Social justice and equity: key principles for guiding action on the right to education


“There is a widespread concern today over the growing inequalities around the world, not only among nations but also within countries,” says Mr Kishore Singh, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education. He spoke to UNESCO about the state of the right to education to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The gap between rich and poor all over the world caused by unbridled neo-liberal economy has become dramatic and its impact on education systems and the right to education is quite serious, resulting in increasing disparities and inequities in education,” he says.

According to the former UN Special Rapporteur, “the empowering role that education can play in reversing this growing inequality is of paramount importance, but the first step would be to expand opportunities for good quality public education so that all children have access to education as a right.”

International legal framework of the right to education

Mr Singh emphasizes that the right to education without discrimination or exclusion is an internationally recognized universal right. In 1945, before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, UNESCO’s Constitution clearly formulated the mission of the Organization and the responsibility of Member States for ensuring “full and equal opportunities for education for all”. The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, adopted in 1960, laid down two fundamental principles of the right to education: equality of opportunity in education and non-discrimination. This Convention influenced other UN human rights conventions adopted subsequently as regards the provisions on the right to education, Mr Singh observed.

Education as a public good

The former Special Rapporteur says that States have an obligation and responsibility to comply with international norms and principles, and to take normative actions to ensure that the right to education is fully realized and to preserve education as a public good.

“The right to education is an overarching right, essential for the exercise of all other human rights,” he says. “Its  ‘empowering role’  can lift people out of poverty and equip them with skills, competencies and values that are beneficial not only to themselves, but to society as a whole.”

Safeguarding education from forces of privatization

Mr. Singh stated that the mushrooming of privatization of education over the past few decades is a matter of deep concern, threatening the concept of education as a public good. “Education is being commercialized, leading to greater inequities in society and gross violation of the principles and norms of the right to education. Because of this phenomenon and false propaganda in favour of privatization, the public education system is shrinking while privatization creates a social segregation and inequities.”

“The privatization in education is a big threat to the Education 2030 Agenda and runs counter to the commitments by governments from all over the world to ensure good quality education free of costs, at least till secondary stage,” states Mr Singh. “In private educational institutions run by individual proprietors and enterprises, peoples’ economic status determines access to education, based often on exorbitant and unregulated fee.” He emphasizes that any discrimination based on economic status or social situation is outlawed by UNESCO’s Convention against Discrimination in Education and other international human rights conventions. And the Convention on the Rights of the Child adds “property” among the prohibited ground of discrimination in access to education. The former Special Rapporteur stresses the urgent need of stringent regulatory measures, with sanctions for fraudulent practices.

Concern about use of digital devices in education

On the use of ICTs in education and digital devices, Mr Singh recognizes the benefits these entail  for providing access to information but he is also concerned about the ‘digital divide’ and inequality that these create.

Pointing out that these are mere tools and should not be allowed to substitute face-to-face learning pedagogies and human contact in imparting education, Mr Singh warns against multiple risks that use of ICTs and digital devices carry, especially as regards human faculty for concentration and reflections.

“Digital devices in education are yet another commercial entry points, and unfortunately, they can also be used in a negative way by fostering access to pornographic sites with risk of sexual abuse or exploitation, cyberbullying , as well as to content that is aggressive  and violent  etc. while undermining the quality of learning. ”

For Mr Singh, social justice and equity are two core principles of the United Nations system for peace and development. “Social justice and equity should remain at the forefront of measures taken by States in order for the right to education to be protected, promoted and fully and equally enjoyed by all citizens.“

  • Join UNESCO’s #RightToEducation campaign and help spread the word about this key human right that has the power and potential to transform lives around the world.