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).

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.

Claim of unconstitutionality against article 183 of the General Education Law (Colombia Constitutional Court; 2010)

In this case, petitioners supported by the Colombian Coalition for the Right to Education filed a claim with the Constitutional Court of Colombia challenging a provision in the General Education Law (Law No. 115 of 1994), which allowed the government to impose fees for primary education. The Constitutional Court found that the provision of law that allowed the charging of fees for primary education was unenforceable and in violation of the Colombian Constitution and international human rights treaties.