Is Education a Right?

Everyone knows that education is a right. But sometimes what everyone knows isn’t true.

The idea the education is a right was set forth in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose drafting committee included the Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik. Every member of the United Nations has since subscribed to the declaration. Diplomatic language is often vague, but Article 26 could hardly be plainer: “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 on the basis of merit.”

Yet if education is a right, it is a relatively modern right. There is no mention of education in the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, which included rights such as liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression. The first country to introduce what we would recognize as a system of free, compulsory public education was Prussia in 1763.

In the Arab world, colonial authorities often used secular education as a means of consolidating their hold on power. That secular education was often in competition with, or outright opposition to, traditional religious instruction.  Since the end of the colonial era, every government throughout the Middle East and North Africa has, at least in principle, embraced the right to free public education.

But tensions over education as a tool of authority, whether religious or secular, are still being resolved. This year, Article 38 of the new Tunisian constitution guaranteed the right to free public education until the age of 16 and pledges to “work on rooting the Arab and Islamic identity along with the patriotism in the emerging youth.”

In the midst of such political tensions, what might that right to education really mean? A U.N. rapporteur on the right to education proposed a framework of four criteria:

1. Availability. Primary education has to be free of charge and there needs to be an adequate infrastructure and a sufficient supply of trained teachers.

2. Accessibility. Education has to be accessible to all, without discrimination on the basis of sex, race or the student’s economic or social background.

3. Acceptability. Just sending children to places labeled “schools” is not enough. Schools have to be safe environments, the teachers professional and the content relevant to the students’ needs and experience.

4. Adaptability. What works in London or Paris may not be right for Cairo or Beirut.  Education needs to suit local needs and contexts and to change with the needs of society.

Each of these criteria poses a challenge.  Availability has improved significantly in recent decades in the Arab world. Even in Yemen, which according to World Bank figures has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world, net enrollment in primary school now exceeds 77 per cent, with girls’ enrollment at 70 per cent. The new Egyptian constitution, drafted at the end of last year, commits the government to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on education, with spending required to  “rise gradually until it reaches global averages.”

The availability of education for teenagers is generally less robust in the Arab world.  Partly this is due to uneven enforcement of compulsory education. Before the civil war in Syria, the government imposed fines on parents who failed to send their children to secondary school. But in Yemen, where education is also supposed to be compulsory until the age of 14, the law is indifferently enforced, with millions of children not in school.

In Egypt, which has the largest education system in the Middle East, overall enrollment in higher education reached 30 per cent in 2007 but has suffered from political disruption. In Lebanon, participation is over 50 per cent, while in Morocco the figure is just 11 per cent.  (By comparison, in the United States, an average of 62.5 percent of high school graduates go directly to university.) Tertiary education, of course, can seem like a luxury for countries whose citizens still struggle to afford food, clothing and shelter.

Barriers to accessibility for education can be as abstract as social norms that discriminate against women or as concrete as the lack of ramps to allow students in wheelchairs to attend school. In Qatar, the government has both the means and the intention to allow most children with special needs to be taught in a normal classroom setting—and to fund specialist help for those children for whom that might not be appropriate. But like the other generous Qatari state benefits this provision doesn’t extend to children of the country’s expatriates—who make up 70 per cent of the Qatari population.

In general there is a lag in women’s participation in higher education throughout the Middle East and North Africa, though the gender gap has closed dramatically in recent years. Algeria is now at complete parity and Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates all show slightly higher enrollment rates for women than men.

Yemen appears to be the furthest behind of the Arab countries in granting women access to higher education. The country had 47,000 male  university students and 15,000 female students in 2011, according to the latest statistics available. “Only elite families send their daughters to schools and universities,” says Wahiba Fara’a, a Yemeni politician who was also the country’s first female minister of state for human rights in 2001.

Conversely, in some Arab countries, higher education seems to be viewed as essentially a female sphere, with men assuming they will get a job in the government or the Army. One British newspaper recently described Qatar, where there are six women in education for every man, as the best place in the world for women to go to university. Indeed, according to the Qatar National Development Strategy only 28 per cent of men of university age are actually enrolled in higher education. Qatari men have the right to education, but not the desire for it, it seems.

Finally children are often kept from education by the effects of war, ethnic conflict and military occupation.  A child whose parents don’t feel safe sending him or her to primary school is unlikely to make up the lost years in time to attend university. “Education in Chains,” a report by the Right to Education Project—an NGO supported by five charities including Amnesty International and Save the Children—is a heartbreaking survey of the damage to children’s education in thirteen countries including Lebanon and Palestine.

Education may, philosophically, be a universal right. But scrutiny of the practical details shows how uneven this right is in reality.

Resources related to this article:

The Education for All Movement  led by Unesco has six goals including, for example, “Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to, and complete, free and compulsory primary education of good quality.”  The most recent reports (as of May 2014) on progress towards the goals are in English here and in Arabic here. A 2012 report in goals in the Arab states is here in English.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack monitors attacks on schools and universities during armed conflict and seeks to prevent such attacks. Its report “Education Under Attack 2014” documents attacks in eight Arab countries (download full PDF here).

A 2009 report on “Education in Chains: Gaps in Education Provision to Children in Detention,” examines the right to education of children in detention in thirteen countries, including Lebanon and Palestine.

* This article was supported by the U.N. Democracy Fund and was prepared in preparation for a series of workshops to encourage Arab journalists to write about education.

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