Between 18-20 May, state representatives, education activists, international organisations, academics, researchers, students and CSOs gathered in Barcelona and online to discuss higher education at the third UNESCO World Higher Education Conference.
RTE’s Executive Director Delphine Dorsi was invited to a high-level UNESCO and UNESCO-IESALC panel discussion on ‘New Approaches to the Right to Higher Education’, in which she was joined by Laura Giannecchini of the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE); Tristan McGowan of UCL Institute of Education; and Mary Tupan-Weno of ECHO Centre for Diversity Policy. The resulting discussions drew on the complementary expertise of these individuals, allowing for an exploration of both international experiences and perspectives from human rights, policy, academia and research, and CSO-led advocacy.
Among the diverse range of issues covered included the advances in higher education enrolment rates, alongside the pervasive, long-standing issues of both social and educational inequalities and how these impact access to and completion of higher education programmes. The notion of higher education as a public good was embraced and examined, with the experts exploring what this means for students, institutions, and wider communities.
Furthermore, discussions sought to consider the complexities of access for particular groups, comprising issues regarding student experiences within higher education institutions and the multiple exclusions which can occur for those traditionally underrepresented in the student body. The questions of increasing access, stratification and distance learning were also explored, and examined through a human rights lens.
Delphine Dorsi stressed the importance of closely monitoring how the right to higher education is implemented and enforced, and what policies are leveraged to support this right. She highlighted the intrinsic value of higher education for social justice, and in response to the question of what steps could be taken to reform higher education financing to work towards the goal of enhancing the right to higher education, stressed that if states are to meet their obligations to make the right to free higher education available on a progressive basis, then immediate action must be taken with regards to budgets and infrastructure. However, she reinforced the importance of quality education and stressed that education must be seen as a social priority, not an investment. She also added a salutary warning that market-driven investment in higher education leaves the most disadvantaged behind, and perpetuates inequalities. Instead, higher education financing must engage political will and commitment to make the right to education a reality.
Around 80 people joined the session in person, with significant numbers also streaming live. Lively interaction on the part of participants was enjoyed, with questions contemplating the extent to which distance education can sit within a human rights framework; the public good dimension of the right to higher education; how to adapt curriculums to contemplate diversity and eschew marginalisation; the tension between rights and access; and the understanding and role of of success in higher education.