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Why isn't education free? Human rights responses to commercialisation and indoctrination

Speaker: Katarina Tomasevski
Chair: Dr Jenny Kuper, Centre for the Study of Human Rights
February 2004

Katarina Tomasevski is Professor of International Law and International Relations at the University of Lund and External Lecturer at the Centre for Africa Studies (University of Copenhagen). She is the first Special Rapporteur on the right to education of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and founder of Right to Education Project (www.right-to-education.org). She has previously held positions at, inter alia, the Danish Centre for Human Rights (Copenhagen), McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law (Montreal), the Global Programme on AIDS of the World Health Organization (Geneva) and Institute for Social Research (Zagreb).

Katarina has published extensively in English, French, Spanish, and Slavic languages, and also published three books in Chinese and Japanese. Alongside more than 170 articles, her publications include Education Denied: Costs and Remedies (2003), Responding to Human Rights Violations, 1946-1999 (2000), Between Sanctions and Elections (1997), Foreigners in Prison (1994), Human Rights in Population Policies (1994), Women & Human Rights (1993), Development Aid and Human Rights Revisited (1993), Prison Health. International Standards and National Practices in Europe (1992), Development Aid & Human Rights (1988), The Right to Food: Guide through Applicable International Law (1987), and Children in Adult Prisons: An International Perspective (1986).


University education is increasingly governed by commercial rather than human rights law. Altered vocabulary supports this change. In global education strategies, references to the right to education are made only for primary schooling, which can be as short as 3 years. 10-year olds then become too old for free primary school as the vocabulary shifts to "access", and access to education is governed by purchasing power. Denied right to education triggers a vicious downward spiral of denied rights, conflicting with 83-year old government obligations to combat child labour by making at least primary education free and compulsory.

Today, not even primary schooling is free in at least 85 countries because of the interplay between fiscal stringency and trade in education services. The illogic of expecting education to eliminate poverty while precluding access to education to all those who are too poor to pay for it is cloaked in silence. International human rights law is conveniently forgotten. That most adults have lost their right to education has triggered too few protests and even fewer legal challenges. It is gratifying that only 45 governments have legally converted education into a freely traded service and the majority upholds education as a right and a corresponding government obligation. Relentless pressures to remove the cost of education from government budgets and make its beneficiaries pay are exacerbated by hugely profitable exports of education services.

Compulsory education bestows upon governments power to force all children into school, where they can be indoctrinated or abused unless human rights safeguards are in place. Education is then un-free in all different meanings of this word. European youth spends 7,000 hours in compulsory education. Human rights education may be provided but they are - at best - educated for human rights rather than as people with rights. The definition of education as an investment in their future earnings transforms them into cookie-cutter test takers, but their learning accomplishments may not lead to higher education if they cannot afford its cost. A useful remedy is to bring international human rights law back to guide education.