Delphine Dorsi - @DelphineDorsi and Juliana Lima - @ju_lvcpm
31 Mai 2022

The UNESCO World Higher Education Conference (WHEC 20222) that took place in Barcelona, Spain, from 18-20 May was a great and grandiose event that gathered around 1,500 in person participants - and many more online - around 120 roundtable sessions, 86 ‘HED’ talks and five youth-led activities. We had the opportunity to represent the Right to Education Initiative (RTE) during the three day event and to engage in a lively discussion with worldwide experts at a panel organized by the Section of Education Policy and UNESCO IESALC on the ‘New approaches to the right to higher education’. Before the conference, RTE also participated in UNESCO consultations around the evolving right to education and organized two side events: the pre-launch of a new thematic monitoring guide (‘Monitoring access and participation in higher education’, forthcoming) and a roundtable on the privatization of higher education (The impact of privatization on the right to higher education: comparative perspectives). At the event, RTE launched two co-authored papers: a policy brief on the right to higher education (‘The Right to Higher Education: Unpacking the international normative framework in light of current trends and challenges, forthcoming) and a research paper on inequalities in higher education in France (Higher Education in France: A right threatened by increasing inequalities?). 

This piece is just a snapshot of the conference; therefore, it is not representative of all that has been discussed during the event. Neither does it refer to ‘the most important issues’. There is no doubt that we could not do justice to the high quality nor to the extent of all the discussions that took place at the WHEC, but what we saw and heard got us thinking… and we wanted to share some personal highlights and reflections. 


We need to put the right to education at the center of any higher education policies  

International human rights law provides that higher education must be made equally accessible to all without discrimination, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education. Higher education is a right that entails obligations for states. Its human rights dimension should be at the heart of any higher education policy and was stressed throughout the whole conference.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay opened the conference recalling that ‘higher education is not and should not become a privilege, but is an integral part of the fundamental right to education’. She added ‘education must remain a common public good accessible to everyone’ - this was a key topic we discussed during the panel on the ‘New approaches to the right to higher education’. The roundtable on the inclusion of refugees in national higher education systems also highlighted that the existing legal framework guarantees the right to education of refugees, including in higher education. We welcomed Anantha Duraiappah’s intervention in the roundtable ‘What would it take to ensure access to higher education for all?’ stating that ‘education is a human right, which should not have a price’. We were also pleased to hear the Abidjan Principles promoted by Juliette Torabian in the round table on higher education as a human right: perspectives from youth and the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, stressing states’ obligations to regulate private actors’ involvement in education. In her closing remarks, when presenting the UNESCO Higher Education 2030 Roadmap, Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Education, recalled again that higher education is part of the right to education and a key pillar of this roadmap.


We need to address persisting inequalities

Major equality disparities across and within countries persist, despite the global commitment to leave no one behind. Divides that remained invisible until the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the digital divide, have been brought to light since 2020. But other all too well-known causes of inequalities have not been sufficiently addressed. Financial barriers such as tuition fees, the cost of living, and the socio-economic divide still represent one of the biggest challenges to inclusive access to higher education. Geographical location, lack of information, lack of motivation and cultural stereotypes still prevent many students from even thinking about joining a higher education programme. Poor academic preparation or low-quality primary and secondary education still eschew students’ opportunities to equal access to higher education. Race, cast, and ethnicity are still obstacles to equality and inclusion. Many panelists highlighted the importance of a multidimensional and life-long perspective that takes into account intersectionality when we think about policies that aim to tackle inequalities.

As Jamil Salmi (Global Tertiary Education Expert) reminded, we cannot hide behind ignorance anymore: ‘We must remember that disparity statistics are not about abstract concepts, we are talking about real people who are denied the opportunity to study because of circumstances beyond their control : income, geographical location, ethnic origin, gender, and so on… Being denied this right hurts the dignity of people and destroys their hope’.


We need to talk about multiple overlapping crisis that affect the most marginalized

Environmental issues such as climate change and deforestation, health crises like the recent Covid-19 pandemic, conflict and insecurity striking all five continents, as well as persisting poverty and hunger have affected millions of people across the world leading, among other things, to large scale displacement. Protracted displacement situations have had lasting effects on refugees and asylum seekers, including their right to higher education. Barriers hindering refugees’ chances to access higher education range from psycho-social trauma - linked to forced displacement and exposure to violence - to informational and financial barriers - with some countries practicing differentiated fee regimes for migrants. This is all aggravated by host country constraints on refugee access to the labor market, restrictions on refugees’ free movement (confining them inside camps), language credentials and recognition of previous academic diplomas and other forms of prior learning. To this matter, participants called for wide ratification of the  Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education

