have a lot of indigenous people who don’t [even] speak much Spanish, so are at a disadvantage when they get to university and the texts are all in English. This is a gap which needs covering.”

Obstacles to access

The fact that higher education is available does not mean it is accessible, according to Eva Papanikolaki, a student of economics and environmental activist from Athens, Greece, as marginalised groups such as migrants or refugees may struggle to get access.

“We have people from Ukraine who from one day to the next have lost the right to higher education,” she says. “In the US, a developed country, tuition fees are so high that people are excluded.”

When they get to university, students should have the right to live and study in a safe environment, says Canadian medical student and UNESCO youth representative Kenisha Arora. Bullying is common among students and many countries have no laws in place to protect students from violence.

“I have seen so many cases of girls who are sexually assaulted by professors or their peers,” she said, “so safety for young people is a privilege and in what world is that ok?”

Changed conditions due to the pandemic, especially the overwhelming shift to online delivery of education, are creating new concerns about the implications for privacy.

“With the pandemic, students’ right to privacy has not always been respected – they may not be in a position to refuse the collection of their data,” said Barry. She added that increasing involvement of the private sector in research programmes and in the creation of courses and teaching materials can pose problems for academic freedom.

For public good or profit?

The question of whether education is being conducted for the public good or for profit is one we need to ask, according to Juliette Torabian, deputy team leader of EU project PIONEERED.

“It is the state’s responsibility to provide education for free to everyone. If there are gaps, we can sit down and talk to the private sector and see how they can fill them,” she said, but they should not take over the role of the public sector. Torabian cited one example she came across of a community in a remote location in Peru, who provided education to children who would otherwise have to travel daily in precarious conditions to reach a school.

Rodríguez de León provided a different perspective on the role of the private sector in education. “I have a scholarship paid for by the private sector – without this I wouldn’t be able to study,” she says. She believes the private sector can play a useful role in creating opportunities for young people.

“In Mexico, we have a lot of corruption so money which is meant to go to education can end up in people’s pockets. The private sector does this work partly because it gives them tax benefits, but they are still doing things for society that the government is not.”

For Papanikolaki, ensuring people have the right to higher education is a question of priorities: “Governments often prioritise basic education before higher. This may make sense when resources are limited, but higher education is the right to lifelong learning and a more open society. So governments need to decide if they want to spend over 3% of their budget on military spending or invest in higher education for society.”

The debate on what should be the balance between public and private provision of higher education and what this means for the right to higher education continued outside the round table at WHEC2022.

Together with Chile, Brazil is the country in Latin America with the highest proportion of students in private higher education – private universities account for around 85% of the total number and cater for 70% of students. Competition to secure a place at a public university is fierce and students from wealthier backgrounds are usually over-represented.

Public universities ‘catering for the elite’

This situation, whereby public sector universities offer higher quality education but cater mainly for the sons and daughters of the country’s elite, generates a perverse dynamic, according to Laura Giannecchini, co-ordinator of institutional development at the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE).

“Private universities offer education of low quality, but they also offer affordable tuition fees, which people pay in search of a social mobility that never comes. People will not give good jobs to people with this kind of qualification and so the social injustice continues.”

In 2007 under the previous government of Lula da Silva, Brazil introduced a system of quotas to improve equity, reserving a number of places for students from certain ethnic backgrounds or from low-income families.

For Rui Oppermann, director of the academic committee at ENLACES, the Latin American and Caribbean higher education meeting space, this policy is starting to bear fruit.

“In 2004, when I was the head of the faculty of dentistry at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), there were no black students, even though black people make up 50% of the local population,” he said, “Today 60% of students are from low-income backgrounds and half of these are black.” Some of this first cohort of more diverse students are now becoming teachers at UFMG, he reports.

Oppermann believes that how we define the purpose of higher education is key.

“The difference between calling it a public and social good or a common good is not just semantics, this distinction really matters. UNESCO is pushing the idea of higher education as a common good, but I see it as a public good as it forms part of public policy and falls within the responsibility of the state. It is a social good because it serves all of society,” he said.

“For us this is important because higher education in Latin America is still a limited space and access is for those who have the economic means to be there. We want it to be inclusive, something which is not happening.”