It seems to be a fairly popular mantra in many contemporary left-of-center political circles that a college education is a basic human right. What does academia have to say about this? Are there any well-known academic papers that rigorously examine arguments for/against higher education bieng a basic human right?


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I don't know about well-known papers but briefly, here's my take on it. Education in general is defined as a universal human right under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, which states that it should be denied to no-one under any circumstances.

The difficulty, of course, is in how you define education. If we live in a society where the best jobs -- and thus the best possible life -- is only open to those with a college degree, then denying someone access to higher education (for example because they were born into circumstances where they cannot afford it) can form the basis of a claim that you are violating their human rights.

However, this claim breaks down a bit when you look at it. Is a college degree strictly necessary for a good life? No, not really. You don't need a degree to start a business or take apprenticeships or do a lot of other valuable things. Many highly paid public figures don't have degrees. Even if you do want to do something specific, isn't difficult to provide yourself with the equivalent of any college-level education. There are online courses, free resources, reading groups, libraries, part-time options, scholarships and so on. Any sufficiently motivated individual who has already reached the level required for college admission could scrape through some degree-level education. Moreover, in Western countries, everyone who meets the entry requirements for an institution DOES have the right to access it. No-one is explicitly barred from college education on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, or anything else (that isn't to say that there are no structural disadvantages, simply that there is no law to physically prevent it, which is the point of human rights). The flip side is also true, in that many highly-paid jobs that require a degree don't literally require a degree to do the job. E.g., you could pick it up with a few weeks of training and the degree is just convention (an example is coding jobs or graphic design work: many people absolutely go into these fields with relevant college degrees, but there are also still people joining these industries who are self-taught and just as successful).

I often wonder if what is being argued about the right to college education is, in fact, the desire for prestige. E.g., "I wish I had had the chance to have an elite education and obtain the security and prestige that I imagine comes with that," is not the same as "everyone should have the right to a college education." I think that the importance of college degrees are overemphasised. I worry that many of the people making the argument have simply never been in communities where the right to education is genuinely denied; they don't see the effect on children as young as six or seven who are excluded from school on spurious reasons (sometimes because they have to work to support their family because the poverty is so severe). There is an enormous difference between denying education to children, which is a form of cruelty and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and not providing enough scholarships to already-educated young adults to attend college. I guess the argument is that if you can't afford college you can't work yourself out of poverty and be free from exploitation, but then many degree-educated people still find themselves trapped in a cycle of rent exploitation and precariat roles. My concern is that arguments such as "college education is a human right" both overinflate the value of a college degree and underestimate what it means to be genuinely uneducated (that is, if you're qualified to attend college, you are already educated).

I would personally conclude something along the lines that any sufficiently motivated and qualified person deserves access to college education if they want it, and that developing structures to facilitate that is a critical goal for any functional society, as we never know where the next leaders and thinkers will arise from. But as an actual right? I don't know, I'd be interested in following the rest of the discussion.


You have look at the discourse of rights. Like money, they have a social reality separable from the physical reality: What determines the value of money?

I'd link group fiats to Durkheim's picture of religion, as binding together socially in groups defined by what they hold sacred, or put beyond question: What is an objective property? This is a sociological picture of truth, which can accomodate 'social truths', like say the UN declaration of universal human rights, or the culture of science. Creating a culture together is an investment, it has costs like say accepting peer review and the patent system, but gains like proper allocation of prestige or rights to make things. Violations of the terms of a community typically leads to some form of excommunication, severing from the benefits of engaging with it. Discussed in more detail in relation to science here: Are different conception of morality just new terms for science-friendly versions of religions?

I really like the example of habeus corpus. Won as a right in the Baron's War against King John, it had far-reaching consequence on the politics of England, which helped it diverge from other European nations - I would link the emergence of the Poor Laws and the end of The Bloody code, to changes in juries and their refusal to execute people for stealing food to stay alive. The storming of the Bastille was a defining motivation for the French Revolution. And we can see a modern iteration in Hong Kong, where the loss or erosion of the right to not be imprisoned without trial, casts a long shadow over the society and has linked to widespread unrest, like linked to the Causeway Bay Book disappearances. The consequences of a state being able to act unaccountably pose far reaching and unpredictable threats. Banding together to oppose that, is a powerful driver of group coherence.

So specifically college. The UN declaration of rights has been a powerful driver of international cooperation. Yet Britain withdrew from the EU in part over criticism of what it imposed, in particular granting prisoners the right to vote. The US has been an even bigger opponent of it's impositions, refusing even to accept international norms like the jurisdiction of the The International Criminal Court in The Hague over it's citizen's war crimes. They can do that, they have the power, and it comes down to realpolitik: what are the consequences of refusing to accept the existence of a right? Contention with China will likely see a kind of competition for prestige that will expand rights in both countries. Criticism of human rights abuses, on both sides, was a major part of Cold War positioning.

Is higher education as a right, a driver of coherence among groups that accept it? Does making it beyond question, result in a culture being created that access to is a valuable investment? Yes, to an extent. Allowing women to work provides such an increase in talents and workers, that almost every country accepts it (Saudi Arabia pretty much excepted, Afghanistan imposing serious limits, but few others). Allowing exceptionally clever poor people to rise through the ranks of professions like doctors and lawyers, similarly provides a net benefit to the capacities of a society. The discourse of rights at it's most fundamental, has led to more successful societies, which have propagated their governing and judicial systems more than others. We link being a developed country in substantial ways to having widespread access to higher education, and so having a high proportion of people able to tackle difficult problems. Being a developed country links to having powerful militaries, which give a say in the world - but membership of organisations like the UN & Nato are also part of having a say in international affairs, and can be revoked by those communities (see contention of Russia over the Ukraine joining Nato).

I argue for a bigger picture of scholarship and academia, developing in relation to 'soft power', increasing influence through prestige and positive perceptions of a nation, here: Do historians have responsibility in how they decide to depict something?

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