Education is a human right, as 164 nations agreed in a milestone UNESCO-led conference in the year 2000. A big question remains, though: Will they follow through on achieving the goals they set for 2015?
"We are not human resources - we want education!" read the student protestors' signs in Spain as they took a stance against the privatization of their universities. It was an appeal to the state to apply the standards of human rights to the educational arena.
"It is part of the state's responsibility to make school and education freely available to all - regardless of their socio-economic background," said Claudia Lohrenscheit of the German Institute for Human Rights. "That's how the state delivers on its promise of education in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
It's not just impoverished countries that have been failed when it comes to education and human rights. Western, industrialized nations face their share of problems, too.
"Finance-driven globalization" - as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) terms global trends in its current report - has brought change the world over. Where the state takes a step back, it is increasingly private or church-financed institutions that fill in the gaps. But these sorts of educational financing usually limit access or even change the curriculum to square with the financers' wishes.
Steered by the state
"Whether this kind of financing offers more advantages or disadvantages is an open question," said Lutz Möller of the German Commission for UNESCO. "In order for privately financed support of the elite not to lead to discrimination against the poor, there need to be strong structures from the state in place that can help ensure educational justice throughout a society," Möller added.
When education primarily serves the goal of making students employable, the human right to education may also not be fulfilled.
"That turns education into a technical instrument; people are made suitable for the workplace," said Claudia Lohrenscheit. "It's an education that doesn't take personal development into account."
But there's another side to that argument. When education fails to prepare people for entry into the job market, the skills they learn can quickly become forgotten.
Personal development is key
In the 1970s, Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire made similar observations during his campaign to eliminate illiteracy. If people learn to read and write without being able to use these skills to improve their station in life, they lose the skills quickly, he noted.
"Education always has to lead us to a place where people can employ it in a self-determined way to improve their circumstances. Otherwise people give up their right to education of their own accord," said Lohrenscheit.
Guaranteeing this vision of education is a task for the world community. Achieving it means above all that people who are poor, persecuted, or living in conflict regions can exercise their right to learn.
"The opportunities for education available to the weakest in society are a way to measure that society's level of civility and humanity," argued Claudia Lohrenscheit.
The availability of education to disadvantaged groups is an issue that motivated the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education Katarina Tomasevski to define the parameters when it comes to the right to education. She developed four criteria for measuring the extent to which that right is fulfilled, termed the Four A's: availability, accessibility, adaptability and acceptability.
Many parts of the world do not make it past the first criterion - availability. Schools may be lacking completely in rural regions, or they may present difficult conditions, like having a single washroom for boys and girls. That can lead girls not to return to school because they see the situation as hygienically or culturally unacceptable for them, points out UNESCO human rights expert Lutz Möller with respect to her experiences in the southern hemisphere.
Securing basic education
In order to improve children's chances at getting an education, the UN organized the World Education Forum in Dakar in the year 2000. There, 164 nations took part and agreed on six basic educational goals. One of them was making primary education available to all children by 2015. There are still nearly 70 million primary school aged children in the world with no access to a classroom. They mainly live in Southeast Asia, South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa.
"At least 40 million children have since been guaranteed a basic education," Möller said of the progress toward that goal since 2000.
It marks a major success that the ratio of girls to boys in school has risen significantly since then, said the UNESCO expert, adding that significant progress has been made on another goal: reducing illiteracy among adults around the world.
Quality is key
One of the major problems UNESCO also aims to tackle is the poor quality of education in many regions. Nearly two million qualified teachers are needed globally, and many institutions lack basic classroom supplies. UNESCO stressed the prevalence of these conditions in its 2011 report on education, together with an appeal to wealthier nations to deliver on their development aid promises. In the future, national educational programs must focus more on the topics of sustainability and using limited resources responsibly, Lutz Möller said.
The education report makes a point of examining the educational conditions in countries affected by conflict and war. "Widespread and systematic violations of human rights that can undoubtedly be described as 'barbaric acts' form the kernel of the crisis," Möller said.
Although educational systems can make great contributions to peace, conflict prevention and reconciliation, they often end up supporting violence by reinforcing existing prejudices against certain sectors of a population.
Providing education together with a peaceful life free of discrimination is not just a task for developing countries. Wealthy, industrial nations continue to have problems with how they deal with minorities, including well-known cases of children from weak socio-economic or migrant backgrounds and those belonging to ethnic minorities.
In Germany, until very recently, children with learning or physical disabilities were forced into separate schools. It was a system that sent the message that exclusion and discrimination were acceptable, said Claudia Lohrenscheit.
Advancing human rights and the democratization of society in a global world are among the goals of education. Including adults and supporting the idea of lifelong learning belongs to the educational arena as well, said Lohrenscheit, adding that the human right to education is qualitatively fulfilled when it advances individuals' autonomy, so that they can take their lives into their own hands.
"Each person has a right to education and to realize their personhood in order to learn to respect and value human rights and basic freedoms," Lohrenscheit concluded.
Author: Ulrike Mast-Kirschning / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen