Higher education needs a rights-based approach “more than ever” in the face of successive global crises, said an international conference held to mark World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED).
The all-day event on November 17 is supported by News from the university worldis the world’s largest collaborative event focused on equal access to education and success.
Specifically, at the online conference, titled Equality in Higher Education: Building the Global Knowledge Base, UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) and panellists discussed access and the importance of a rights-based approach.
dr Abdoulaye Salifou, Head of UNESCO’s Education Department in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, provided context for the meeting by citing Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that fair, quality education and lifelong opportunities are rights for all.
The importance of a rights-based approach
Salifou said that in Africa, the World Bank has historically focused on primary and secondary education and has not given the same focus or funding to higher education. Salifou stressed that a rights-based approach would result in higher education being given a higher profile. “We need to recognize everyone’s potential, reduce inequality and be inclusive,” he said.
Elizabeth Bernal Gamboa, a professor at the National University of Colombia, added that adopting a rights-based approach forces us to think differently. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, impacted people in education in different ways, with some going online while others were forced to drop out.
“The focus shouldn’t just be on access issues,” she argued, “but on whereabouts and study success.”
“Higher education provides people with opportunities to acquire skills and make a positive contribution to the economy and community,” said Mirriam Chiyaba, chief executive officer of the Zambia Qualifications Authority. “If we don’t take a rights-based approach, we deny people’s contribution to society.”
dr Rosana Heringer, associate professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and board member of the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE-Brasil), explained that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in access to higher education, namely a lack of state Investment meant that low-income and minority students were now less likely to take advantage of these opportunities.
“In Mexico, we’ve also lost a lot of government funding,” said Jhasua Medina, vice president of the Federation of University Students, University of Guadalajara.
“Our university has a large enrollment and is one of the best in the country, but students have to make regular commitments to addressing fundamental inequalities, like how to get people to school,” he said. “There is a great demand for higher education in Mexico, but if we want access for all, we need funding.”
“Access is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but academic success and post-university education are also part of a rights-based approach,” added Dr. Emma Sabzalieva, Head of Research and Foresight at UNESCO IESALC, who moderated the event.
“Hunger before education”
Sabzalieva asked how best to advocate for higher education, which prompted a range of responses.
Heringer and Medina both stressed the need for more public funding, with Heringer saying civil society organizations should do more to help.
She said that in Brazil, “students often don’t apply for higher education because they don’t have the information. So if we want to encourage those from Indigenous communities and poorer neighborhoods to apply, we need to fund information campaigns in those communities”.
“They need financial support, but also a sense of belonging,” she continued. “Higher education is important so that they can fight for their rights.”
Medina said that on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico, many families do not even have access to primary education due to the economic situation.
“Students often engage in illegal activities just to support their families or emigrate to the United States. Her financial situation prevents her from completing her education as her priority is to find food and shelter.”
“Economies are struggling and there are competing demands, so emphasizing education as a right is a challenge,” Chiyaba added. “If the government needs to meet basic needs, they put that before education.”
Salifou introduced a different perspective, emphasizing the importance of lifelong learning and in particular the role of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions. We should not only focus on the transition from primary to secondary school to university, but on lifelong education.
“We have high youth unemployment and vocational students must also have access to higher technical education,” he said.
“Africa has many competing challenges, including education, hunger and [lack of] Information and communication technology,” continued Salifou. “Therefore, we must support UNESCO in emphasizing the right to higher education more strongly.”
In terms of innovation, Chiyaba highlighted the fact that while many Zambian universities are just breaking even, they cater to the less fortunate. They do this by offering scholarships to complement the other government grants available.
In Colombia, on the other hand, Bernal Gamboa emphasized the benefits of involving a wide range of stakeholders to enable access for disadvantaged groups.
“We are very fortunate to have a special project for people with disabilities,” she said. “We work with organizations that support students throughout their university career and focus on finding new approaches every day.”
However, one of the biggest challenges in Colombia is the need for continuity of funding when incumbents change. Bernal Gamboa explained that it’s frustrating when important projects are suddenly cut short and “sometimes the result isn’t even close to what you had hoped for”.
Corruption is another problem. “We need managers driven by rights and a desire to expand access,” she said.
“Here in Guadalajara [in Mexico] We sometimes face authoritarian governments, which makes it impossible to talk about major infrastructure to improve access,” Medina said. “On the other hand, some universities fear the mobilization of students. Getting students involved in these kinds of discussions, like we have today, should be a priority.”
Heringer agreed that universities are sometimes afraid of student participation. “We also need forums within universities for students to contribute to the curriculum,” she said.
“In Brazil, for example, indigenous students have changed the content of university courses over the past 20 years. They brought a different perspective and showed that there is no one-size-fits-all understanding of problems.”
Universities “designed for the elite”
The conference heard that in Brazil 75% of higher education provision is provided by the private sector, compared to around 50% in countries like Colombia and Chile.
The accreditation system in the private sector is often geared towards ‘high quality’ students, but institutions must also demonstrate their full commitment to equality. To do this, it is necessary to develop measurement tools, even if in some countries it is difficult to collect this data.
“In Latin America, many people are migrants, victims of gender-based violence or armed conflict, and the private sector needs to help us develop markers to measure access by these groups,” said Bernal Gamboa.
However, Chiyaba emphasized that strong partnerships with private educational institutions are needed to create a “win-win” situation. “Governments need to create an enabling environment for the private sector to thrive,” she said.
“Our universities need to take more responsibility for expanding access because in most of our countries they were designed for the elite,” Heringer said.
“Access to higher education should be seen as a right and not just a privilege for a select few,” Chiyaba concluded.