Since 2018, the Right to Education Initiative has partnered with the Human Rights Clinic of the Sciences Po Law School to monitor and advocate for equal access to higher education in France using RTE’s monitoring guide. Last year, three students from the clinic collected data and drafted an analytical report “Limited Potential” The Right to Higher Education in France Impact of Place of Origin and of Cost on Inequality on the impact of “place of origin” on access to higher education showing that territorial inequalities affect student mobility and access, especially to more prominent institutions. This year, we deepened the research and raised awareness on the issue to various actors in various fora, including at an international Colloquium “Égalité des chances ou égalité des réussites dans l’enseignement supérieur ?” held in Montpellier, France in March 2020. The team consists of Ana Clara Cathalat and Bertille Bertinotti-Proust, two Master students of „Human Rights and Humanitarian Action“, and Ana Horvatin, a Master student of „Economic law and global governance“ at Sciences Po Paris, acting as researchers for the Sciences Po Human Rights Clinic, under the supervision of Roman Zinigrad, and in collaboration with “Right to Education Initiative”, a human rights based NGO working on education, namely Erica Murphy and Delphine Dorsi.
Right before the Covid-19 crisis blew up in France, we had the opportunity to travel to the broad streets of Montpellier to take part in a research conference on education. Right on time, considering the travel ban was instituted only the following week. Held on the 5th and 6th of March of 2020, the colloquium called “Equal opportunity or equal success in higher education?” had gathered around 100 researchers from across the globe to discuss the obstacles that students and institutions face in providing and obtaining higher education.
The simultaneously organized presentations of research spanned from analysis of the educator-researcher to the role of tuition fees in our education system. In a unique position as students with a fresh outlook, we knew that we were bringing something new to the table. Our subject was the effect of territorial inequalities in France on access to higher education in France, breaking down in detail the costs that need to be considered depending on the “place of origin” of a student, while utilizing the international and domestic law framework to show why it is a problem.
Our goal was twofold. On a personal level, we were excited to have this insight into the research community, and were thankful to the Right to Education Initiative and the Human Rights Legal Clinic of Sciences Po, whose collaborative child this project was, for enabling it. On the professional side, this was the apex of a two-year effort that more than 10 people took part in, in order to explore this particular inequality and in order to phrase it in a way that legal arguments may be made when negotiating and advocating for this issue. Following a report put together last year, our team of three focused Master students were responsible for making the results visible. During our presentation, we highlighted the fact that the concentration of higher education institutions results in students having to move to access higher education, thus incurring costs, which are harder to meet to those that move due to regional differences. This goes against many international norms that France chose to accept, such as physical and economic accessibility and non-discrimination principle.
The discussion which followed the short presentation strengthened our belief that the subject was an important one and clearly understudied. The animator of the panel, a professor at the university of Montpellier, revealed that many of her students face the same costs and struggles identified by our research. Moreover, our legal human rights’ approach raised keen interest among those researchers more accustomed to a purely sociological approach, who were interested in how our legal perspective could complement their own work on this issue. We have been meeting researchers and student unions for months advocating for the issue, but to properly deduce the gaps in our reasoning, a comprehensive presentation was necessary.
The discussion of access to higher education has been subject of discussion in the French media in November and December of last year, due to a tragic case of self-immolation that sparked a deeper debate concerning who has access and at what cost. In the aftermath of our research conference experience, we established an advocacy strategy and developed a policy brief to highlight our initial finding as a contribution to the discussion on this issue . We truly hope that the effects of territorial inequalities on higher education will be more present in the public eye. The initial responses we received from state representatives, UN agencies, academic and civil society organisations are encouraging. As our ten months project to push it into the limelight is coming to an end, we have faith that the Right to Education Initiative, who has been a key player in this effort, will continue to advocate for the issue. Although the situation at present in the world is an alarming one, we continue to work on this from the safety of our homes knowing that once we are back on the outside, the concerns that we have will still persist.
Ana Horvatin is a student at Sciences-Po studying for a master's in “Droit économique spécialité Global Governance Studies”. She was part of the Sciences Po Law School Clinic’s Human Rights, Economic Development and Globalization (HEDG) programme from 2019-2020.