On the 25 April 2023, our online roundtable event titled ‘Coming Together for Equal Access to Higher Education: An International Exchange of Strategies, Experiences, and Mobilizations’ brought together student activists from diverse backgrounds and regions to discuss the crucial issue of equalising access to higher education. We were thrilled to have four distinguished student speakers from different parts of the world, all active and passionate about the right to education:
Ellen Dixon, President of the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations and Consociate Steering Committee Member at the Global Student Forum.
Hector Ulloa, President of the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund (SAIH) and a board member of Debt Justice Norway (SLUG) and Steering Committee Member at the Global Student Forum (GSF).
Kuhle Dini, first-year Bachelor’s student in Political Science student at the University of the Western Cape and a facilitator at Equal Education.
Larissa Rosales López, first-year Master's student in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po and a member of the Sciences Po Law Clinic in cooperation with the Right to Education Initiative.
The event was conducted on Zoom to allow for a wide and international audience. The main objective of our roundtable was to share insights and stories of student mobilisation against discrimination, and inspiring collective action to promote equal access to higher education across different contexts. Strengthening and diversifying collective power were central themes, as was creating momentum and fostering awareness around this vital cause.
Understanding of structural barriers
According to Hector, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to the right to education is the understanding of the structural barriers that are actually limiting young people's access to higher education. Hector describes that, in his experience, most people do not have a good understanding of those larger, often socio-economic factors, even if they support equal access: ‘Many people think increasing access to higher education is just building schools in rural communities or providing high-speed internet, but often the structural barriers that are actually holding back people's ability to access education are completely ignored.’
The two biggest factors present in almost all countries, not just in developing ones, are economic inequality and lack of public funding. In addition, there are the byproducts, such as increased privatisation which impacts marginalised groups more strongly.
Hector also delivered a possible strategy to address this gap in knowledge: training and capacity building. Accordingly, we need to make sure that student representatives and activists have the necessary knowledge and understanding of the structural barriers and the tools to advocate for change. A concrete example of this advice in action is GSF's tax justice in education program. In three workshops, student leaders from around the globe come together with tax justice experts and discuss solutions and realities in their countries. ‘We just enable discussions. The knowledge is there. We just provide these spaces.’ Initiatives like this allow student leaders to have a better understanding and gain new perspectives on how to start their own campaigns on the local level.
Facing a myriad of biases
Ellen pointed to another central challenge students face: a myriad of biases such as ageism, sexism, racism, or ableism that create barriers to equal access to education. She explained how ageism, the concept that the younger population is more vulnerable and less capable of understanding social and political issues, creates a power dynamic that ultimately takes political issues away from students under the pretext of protecting them. A related challenge is the political economy of youth which exploits these binaries and biases, such as gender or age, through consumerism.
Ellen advised on how to address these challenges: ‘We respect our elders because they have walked before us, but that does not mean we have to agree with them.’ Instead of accepting the status quo, we need to push for democratic conversations focused on citizenship regardless of age. We should put agency back in the classroom by addressing the issues that result from these biases and value systems. One essential step is making sure all parts of education are intergenerational and co-creational. In other words, democratic structures and safe spaces need to be created opposing an education that socialises students into particular views and biases. The ultimate goal is the co-construction of the ‘liberating right to education.’
Dependency on outside factors, actors, and data
Larissa told us about the Law Clinic's experience depending on outside factors and the potentially unexpected changes connected to that. She gave the example of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, for which the Clinic prepared for a long time. The date was moved several times, forcing the students to pivot their strategy. Similarly, to conduct research and publish reports, one is often dependent on publicly available data. Finding reliable data might be challenging in some contexts, and certain data might not be available at all. Larissa mentions the example of France, a country that does not collect data on race.
A strategy to overcome the challenges connected to data could be looking for proxies. The Law Clinic, for instance, has decided to focus on data on socio-economic status and geographical origin. When it comes to unexpected changes out of your control, Larissa suggests becoming creative and finding new spaces to present your work, advocate and share the information you collected. Here, round tables and conferences are good examples.
Despite challenges such as a limited understanding of complex structural barriers, a myriad of biases like ageism, sexism, racism, or ableism creating obstacles to equal access to education, in addition to unpredictable external factors impacting research and advocacy work, student activists share powerful avenues for action. Training and capacity building, advocating for democratic conversations focused on citizenship regardless of age, and reclaiming agency in the classroom are crucial strategies. Additionally, using proxies for unreliable data or data difficult to find can be a great method. When confronted with unexpected changes, finding new spaces to present work, advocate, and share information might be a creative solution. We believe that these approaches can be a valuable support for student activists to ignite change, amplify voices, and foster tangible progress toward more inclusive and accessible higher education.
Watch the roundtable event 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.
Larissa Rosales Lopez is a Mexican ecofeminist committed to advance social justice issues. With a background in International Relations, she has worked for NGOs who advocate for girls’ rights and for education in marginalized communities. She is currently studying a master's degree on Human Rights at Sciences Po PSIA, where she was part of the Law Clinic in partnership with the Right to Education Initiative.
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.