Refugee testimonies reminded that on top of all the above mentioned structural barriers, refugees also have to overcome cultural stereotypes and systemic discrimination, recalling that intersectionality plays an important role in the configuration of what the UNHCR called ‘the super disadvantage’ of displaced students and scholars. We were particularly inspired by the testimonies of Zura Mustafa Abdulla (South Sudan), Aisha Khurram (Afghanistan) and Ella Ininahawze (Rwanda), three young women who have been at the center of refugee leading initiatives to raise awareness and fight for policy change at national and global level.  ‘We are taking space and reclaiming our agency to work with our peers and help them' said Aisha Khurram.

If the conference highlighted good examples of national policies and practices – such as, for example, structured preparatory programs, language courses for refugees and the equalization of tuition fees for nationals and migrants – panelists were unanimous in upholding the urgent need to put refugee’s right to higher education at the center of international policy dialogues: a global human rights based response is the best way forward.


We need to talk about how education systems contribute to perpetuating inequalities  

Wall mural in Spanish Panelists discussed how education institutional designs play a part in perpetuating inequalities and deepening the social and economic divide. Two particular dimensions of this issue  called our attention: the vertical stratification of higher education systems across the world and how we assess ‘merit’ or ‘capacity’.

It was highlighted that higher education differentiation can have positive implications to equality and inclusion: horizontal differentiation may result in the diversification of the higher education offer for students in terms of fields of study, programs and tracks. But panelists recalled that vertical differentiation has strong implications to students’ life prospects : the social value and immaterial prestige that is granted to some higher education institutions ultimately reproduces social inequalities. As Tristan McCowan pointed out, ‘the connection between the institutions and who goes to them is not a coincidence. In all systems, lower income and disadvantaged students are disproportionately overrepresented in lower prestige and lower quality institutions, and vice-versa’. Indeed, if we want higher education to play a role in social mobility ‘there must be some evenness on quality, public recognition and the life chances that university diplomas lead to’. Otherwise, higher education will continue to play a part in preserving social privileges.

Another dimension of this issue is how we assess students’ ‘merit’ or ‘capacity’ to enroll and complete higher education. It is argued that the notions of ‘merit’ (UDHR, article 26) and ‘capacity’ (ICESCR, article 13, d) were introduced to protect the right of individuals to higher education to avoid unjustified criteria being used to refuse access and therefore lead to discrimination. However, as highlighted in the conference, merit and capacity assessment have in practice lead to the exclusion of the most marginalized groups. Participants recalled that intersectional discrimination as well as structural and systemic inequalities play an important role in determining one’s chances of accessing higher education. In the same way, what happens in the first years of education and how students evolve throughout primary and secondary education impacts their pathways towards higher education. As UNESCO-IESALC director, Francèsc Pedró, emphasized, ‘educational opportunities are unequally distributed and direct and indirect discrimination as well as differentiation of social economic backgrounds and lack of cultural capital result in eschewed admission procedures. More must be done to ensure equality of opportunities: higher education is too often limited to those with agency, and it is framed in a false meritocracy lens’. 

There is indeed a lot of controversy around what constitutes a fair admissions system and some argue that the reflection should be framed in terms of social justice. One of the challenges for a more equitable assessment of ‘merit’ and ‘capacity’ is how to take into account the impact of lifelong learning and educational differentiation throughout the students academic life cycle. Another challenge relies on budget allocation. As was argued by the Right to Education Initiative’s director Delphine Dorsi at the UNESCO Global Thematic expert consultation ‘Rethinking merit’, we cannot dissociate the discussion on ‘merit’ and ‘capacity’ to that of how states are financing education: ‘There is no point in assessing capacity if financial barriers prevent ‘capable’ students from accessing higher education’.


We need to mobilise funds to move towards free higher education  

States have the immediate obligation to take measures to progressively introduce free higher education. This is another key to address existing and persisting inequalities. HIgher education has a high cost. If not financed with public funds, the burden of the cost falls on students. The serious issue about students’ debt was highlighted in our panel on the ‘New approaches to the right to higher education’, our colleague Laura Giannecchini indicating that the burden even passes on students’ children. The rise of tuition fees, both in public and private institutions, is unsustainable. They need to be regulated and the current system of competition and selectivity based on international rankings rethought if we want to avoid  higher education being only a privilege for those that can afford it.


