Student leaders from around the world used the platform of this month's United Nations World Youth Forum to argue for free and equal access to higher education.
The forum brought 500 young people to Braga, northern Portugal, to discuss youth participation in world affairs. While other working groups debated issues such as human rights, development, health and employment, youth and student representatives from 30 countries concentrated on a blueprint for education for the 21st century.
The World Youth Forum was asked to make three recommendations for change to present to UN ministers responsible for youth in Lisbon shortly after the forum's end.
After intense debate, the three issues chosen were: free and equal access to education; the value of non-formal as well as formal learning for the full development of the individual; and the need for appropriate curricula, sensitive to local needs and reflecting a sense of global citizenship. The need to empower students to participate actively in decisions concerning education was a fourth concern.
Student leaders agreed that access and funding are key issues for higher education everywhere. "There is a funding crisis for education globally," said Ben Playle of the UN Youth Association of Australia. "In many people's eyes, virtually no country gives education adequate funds."
The limits to access vary from country to country. In Australia, students are protesting against new upfront tuition fees for some degree courses as well as increases in the deferred payment system.
In Nepal, the chances of a place at university are extremely low. Only about 1 per cent of the university-age population is able to study, said Keshav Pandey of the Asian Student's Association. He was dismayed that World Bank proposals for raising standards in Nepalese higher education involve reducing student numbers still further.
"Already our numbers are low, and they are asking for even that to be reduced, so access will get even harder," he said.
The recommendation on access, which will go to the UN's next general assembly, calls on governments to increase spending on education and urges Unesco and the international community to set up a global education fund to help poor students pay for housing, transport and materials to ensure "free and equal access".
Delegates argued that the content of education should be revised to include teaching on universal values such as peace, human rights, intercultural understanding and environmental protection and to promote global citizenship.
"We are not only educating ourselves to get a job, but also to experience democracy and to be a part of society," said Cecile /yen of the Norwegian Youth Council.
Many felt that curricula were out of date and out of touch with local needs, particularly in less developed countries. Aicha Coulibaly of Burkina Faso's Organisation of African Unity Club, said universities are not training the specialists her country needs. She was pleased, however, that local languages such as Moore, Dioula and Fulfulde have been put on the university curriculum alongside English and German.
A third concern centred on participation. The delegates believe young people are still under-represented when it comes to taking decisions on education even though they are supposed to be the main beneficiaries. Their recommendation, which did not make the final three but did get a special mention, calls on governments to support bodies that give students a voice and leadership training and youth exchange programmes.
"Conferences such as this are positive as they make young people realise they are protagonists, not just people who wait for the state to do things for them," said Roland Ranaivoarison, president of the International Movement of Catholic Students.
Although the student representatives could reach agreement on broad principles on education, it also became clear that their priorities are often very different. Wladimyr Camargos, in charge of international relations at Brazil's General Student Union, thought that students from wealthier countries tend to protest less on issues such as funding or access because their resources are greater. On the other hand, European students show more interest in issues such as mobility or international exchange programmes such as Erasmus.
"It is not that we are not interested - we are," he said. "But it just is not a priority. We are still fighting for the basics."
WORLD YOUTH FORUM RECOMMENDATIONS FOR EDUCATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Access - economic status should not determine access to higher education.
Non-formal education - governments should recognise the value of non-formal education for the full development of individuals.
Curricula - curricula must be relevant to employment opportunities but should also incorporate the teaching of languages, including local and indigenous languages, and universal values such as peace, human rights, intercultural understanding and environmental protection.
Participation - governments should empower youth and give them full participation in decision-making in education.
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