On 24 April 2023, the Right to Education Initiative (RTE) and the Global Student Forum (GSF) brought together student activists from four different continents, namely: Africa, Latin America, Oceania, and Europe, to share their insights on mobilising for equal access to higher education in different contexts. This event was the third edition in a series of roundtables that have sought to explore the issues and questions raised through a collaborative monitoring project on social inequalities in higher education in France, carried out by the Sciences Po School of Law Clinic and RTE. This roundtable marked the end of the five-year long project, with the conversation developed around the question: what are the possibilities of action to move towards more equal access to higher education?
After a brief introduction, each speaker talked about the advocacy strategy that they had implemented as student activists.
Ellen Dixon, who joined from New Zealand, is engaged in political action through students’ unions and associations. Although she acknowledges other more disruptive strategies, she is convinced that this type of organisation contributes to democracy by exercising it in their practices and actions (e.g. elected representatives, organisational lobbying, policy building). Héctor Ulloa, an Honduran education activist, has worked on tax justice campaigns for education. He empathised with the importance of equalising spaces and designing engaging communication strategies to attract the youth’s interest to such topics and tackle structural problems. Larissa Rosales, a Mexican student, talked about the strategy of monitoring discrimination and inequalities in higher education through research, and how to use the findings to advocate for equal access to higher education (e.g. reaching global stakeholders like the Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; or collaborating with other actors for capacity building).
The speakers reflected on the challenges that they have encountered as activists on the matter. Héctor mentioned the difficulty of understanding and confronting structural barriers, such as economic inequality and increasing privatisation. Similarly, Kuhle Dini, a student from South Africa who shared her experience in written form, agreed on the financial barriers that deprive people from the right to education. Larissa, for her part, pointed out that higher education is often not seen as a priority within the right to education (e.g. as opposed to basic education), or among other rights (e.g. the right to food or health), limiting the attention and resources devoted to it. Moreover, Ellen referred to the problem of ageism creating the false perception that the youth are cognitively incapable of exercising their agency, which is as misleading as ignoring that there are students in the entire age spectrum.
The speakers then moved on to exchange advice on how to capitalise on success. Larissa touched on the importance of never considering the achievement of one objective as the end of the struggle, for the goal of equal access to higher education is ambitious and, thus, in need of persistent action. Therefore, one must always ask how to use the current success to keep on working towards the final goal. Ellen added that access to higher education is just the doorway to combat other issues, as the project of democracy through community building is never complete and it is always dependable on the time and the level of action (local, regional, global).
In the final segment of the roundtable, the speakers talked about how to grow the movement and move towards a more equal access to higher education. Hector signalled awareness raising by facilitating direct encounters and connections with the impacted actors, so as to foster action boosted by empathy. He also explained how democratising the movement will create a virtuous cycle in which actors feel their voices are heard and, thus, have an impact, which will motivate them to keep participating and invite others to join the cause. Similarly, Larissa brought up the relevancy of events like the roundtable in question, where students discover what other activists are working on in order to know whom to turn to when needing help and to create meaningful collaborations. In the same line, Ellen recalled that collective action will always be stronger than individual efforts.
Given that the roundtable followed a dynamic and participatory format, the public posed stimulating questions to the speakers regarding the gap between what is taught in the classroom and the knowledge and skills that are needed for everyday challenges, as well as the potential and limitations of higher education as a tool to reach collective welfare. Answering some of them, Larissa acknowledged the need of multidisciplinary approaches that stimulate critical thinking regarding social issues in all disciplines, so that students in hard sciences and similar fields benefit from the democratic formation that higher education offers besides professional skills. On a similar note, Héctor argued that the level of political engagement of the student body is the best indicator to measure whether a university is successfully fulfilling its role. Ellen added that higher education institutions should provide training on student’s practical needs so as not to be disconnected from their realities (e.g. information on the financial system to be a responsible “economic citizen”).
In their closing remarks, the speakers recalled the importance of relying on other students’ work to advance social causes, for it is almost always certain that there is an active group of students that is worried about the same collective issues as you are. Furthermore, they reinstated that the importance of higher education is its potential to strengthen democracy and combat social problems, and thus the reason why it is vital that everyone everywhere is guaranteed equal access to it.
Watch the session here:
About the authors
Yeliz Inci is a legally trained intersectional feminist and a master student on Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at SciencesPo PSIA,where was part of the Law Clinic in partnership with the Right to Education Initiative. She is currently interning at UNESCO’s Section of Education Policies.
Fee Wittenbecher is a master’s student in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po PSIA, holding a bachelor’s degree in International relations from Leiden University in The Hague. She is passionate about equal access to education and was a student of the Sciences Po Law Clinic in cooperation with the Right to Education Initiative working towards increasing equality in higher education in France and beyond.