We need to resist the commodification of higher education 

Increasing privatization of the higher education sector at a global level has not only deepened inequalities but also led to the commodification of knowledge. As a consequence, the purpose of higher education is increasingly perceived as one of profit making - to both private and public higher education institutions as well as to students whose higher education experience is reduced to succeeding (or not) in obtaining ‘a certain kind of’ higher education degree. Indeed, higher education has become an ‘economic entity’ serving ‘economic purposes’, including for students: we need to bring back to the table its social and humanizing role. That means that we need to start thinking about how we can shift the narrative: rather than questioning what a diploma is worth, in terms of the employability and the financial prospects it may entail, we should be asking ‘how was your higher education experience’? 

This perspective takes into consideration intangible life experiences that are formative to one’s character and that have, sadly, been evacuated from the debate. Most often than not, the narrowed focus on ‘useful’ knowledge, represents a toll on the development of critical thinking, leaves little space for creativity and innovation and results in frustrated students and scholars. This is of particular concern when we take into account who is defining what ‘useful knowledge’ is, and what it entails in terms of standardization of learning processes and content.


We need to decolonize knowledge and higher education systems and enhance students participation in policy making

Laura Giannechini, Institutional Development coordinator at the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE), reminded us that universities were historically set up by dominant groups, for dominant groups, and as long as higher education does not respect and reflect our plural societies we will have a very hard time in ensuring inclusive higher education. We have mentioned that the expansion of higher education has not been translated into increased opportunity for disadvantaged populations. Indeed, those at the margins of our societies not only struggle with access challenges, they also have a hard time recognizing themselves in the system. To counter this legitimacy and participation gap we need to liberate our higher education systems from an elite culture by welcoming diverse academic learning environments, innovative curricula and multiple approaches to research. Indeed, much has been said about the role of higher education in building global citizens but we should not forget that knowledge must be culturally linked and relevant in order to respond to the needs of our plural society. Rather than standardized content dicted from the top, we should welcome creativity - we were fascinated by Sam Illingworth’s description of how he uses art to talk about climate change and connect with his students - and start paying attention to how indigenous as well as ethnically and racially cultural aspects and knowledge can enhance our own culture and knowledge. 

More than that, as Mary Tupan-Wenno - ECHO’s director - brilliantly put it, we need to start asking ourselves as ‘to what extent are we willing to connect to communities that are not traditionally seen in higher education’. And if we do want to connect with students, scholars, and higher education staff, we need to start giving them voice. Moreover, we really need to start listening. Not because it is important to check the ‘participation box’, but because their testimonies and life experiences can bring us closer to the ground. Because their reality is the most important reality. Because by engaging rights holders in policy making we take a huge step forward into building a fairer higher education system. Participation is one of the keys to improve inclusiveness, fight against discrimination, and ensure quality for all. Certainly, not all kinds of participation leads to positive outcomes: we can only make it happen if we really mean it. 


Looking forward 

The title of the event - ‘Reinventing Higher Education for a Sustainable Future’ -  reflects the idea of a higher education ‘revolution’. The Conference brought reflections showing that higher education needs to be re-thought and transformed

We need a revolution, taking us back to the essence of the right to education, which higher education is an integral part of.

We need a revolution as regards the aims of higher education, which must go much beyond getting a diploma. Higher education should develop students’ critical thinking, and open their mind, and all subjects should be valued. Higher education is more than acquiring knowledge, it is also about connecting people and expanding horizons. The social and cultural dimension of the right to education should be valued as much as its economic dimension. 

We need a revolution as regards the content of higher education, which should be adapted to cultural and social context. Higher education systems and knowledge should be decolonised, and the teaching and learning from Indigenous communities should be strengthened.

We need  a revolution as regards students’ participation in the development of higher education policies. We must give them more space to raise their voice and mostly, we should listen to them. 

A revolution as regards the financing of higher education, which must be de-commercialised to ensure that no-one is left behind. The burden of the cost on students must be reduced and states must make all the efforts possible to move effectively towards free higher education and to limit the direct and indirect costs of higher education to students.

This seems to be the direction suggested by the UNESCO Higher Education 2030 Roadmap, as reflected in the following guiding principles:

  • Inclusion, equity, and pluralism 

  • Academic freedom and participation of all stakeholders 

  • Inquiry, critical thinking, and creativity 

  • Integrity and ethics 

  • Commitment to sustainability and social responsibility 

  • Excellence through cooperation rather than competition 

A woman smiling

Juliana Lima has a legal background and holds a PhD in Political Science. She has been collaborating with RTE on issues regarding education in emergencies and higher education.

Delphine Dorsi is RTE's Executive Director, and is a human rights and education expert.



If we bring this not only to higher education, since preschool, I believe the chain of value will be increased and opportunities will arise to an inclusive society at large.

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