There has been a cry in the higher education sector the world over for reform. At a time when it is embedded deeper within ideas of private good and trade, it is important that we reclaim what higher education should ideally stand for.
Arguably, the most important global document on education is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted by the United Nations in 1966. India became a signatory in 1979. Under this instrument, the most significant one concerning education is Article 13.
Article 13 states:
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
Turning to higher education, the document under 2(c) declares:
Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
And 2(e) calls for:
The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.
But it appears that the world over, higher education is at odds with ICESCR’s recommendations.
Higher education versus ICESCR?
Klaus D. Beiter, one of the contributors to UNESCO’s International Seminar on the Evolving Right to Education held in December 2021, lists a few of the developments in higher education that undermine ICESCR’s human rights-based vision:
privatisation of public goods; globalisation, but ignorance of the need for the extraterritorial applicability of states’ international human rights obligations; migration, pluralisation, non-acceptance of ‘otherness’, and resultant inequality and exclusion; ideologically motivated reluctance to secure adequate tax revenues and other resources for social services; or development that is not sustainable.
He proposes that reforms in higher education, in the form of not mere recommendations but international law, ought to foreground three features:
progressive, ‘forward-pushing’ in nature, i.e. through its techniques of drafting advance the normative development of the right to education… pluralistic in outlook… strengthen the right to education normatively by making it amply robust to adequately respond to the major challenges or threats – the crises – of our time [i.e., problem-solving]…
In an era when education, including higher education, is embedded deeper within ideas of the private good and trade, then it follows – as Beiter and others note – that its principles have shifted away from ICESCR’s human rights-based vision.
The UNESCO report titled Reimagining our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education (2022) developed four principles for the reform of education: interconnectedness and interdependencies; cooperation and collaboration; solidarity, compassion, ethics, and empathy; and assessment. These should be aligned to achieve aims and to make student growth and learning meaningful.
Understandably, this new report foregrounds cooperation and collaboration – the planet’s largest civic-civil organisation can naturally only think of networks in the age of networks – built on mutually recognisable interdependencies. But there is a section in the report that wants us to pause and reflect.
Under the third principle, it says:
We should welcome the full diversity of humanity’s cultural resources into education and extend from valuing diversity and pluralism to supporting and sustaining them. Teaching should focus on unlearning bias, prejudice and divisiveness. Empathy – the ability to attend to others and feel with them – is essential for building pedagogies of solidarity.
And this principle – particularly “unlearning bias, prejudice and divisiveness” – is the key to transforming higher education and its potential, especially for democracies.
The emphasis laid on this aspect creates, at least in principle, a human rights culture of and for higher education.
A new social contract for higher education
In the short summary of the report Reimagining Our Futures Together, it is said:
This new social contract must be grounded in human rights and based on principles of non-discrimination, social justice, respect for life, human dignity and cultural diversity. It must encompass an ethic of care, reciprocity, and solidarity. It must strengthen education as a public endeavour and a common good.
The sustained emphasis on education as a common or public good is welcome and has been part of India’s public discourse too. And this emphasis is not about basic education alone if we are to think of a larger scope for the ‘right to education’.
If we see higher education as specialised, building on specific prerequisites (at secondary levels) and inclusive of professional and/or vocational education, the ICESCR is positing something that we have overlooked: the right to education is not – as is commonly deployed and understood – restricted to primary/fundamental/foundational education alone.
Tristan McCowan in ‘Is There a Universal Right to Higher Education?’ makes the point that
..[I]f we uphold a general right to education, it is arbitrary to create cut-off points . . . the entitlement must exist in some form throughout life.
In other words, the right to education is a right of all people irrespective of their age and is not about the rights of the child alone.
Now, assuming that higher education is about specialisation and all people irrespective of age are entitled, as their right, to this specialised education, the ICESCR and subsequent UN statements such as the General Comment No 13: The Right to Education (Article 13 of the Covenant), 21st sess, UN Doc E/C.12/1999/10 builds implicitly a rights culture of higher education, even going so far as to proposing norms to create such a culture.
If we concede and create a rights culture around higher education, then it follows that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – the Magna Carta of the modern era – would be a foundational document for higher education to reform itself. Such a rights culture would begin by centering the human person, the individual, as deserving of rights.
Rights culture and higher education
Using the language and employing the full semantic scope of the UDHR, ICESCR’s Article 13(2) emphasises the key role of (higher) education: the “full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity”. That is higher education is a contributing factor for the full development of the individual, complete with a sense of self, self-worth and dignity.
It follows this up with education as directed towards the “strengthen[ing] the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Aligning higher education with rights culture explicitly here, Article 13 makes a case for a new pedagogy in higher education: the respect for human rights and freedoms.
In other words, irrespective of the nature of the higher education institution (HEI), the curriculum and teaching ought to be geared towards training the learners in grasping the foundations of human freedom, and the right to have rights.
Dwelling on this, the Article declares that the state should “enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups”.
One of the more thorny issues even in democratic nations to which the Article draws attention is diversity and a “free society”. It makes a strong case for education as a promoter of diversity, respect for the ‘Other’, and tolerance of difference. Implicitly it discourages bias, twisted histories, pedagogies where the ‘Other’ is vilified.
Finally, it sees higher education as training students to “further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace”. Education ought to teach the necessity of peace, to further the cause of peace at all levels.
In her detailed study, The Human Rights-Based Approach to Higher Education (2018), Jane Kotzmann makes a strong case for the employment of human rights principles as the determining influence in higher education policy-making, over market-based principles, although the latter seem to be in the dominant around the world now.
To this end, Kotzmann outlines the following principles for a human rights-based model and approach to higher education: Integration and Mainstreaming of Human Rights Norms; Accountability; Non-discrimination and Equality; Participation, Dignity, Interdependence and Indivisibility; and Cultural Sensitivity.
Beyond the obvious question of equal access, Kotzmann proposes an emphasis on “the quality of education and respect for human rights within education”. This entails being conscious of the “rights implications of higher education legislation and policies, as well as education programmes to ensure those involved in higher education are aware of rights and obligations”.
Thus, higher education must be “equally accessible to all without discrimination, subject only to the caveat that the individuals have capacity”. The stakeholders should be “able to participate includes being able to express views on relevant matters and have those views taken into account”.
When human rights norms become mainstreamed into the curriculum and pedagogy, the training imparted in keeping with the above principles, the transformative potential of higher education is realised and “students would be transformed in that they would gain significant skills and knowledge, the capacity for critical reasoning and an understanding of themselves”.
Reimagining Our Futures Together, read along with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Klaus Beiter and Kotzmann’s writing reiterates what the UN and UNESCO see as the basis for a future agenda for higher education: pluralism, progressive thinking and problem-solving. It also reiterates what Reimagining Our Futures Together calls its “starting point”: “a shared vision of the public purposes of education”.
In short, no redoing of the human rights format and content can be even thought of, anywhere in the world, in the absence of an emphasis on rights cultures as higher education’s very context: the unlearning of bias, and addressing the immediate crises the planet faces – climate change, the digital divide, prejudice.
Higher education, if we buy the above emphases, creates the context for a planetary public, with all its differences, seeking a planetary public good.
Pramod K. Nayar is a professor at the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad.