New approaches to the right to higher education

New approaches to right to higher education

The right to higher education is part and parcel of the right to education and states have very clear obligations to ensure its realization.

Across the world progress has been made as higher education has seen an astonishing increase in participation, with gross enrolment doubling in the last two decades worldwide, from 19% in 2000 to 40% in 2020 (UIS data).

However, there are important disparities across countries and in many, tuition fees are on the rise, and only the privileged have access to, or succeed in completing, higher education. Drastic changes worldwide in terms of rising inequalities, digital transformation, climate change, demographic transition, social cohesion and the uncertainty of the future of work have further challenged the realization of this human right.

Therefore, UNESCO is undertaking work to place the right to higher education at the heart of the evolving right to education agenda in order to further clarify existing obligations as well as what aspects of the right to higher education might require further explanation considering new contexts and challenges.  

During the World Higher Education Conference 2022, a Roundtable, organized by the Section of Education Policy and UNESCO IESALC, was held on the ‘New approaches to the right to higher education’ on the 18th of May (watch the video), to bring together world renowned experts and organizational partners with a shared commitment to elevating the right to higher education.

Two new UNESCO publications were presented, which  lay the groundwork for the new approaches to the right to higher education: a conceptual paper, The Right to Higher Education: A social justice perspective, 'and a policy paper, Right to higher Education: unpacking the international normative framework in light of current trends and challenges.

During the panel discussion, Delphine Dorsi (Director, Right to Education Initiative) and Mary Tupan-Wenno (Executive Director, ECHO, Center for Diversity Policy) raised student challenges in accessing higher education. The cost of higher education, which includes both direct fees and indirect fees constitute a major barrier particularly for the most vulnerable, and this, despite the state obligation to progressively ensure higher education is made free. Access to comprehensive and accurate information at the individual level is further lacking, with important repercussions on their enrolment, even when education is made free.

Once enrolled in higher education, Tristan McCowan (Professor of International Education, University College London) explained how the stratification of higher education leads to disparities in terms of quality and lack of public recognition for certain institutions or courses. Laura Giannecchini (Institutional Development Coordinator, Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education) highlighted how essential decolonising knowledge is in order to ensure all worldviews are taken into account, particularly those of the most marginalized.

The experts recommended:

  • Ensuring wide and collective participation of all stakeholders (including students and parents) in the elaboration of public policies on higher education 
  • Ensuring digitalization of education complements in person higher education and does not replace it
  • Regulating higher education to ensure safeguards are in place for commercial and for-profit providers, as there should not be an expansion of higher education at any cost
  • Expanding the conditions for professional development that go beyond just employment and that consider the larger benefits for society as a whole in relation to the public good function of higher education
  • Putting in place accountability mechanisms notably by monitoring the implementation and enforcement of the right to higher education to ensure policy measures are responding to needs
  • Enhancing education financing which takes into account the increase in enrolment to guarantee no-one is left behind
  • Ratifying the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education (2019)

The rich discussion of the issues at stake will further strengthen UNESCO’s work in clarifying the right to higher education in international human rights instruments.

'The new publication ‘Right to higher education: unpacking the international normative framework in light of current trends and challenges’, aimed at policymakers, parliamentarians, civil society and the international education community, has three objectives:

  1. To foster knowledge on what the right to higher education concretely entails
  2. To unpack the obligations and principles and analyze trends in light of the evolving right to education framework and global challenges
  3. Provide guidance to enforce the right to higher education particularly in light of the fast-paced changes the world is facing