The United Nations and the right to education

Written by Camille Boblet-Ledoyen

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the cornerstone of the United Nations and our international order: ” Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all based on merit.”[1] Since then, education has undergone spectacular development in the history of humanity: but today, dictated by economic rather than humanistic choices, the right to education seems to be falling all around the globe.

Children write their own Declaration of Human Rights at the UN in Vienna. Photo by UNIS Vienna.

The survey conducted by U-Report, a project coordinated by UNICEF, on the theme of basic education among a panel focusing on young people (only 5% of respondents were aged over 31), clearly shows the colossal challenges facing the right to education. 32,847 individuals were surveyed, with a response rate of 91%; 65% of respondents were male (10,891) and 35% were female (5,738). Sub-Saharan African countries, in particular Nigeria, had the most respondents, with 1,836, followed by Congo-Kinshasa with 1,839. By contrast, Europe was the region with the least participation: the United Kingdom was the region with the most respondents, with 160 people polled. When asked “How often do you feel you learn at school”, 42% of respondents said “Always”. However, this response differed according to gender: while 45% of men answered “always”, only 36% of women gave this answer. Women were more likely to answer ‘often’ at 32% (compared with 28% of men) and ‘sometimes’ at 25% (compared with 20% of men). The question “Did you receive enough help at school to acquire basic skills (such as reading and maths) to continue learning and find a job after graduating? 77% of the French answered “yes”, followed by 70% of the Congolese and 58% of the British. The next question reflects respondents’ concerns about the erosion of the right to education: 74% of those questioned believe that the learning crisis will have a negative impact on the future of their country. The Germans, Malaysians, and Dutch are all convinced of this, with 100% positive responses, followed by the Greeks at 83%, the Indians at 82%, and Nigeria at 80%. Respondents aged 25 and over were the most pessimistic, at over 80%. On the subject of the political response to the challenges undermining basic education, those aged 25 and over were the most skeptical, with over 38% giving a negative response. Among Belgians, 68% responded ‘more or less’, while among Canadians 59% were ‘satisfied’ and ‘more or less satisfied’ with the policies being pursued, while among Chileans 78% disapproved. The Germans gave a negative response of 55%, and none of them gave a positive response. French and Indian respondents were more divided: 26% and 25% respectively felt that their governments were providing effective responses to the education crisis, 36% and 34% respectively considered this response to be ‘more or less’ relevant, and 33% disapproved. Finally, when asked “What do you think is the most urgent action that governments should take to tackle the crisis in education and training? 34% of those polled voted in favor of the issue of education funding, 39% of men and 35% of women. Moreover, 28% of women gave priority to helping children who have dropped out of school, compared with 22% of male respondents.

What interpretation can be given to all these responses? First of all, there is no schism between the so-called “North” and “South” countries, as might have been expected. The crisis in education is therefore global, and economic choices have a lot to do with it. Whereas education was the only issue common to both blocs of the Cold War – in Maoist China as much as in the United States of America, in Nasserite Egypt as much as in Kubitschek’s Brazil, and Europe – the Washington Consensus of 1989 put an end to this fundamental notion of “right”. It is important to remember the neo-liberal shift that has been imposed on education: the “reorientation of public spending priorities” introduces the principle of profitability into the public service and will be particularly devastating in Third World countries. The case of Latin America is particularly interesting: as a kind of laboratory for neoliberalism, the right to education has been severely undermined, as in Argentina, Brazil, and, more recently, Chile, where educational structures are gradually being privatized. The public authorities in South Korea have largely delegated education to the private sector (shadow education): 74.5% of South Koreans under the age of twelve were in private education in 2019, according to data from the Korean Statistical Information Office. The introduction of competitiveness at and between higher education institutions is a problem highlighted by the UNICEF survey. Tuition fees have been introduced to address the lack of academic infrastructure, but this response is neither relevant nor effective. The story of a Chilean student in France gathered in 2018 by the newspaper Libération as part of an investigation into the increase in tuition fees is just one example of the iniquitous nature of this method:

“These new tuition fees are too high, especially as I’m already 10,000 euros in debt from my degree in Chile, where the fees are also enormous. I chose France for several reasons: for the language, for the excellent training in social and political sciences. And, of course, the tuition fees, were quite affordable, unlike in Chile where the education system is privatized and only accessible to a minority. In my country, education is very expensive. For those who aren’t lucky enough to get a grant based on social or academic criteria, the only option is to go into debt for several years after graduation.”[2]

Political choices are undermining the very principle of the right to education. The crucial need for investment in education has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and this is true across the board: in developed and developing countries alike, the privatization of education has shown the extent of the devastation: according to the World Bank, “COVID-19 has caused the worst crisis in education and learning for a century”.[3] Above all, the pandemic has highlighted the damage caused by the disengagement of public authorities. The right to education depends on quality infrastructure and, therefore, investment to match. All respondents, whatever their country of origin, are in favor of massive refinancing of education.

