Benefits of a rights-based approach to higher education


Higher education needs a rights-based approach “more than ever” in the context of successive global crises, said an international conference held on the occasion of the International Day for Access to Higher Education (ONE). The all-day event was held on November 17, with support from World University NewsThe world’s largest collaborative event focused on equitable access to education and success.

Specifically, the online conference, Equity in Higher Education: Building the Global Knowledge Base, saw UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) and panellists engage in a discussion on access and the importance of a rights-based approach.

Dr Abdoulaye Salifou, Head of Education at UNESCO in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, provided context for the meeting by quoting Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that equitable quality education and lifelong opportunity are rights for all.

The meaning of a rights-based approach

Salifou said the World Bank has historically focused in Africa on primary and secondary education and has not provided the same focus or funds for higher education. Salifou stressed that a rights-based approach would see higher education gain greater prominence. “We need to recognize everyone’s potential, reduce inequality, and be inclusive,” he said.

Elisabeth Bernal Gamboa, a professor at the National University of Colombia, added that when we adopt a rights-based approach, we are forced to think differently. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people in education in different ways, as some have moved online, while others have had to drop out.

“The focus should not be just on issues of access, but on retention and academic success,” she said.

“Tertiary education provides opportunities for people to gain skills and contribute positively to the economy and society,” said Miriam Chiappa, Executive Director, Zambia Qualifications Authority. “If we don’t take a rights-based approach, we are denying people’s contribution to society.”

Dr Rosanna Herringer, assistant professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and board member of the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE-Brasil), explained that the pandemic has exacerbated inequality in access to higher education, and that a lack of government investment means Low-income and minority students are now less likely to enjoy these opportunities.

“In Mexico, we also lost a lot of government funding,” said Jasua Medina, vice president of the University Students’ Union of the University of Guadalajara.

“Our university has high enrollment and is one of the best in the country, but students have to campaign regularly to address fundamental inequalities, such as how we get people into schools,” he said. “There is a huge demand for higher education in Mexico, but if we want access to all, we need financing.”

“Access is an important part of the puzzle, but academic success and post-university training are also part of a rights-based approach,” added Dr. Emma Sabzalieva, Head of Research and Foresight at UNESCO IESALC, who moderated the event.

Hunger trumps education

Sabzalieva questioned how best people could campaign for higher education, which generated a range of responses.

Heringer and Medina both emphasized the need for more public resources, with Heringer saying that civil society organizations should push harder for it.

In Brazil, she said, “students often don’t apply for higher education because they don’t have the information, so if we’re going to encourage those from indigenous people and slums to apply, we need to fund information campaigns in those communities.”

“They need financial support, but they also need a sense of belonging,” she continued. “Higher education is important for them to be able to fight for their rights.”

Medina said the economic situation of many families in the suburbs of Guadalajara, Mexico, means that even access to primary education is not guaranteed.

Students often engage in illegal activities just to support their families, or immigrate to the United States. Their financial situation prevents them from finishing their training, as their priority is to find food and shelter.”

“Economies are struggling, and there are competing demands, so it’s hard to assert education as a right,” Schiappa added. “When the government has to meet basic needs, they put that before education.”

Salifou provided another point of view by emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning and, in particular, the role of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions. He said that we should not only focus on the transition from elementary school to high school to university, but on education throughout life.

“We have a high youth unemployment rate, and TVET students also need access to higher technical education,” he said.

competing challenges

Africa has many competing challenges, including education, hunger and [lack of] Information and communication technology. “This is why we need UNESCO’s support to focus more on the right to higher education.”

In terms of innovation, Chiappa highlighted the fact that although many Zambian universities are just breaking even, they are designed to suit the less fortunate. They do this by offering scholarships to supplement any other available government scholarships.

In Colombia, on the other hand, Bernal Gamboa highlighted the benefit of engaging a wide range of stakeholders to enable access for disadvantaged groups.

“We are very lucky to have a special project for people with disabilities,” she said. “We work with organizations that support students throughout their entire college life, and focus on creating new approaches every day.”

However, one of the biggest challenges in Colombia is the need for continuity of funding when government job holders change hands. Bernal Gamboa explained that it is frustrating when important projects are suddenly cut short, and “sometimes the outcome is not even close to what was hoped for”.

Corruption is another problem. “We need directors who are driven by rights and a desire to expand reach,” she said.

Here in Guadalajara [in Mexico] “We sometimes encounter authoritarian governments, which makes it impossible to talk about greater infrastructure to improve access,” Medina said. On the other hand, some universities are afraid of crowding out students. It should be a priority to get students involved in these kinds of discussions, just as we’re having them today.”

Heringer agreed that universities are sometimes afraid of student participation. “We also need forums within universities so that students can contribute to the curriculum,” she said.

“In the last 20 years in Brazil, indigenous students, for example, have changed the content of university courses. They have brought a different perspective and shown that there is no single understanding of the issues.”

Universities designed for the elite

The conference heard that 75% of higher education in Brazil is provided by the private sector, compared to about 50% in countries such as Colombia and Chile.

The accreditation system in the private sector is often geared toward “high-quality” students, but institutions must also demonstrate a full commitment to equity. To do this, it is necessary to develop measurement tools, although in some countries it is difficult to collect such data.

“In Latin America, many people are migrants, victims of gender-based violence or armed conflict, and the private sector needs to help us develop indicators to measure access from these groups,” said Bernal Gamboa.

Schiappa, however, stressed that strong partnerships with private education institutions are needed to produce a “win-win” situation. “Governments must create an enabling environment for the private sector to flourish,” she said.

“Our universities need to take more responsibility for expanding access because they were designed for the elite in most of our countries,” Herringer said.

“Access to higher education should be seen as a right, not just a privilege of the few,” Chiappa concluded.

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