Last update:18 April 2023

Why is a focus on the right to higher education important? 

The right to higher education is not only well recognized under international human rights law but is also an important component of the right to education. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) goes even beyond the UNESCO Convention against discrimination in education, by stating that higher education is to be made equally accessible to all in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.  

Since the right to education was first advanced at the international level in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the global landscape has changed immensely, with important consequences for education. Access to education has dramatically increased, rates of illiteracy have plummeted, and provision of education has greatly expanded thanks to demographic, economic, and technological changes. Increased demand for higher education has also been influenced by the increased recognition of higher education as a human right and the consequent advocacy of its importance. Nevertheless, the right to higher education as part of this right has received less attention in the past, despite higher education’s value at multiple levels. 

Did you know… 

  • In 2022, UNHCR estimated that 100 million people were forced to flee their homes due to conflict, natural disaster, violence, or threat of persecution but only 5% of young refugees are enrolled in higher education 
  • Between 2000 and 2020, access to higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa doubled, yet the participation rate is only 10%. During this time, global participation in higher education increased from 19% to 40%. 
  • While financial aid is an important mechanism for accessing higher education, more than 75% of international aid for higher education remains in the donor country, for example in the form of scholarships awarded in host country universities. 


“Inequality and challenges related to access persist in higher education, which continues to have a peripheral role of the right to education. Besides, the resilience of higher education was further fragilized by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the education of more than 220 million tertiary students was suddenly disrupted in 2020 by university closures. In this context the initiative on raising awareness on the right to higher education as a social justice imperative is, not only timely, but also crucial in unfolding the principles and obligations that relate to this level. We need further work on the right to higher education as fundamental component of the right to education, and essential in a lifelong learning perspective.”  

Rolla Moumné, Programme specialist in charge of Right to Education programme, UNESCO

UNESCO IESALC’s work on the right to higher education aims to articulate this right as an integral part of education and to frame it in a social justice perspective. Our work targets policy makers, higher education decision makers, researchers, and others, always keeping students at the centre of attention. Our objectives include the development of a social justice framework for higher education, the identification of current challenges and opportunities, and the development of case studies and thematic and regional consultations to understand the right to higher education around the world and considering different populations.  

What is the rights-based social justice approach to the right to higher education? 

UNESCO IESALC’s focus on the right to higher education takes a rights-based social justice approach. This aims to raise awareness and recognition of the importance of social justice, equal opportunities and human rights in higher education. This approach highlights the unfair distribution of and lack of equitable access to higher education and the need for systems and institutions of higher education to change to accommodate students’ diverse backgrounds and needs. UNESCO IESALC has developed a right to higher education social justice framework that takes a systemic and structural approach to the issues facing students in higher education today. It embraces four inter-related dimensions: the 5As framework, inclusive excellence, equity deserving groups, and intersectionality. Under the social justice lens, each dimension attracts important considerations relating to the right to higher education. 

Applying the social justice framework to the processes in higher education starts even before a student reaches higher education when the emphasis is on access. This includes access to quality school education that equips people well for higher education, and fair access to relevant and good quality higher education. Once in higher education, the emphasis is on student ‘success’, i.e. how to support students to fully participate, be well, and engage in good quality and relevant higher education provision. Institutional policies and administrative arrangements intersect in both processes of access and success. This raises issues around how to finance higher education, and how these processes translate across borders, considering human movement as a result of forced and voluntary migration, and the international recognition of qualifications. 

“A rights-based approach to equitable access and success in higher education is exactly the kind of new intervention we need right now. As higher education looks to find its way through the pandemic and its aftermath, we need to reset our perspectives on what and who it is for, if we are avoid millions of students with the potential to higher education never getting the chance to enter.”

Professor Graeme Atherton, Director, National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) 

What does UNESCO do to ensure the right to education throughout life? 

The right to education is a fundamental right of people and is integral to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNESCO’s commitment to the right to education extends to all levels of education because the right to education is the right to lifelong learning. This is an agenda that has received renewed attention with the 2030 Agenda (Sustainable Development Goals). UNESCO has been engaged in actions to broaden the right to education at all levels and considers education to be key to the full participation of all children and adults in the life of communities. For this reason, it is essential for education to be freely accessible and guaranteed for all.  

Find out more about UNESCO’s work on the right to education throughout life.