Is Education a Privilege or a Right?

The protests against recent proposals to charge UK students tuition fees have been largely met with sympathy from all sections of UK society.

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From comments pages, blogs and popular news features, however, it is clear that there is a vocal minority less sympathetic. The unsympathetic reason that education is a privilege and not a right and so students, their parents, uni lecturers and staff should be thankful for what they’ve got and stop their complaining

We thought we’d spend some time looking at this idea to see if it stands up to closer scrutiny. There are many examples of what could be called rights. The right to free speech or assembly, for example. Rights by law have a long history, and they have been hard-fought for and cherished by those who possess them.

Does education qualify as one of these rights? The United Nations seems to think so. Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights states:

* (1) 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.
* (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
* (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 26 states education “shall be free in the elementary and fundamental stages”. Now we could all agree on the meaning of elementary but what does ‘fundamental’ mean. It is fair to say that those who see education as a privilege would not see Higher Education as fundamental. But is this really the case?

We are forever being told that in today’s economy we need a more qualified, educated workforce. But perhaps this applies only to the point where people can read and write. If this were so, however, it would seem that post-primary education is not fundamental, either.

Now a workforce that can read and write would need training in all the myriad of jobs that are required today. Getting companies to pay for such training has never been easy so the cost of education and training would have to be met by students and parents…pretty much like the situation now.

Those who see education as a privilege may argue that they shouldn’t be paying for the training of others. Yet it is undeniable that we all benefit from the work that graduates do so why shouldn’t we all contribute to their training? Take doctors or teachers. Without them our daily lives would be considerably worse but they require education and training. If this training was paid for solely by the trainee, it would mean only those with money would pay and, in the case of teaching, we could expect a massive shortage in numbers given that the future rewards of the job would probably not seem worthwhile in comparison to more lucrative professions.

Someone has to pay. We could incentivise professions by awarding grants and scholarships, as we do now. Yet the education-as-a-privilege lot, to be consistent, would have to oppose this, too.

In short, those who think education is a privilege want a free lunch. They want to benefit both directly and indirectly from the investments other people make in their training but without contributing to that training in any fiscal sense.

Of course, in the long run there’s no getting away from contributing in some way. If it doesn’t come from taxation, we will contribute to this training when we pay for services only graduates can provide like law, medicine, education etc. It could be factored into the cost of these services when we pay for them.

However, the upshot of this is that the pay-as-you-use system would likely cost more to the paying individual given that the education and training costs for teachers, lawyers, doctors etc have not been met by the public purse but privately. The loans, tuition fees and so on that enable someone to go through non-fundamental education have to be paid off. And who better to pay them than the very people who need legal, education or medical services i.e. the customer?

Education is then either a privilege or a right. It can’t be both. If it is a right, via taxation society pays and society reaps the benefits. If education is a privilege then individuals pay for their own training and after they’ve completed their training only those who can afford their services will be able to benefit.

Those without the means to pay however will remain without such services, just like in the case of American healthcare, unless we all decide to carry the cost that is.

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