Children’s conference on human rights at the UN in Vienna. Photo by UNIS Vienna/Lilia Jiménez-Ertl.

It is worrying to note that the conservative trajectory extends across all the world’s continents, from the rewriting of common history in countries such as India, where Muslim memory is obliterated; to Russia, where revisionism is the narrative employed at the highest levels of the State; but also more traditional democracies such as Japan, where the work of remembrance relating to the Second World War remains problematic, and South Korea, where the Korean War is largely revisited by the new history textbooks.[4] The fact that India, the world’s largest democracy, has embarked on a panoptic shift is dramatic in terms of individual freedoms, particularly academic freedom, which is a pillar of social development, and in geopolitical terms, with the risk of alignment with the Russian Federation and China. Narendra Modi is today a Prime Minister courted by the Great Powers, who have no hesitation in casting a modest veil over his most aggressive policies in the hope – more akin to wishful thinking than anything else – of bringing Delhi closer to the Western bloc.[5] The revision of Indian school textbooks completely obliterates the legacy of some three hundred years of the Muslim Mughal Empire, the assassination of Gandhi by the Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse in 1948, and the bloody repression of the Gujarat riots in 2002, for which Prime Minister Modi is held responsible.[6]

The frequency of learning differs significantly between the two sexes, and this issue deserves to be highlighted. Admittedly, the survey has its limitations, since it is not a question of the resources put in place but of the personal feelings of each respondent: by its very nature, the response is therefore biased. Nevertheless, the 9-point gap between men and women should not be underestimated. This factor can be explained in several ways: education systems designed for men and favoring activities that favor them; lower self-esteem among women than among men; external conditions that undermine women’s education and learning. Bullying at school, low enrolment rates for girls, and sexism are undeniably among the causes. It would have been interesting if the survey had asked respondents about this.

According to the results of the survey, the educational crisis is particularly acute in Germany, Malaysia, and the Netherlands. In Germany, an investigation carried out by journalists from Spiegel and published on 17 March this year, entitled “The education fiasco” (Der Schule-Fiasko), caused quite a stir: “Postponing investment in the younger generation means saving for fools”, says Aladin El-Mafaalani[7] . No one will be left behind in this major transformation”, declared Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the Bundestag (the German Federal Parliament) two years earlier. Unfortunately, this promise has come to nothing. In Germany, according to a 2018 OECD study, it takes 180 years on average for a student from a social class background to “approach the average income”.

To conclude in a few words, the UNICEF survey highlights not only young people’s pessimism and concern about the decline in the right to education but also and above all their unshakeable attachment to the principle of education as an inalienable human right. The pandemic has not only revealed but also aggravated these inequalities in education. The young people interviewed are well aware of the devastation caused by decades of privatization and unbridled competition in education.

[1] Article XXVI of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[2] Delmas, Aurélie, Hadni, Dounia and Thomas, Marlène, “Tuition fees: international students testify“, Libération, 17 December 2018.

[3] World Bank, “Faced with the consequences of COVID-19 on education, we must act quickly and effectively“, World Bank, 22 January 2021.

[4] Im Eun-Byel, “New textbook guidelines spark controversy“, The Korea Herald, 1er  September 2022.

[5] This is borne out by the somewhat insistent invitation extended by French President Emmanuel Macron to Prime Minister Modi to take part in the French bank holidays celebrations on 14 July.

[6] Mansoor, Sanya, “India’s School Textbooks Are the Latest Battleground for Hindu Nationalism“, Time, 6 April 2023.

[7] Olbrisch, Miriam, “Soziologe zum Zustand der Jugend: Es ist erstaunlich, dass viele so ruhig bleiben“, Der Spiegel, 17 March 2023.

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