According to international human rights law, primary education shall be compulsory and free of charge. Secondary and higher education shall be made progressively free of charge.
Free primary education is fundamental in guaranteeing everyone has access to education. However, in many developing countries, families often cannot afford to send their children to school, leaving millions of children of school-age deprived of education. Despite international obligations, some States keep on imposing fees to access primary education. In addition, there are often indirect costs associated with education, such as for schoolbooks, uniform or travel, that prevent children from low-income families accessing school.
Financial difficulties States may face cannot relieve them of their obligation to guarantee free primary education. If a State is unable to secure compulsory primary education, free of charge, when it ratifies the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it still has the immediate obligation, within two years, to work out and adopt a detailed plan of action for its progressive implementation, within a reasonable numbers of years, to be fixed in the plan (ICESCR, Article 14). For more information, see General Comment 11 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“Progressive introduction of free education” means that while States must prioritise the provision of free primary education, they also have an obligation to take concrete steps towards achieving free secondary and higher education (General Comment 13 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, paragraph 14).
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26)
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 13 and 14)
- Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 28)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 10)
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 24)
- UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (Articles 4)
- ILO Convention No. 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labour (Preamble, Articles 7 and 8)
- African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Article 11)
- African Youth Charter (Articles 13 and 16)
- Charter of the Organisation of American States (Article 49)
- Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights, Protocol of San Salvador (Articles 13)
- Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 14)
- Revised European Social Charter (Article 10 and 17)
- Arab Charter on Human Rights (Article 41)
- ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (Article 31)
For more details, see International Instruments - Free and Compulsory Education
The following case-law on free education includes decisions of national, regional and international courts as well as decisions from national administrative bodies, national human rights institutions and international human rights bodies.