New UNESCO report unpacks current trends and challenges to right to higher education

Right to higher education report

What are the state legal obligations related to higher education? How do they apply in the context of increased human movement, rising inequalities and growing digitalization? What are national measures taken to advance this right, and what are the challenges faced?

In the context of the World Higher Education Conference 2022 (WHEC22) held in May 2022, the new UNESCO  Report ‘Right to higher education: unpacking the international normative framework in light of current trends and challenges’, published jointly with the Right to Education Initiative, tackles these questions with the aim to ensure that the human-rights based approach is placed at the heart of the higher education debate.

Despite a 100% increase in the number of enrolments in the past 20 years, access to higher education is still being limited due to its cost, discriminatory practices, lack of supportive measures and rigid admission processes which reinforce inequalities. Digital education is both an opportunity and a threat to the implementation of the right to higher education and measures that are enhancing inclusion, including for people on the move, are severely in want. Quality education, in terms of content, delivery and monitoring require further strengthening, and this includes addressing financing issues.

Against this bleak picture, positive advancements are observed across countries and building on good practices as well as existing research, this publication provides policy guidance to ensure an equitable enjoyment of the right to higher education in terms of access, pursuit and completion.

States are encouraged to adopt a system-wide, equity-based, lifelong learning approach notably by ensuring the interconnectedness with other levels and forms of education. There is a need translate policy objectives into law. Sufficient and sustained funding is key, and priority should be given to vulnerable, marginalized and disadvantaged groups. States must also enhance the quality of higher education provision, including by implementing safeguards for online learning and closing the digital divide. Higher education policies must go beyond access and factor in the completion of studies and the transition to the labour market.

As UNESCO is embarking on a journey to review the international human rights framework, the publication further invites an international reflection on the notions of ‘merit’ and ‘capacity’, ‘progressive introduction of free education’ and ‘equally accessible to all’.

Higher education is a human right, and States need to take further action to ensure that this right is fully implemented.

Right to higher education: unpacking the international normative framework in light of current trends and challenges
Right to Education Initiative