Education is a right, not a privilege

Posted on 26 Feb 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Right to education

Human rights protections backed by law are necessary to ensure that all Australians enjoy their right of access to education, according to a new report.

The Right to Education in Australia found that while everyone should be able to enjoy educational opportunities – no matter their bank balance, postcode or ethnicity – this isn’t always the case.

Indigenous Australians, children with disability, refugees and asylum seekers are just some of the marginalised groups who encounter barriers to education and the benefits it can bring.

The report by the University of Newcastle Centre for Law and Social Justice in collaboration with the Human Rights Law Centre found that despite a long history of commitment to human rights and education, Australia does not recognise an enforceable right to education in federal law.

This is despite the fact that the right to education was first recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago and has been reaffirmed multiple times since.

The report said education is vital for eliminating poverty, ending exploitation, and empowering disadvantaged and marginalised people, and the knowledge and skills acquired make it possible for people to live independently and participate fully in their communities.

“Without an adequate education, it is difficult for people to meaningfully exercise their rights to life, health, work, an adequate standard of living, privacy, and non-discrimination, amongst many others,” the report found.

The report’s authors said most importantly, education is a benefit in itself.

“A well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence.”

The report called for a national Charter of Human Rights to help redress the obstacles to education, which should:

  • include a clear statement of rights and freedoms, so that all Australians know their rights and advocate for their realisation
  • ensure that human rights are given proper consideration by public officials in any actions or decisions made regarding law, policy, and service provision
  • enable people to act and seek justice if their human rights are violated.

The report found that where the right to access education is enshrined in law at state and territory level it has improved education access – for example, by preventing ACT public schools from charging upfront fees to children seeking asylum.

“Although the right to education is held equally by all people, some groups face additional barriers that prevent their enjoyment of the right on an equal basis.”
Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Arif Hussein.

Associate Professor Amy Maguire, director of the Centre for Law and Social Justice at the University of Newcastle, said the report reinforced the need for an enforceable right to education to ensure every child had a great education regardless of their personal circumstances or their background.

“Our report shows that the disadvantages and marginalisation faced by children in the education system, like for children with disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, is because there isn’t a right to education to improve decision making and service delivery by government education departments,” she said.

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Arif Hussein said while Australians greatly value education, access is often taken for granted.

“Although the right to education is held equally by all people, some groups face additional barriers that prevent their enjoyment of the right on an equal basis,” he said.

“An enforceable right to education through a national Charter of Human Rights is the missing link and will make a huge difference for children across the country to enjoy their right to education.”

During an online panel discussion to launch the report, lead author Claire Dudgeon said that under international human rights law, education in all its forms needed to be four things:

  • Available. There must be enough schools to cater for the number of students and those schools must have the physical infrastructure – buildings, staff, sanitation – necessary for a school to function.
  • Accessible. Students must be able to access schools without discrimination in any form. This ability ranges from physical accessibility (schools must be within safe reach geographically or accessible online) to economic accessibility (education must be affordable).
  • Acceptable. The educational environment must be acceptable to students and their parents. Curriculum and teaching methods need to be relevant, culturally appropriate and of good quality. Students should be able to attend school without the threat of violence such as corporal punishment.
  • Adaptable. Education should be flexible enough to cater to the demands of students and to meet the changing needs of societies and communities.

“So, the right to education includes obligations at each level of education and all levels have to have these interrelated essential elements met, regardless of how the education system operates or what the structure of that is,” said Ms Dudgeon.

The president and commissioner of the ACT Human Rights Commission, Professor Penelope Mathew, acknowledged that Australia has compulsory and universal education for children, and it has large university, TAFE and early childhood sectors.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean everyone in Australia is able to enjoy the right to education.

Professor Mathew cited factors such as Aboriginal disadvantage, unequal school funding, barriers to disabled students enrolling in mainstream schools and the increasingly high cost of university education as examples where much work still needs to be done.

“I think the report we are launching today does a very good job of explaining why in fact not everybody is able to access the right to education.”

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