Fine words, now let's act

January 15, 1999

Unesco's Paris declaration asserted basic rights for students that must be acted on, argues Kathrine Vangen

Towards the end of last year, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights. We are all proud of having such rights but there is a need to examine those rights and how they function in the knowledge of the poverty, deprivation and torture that occur worldwide every day.

For more than two years, student organisations took an active part in preparations and arrangements for October's World Conference on Higher Education, convened in Paris by Unesco, and were heavily involved in commenting on the eventual action plan and the declaration with which the conference concluded.

More than 300 student representatives formulated a set of claims for what should be in the documents to be adopted. Most suggestions were accepted, either in the exact form of words or in the spirit of the intention. In particular, we asserted the right of all students to organise themselves autonomously and to represent themselves and be recognised as active partners, not as passive objects or clients.

Students also emphasised the autonomy of higher education institutions as the primary guarantors of freedom of thought in the pursuit of knowledge and asserted that, as education is a fundamental right, a leading role in funding must be played by the state. Access must be based on successful completion of secondary education and its equivalent without discrimination.

In most European countries these issues have - to a certain extent - been fulfilled, but far from completely. In many countries students face severe problems in organising themselves, including getting access to democratic student representation in the institution. All too often funding is insufficient, and institutional autonomy is not guaranteed.

The Declaration of Human Rights makes some very relevant statements.

Article 26.1 states: "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages ... and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."

Article 20.1 says: "Everyone has a right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." Article 21.1 adds: "Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives."

Stating these propositions in the human rights declaration, or in the declaration and action plan drawn up at the World Conference, will not change the situation overnight. While celebrating the achievements of Paris, nobody believes that the obstacles will be removed and fundamental participation implemented by 2001, even in Europe; no more student organisation leaders tortured and beaten by police and so on.

Rather the document is a statement of principles and aims towards which we shall be working, as students, as governmental and non-governmental organisations, as individuals. For years student organisations have worked towards representation and participation in decision-making at institutional level and are slowly achieving it. In many countries it is unthinkable not to give students and their organisations a say in the internal life of the institutions or to exclude them from consultations when national decisions on educational matters are being taken. But there are those who believe students are incapable of taking the right decisions and should be excluded from institutional decision-making.

A Unesco declaration has to be based on principles. It should simply lay out a framework of objectives to be fulfilled by institutions and national governments. Some countries, such as Japan, fought hard against student participation in university and college government. Having a Unesco statement makes the struggle for those groups seeking participation significantly easier by establishing an international reference and acceptance for such participation. The discussion starts at a higher level, working for a means to implement the idea rather than gathering arguments to make a case in isolation.

The declaration should be seen as guidance for the action necessary to create a more just, equal and functional educational system, based on democratic values for all partners.

The declaration also reiterates the idea of education as a tool for an equal society, where access should be based on merit, not on financial means. A Unesco statement incorporating this should be accepted and be a live issue when establishing international cooperation and developing a new international network of institutions. Student participation and the right to organise should be a necessary condition for bilateral cooperation and actions, using the adopted declaration as a reference point.

In the long run, adoption of such a declaration creates a climate of acceptance for the premises stated in it, if it is used and promoted by students, academic staff and governments. A sleeping declaration achieves nothing.

It should be seen as a reminder to education institutions of basic rights and concepts and to the national governments of the need to implement such rights and to safeguard them once given. This is of particular importance in countries where these rights already exist. There have been more than enough examples of new laws for institutions where rights have been removed or weakened, often in favour of a more "business-oriented" or "managerial" idea of higher education's profile and role.

Higher education as a public good must be kept, with the support of the private sector. But there can be no agreement on importing the private sector's management structures as the ultimate aim.

Kathrine Vangen is director of ESIB , the National Unions of Students in Europe.

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