Published on 2012/02/08

Is Degree Attainment A Human Right?

If even your local coffee shop is recruiting baristas with a degree then does the human right to an education now need to include higher education in the knowledge-focused economies of Western society?

We all know of anecdotal examples where degree holders are working in jobs where a degree is not really necessary to do the work but does the prevalence of university education now mean that degree holders are generally squeezing out of employment opportunities those without this level of qualification? So does this imply that higher education could be potentially seen as a right under the Article 23 of the UN declaration of Human Rights ‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’?

What would be some of the more detailed questions and implications? How about thinking through some of these ideas:

  •  How good is the evidence that holding a degree is becoming ubiquitous for securing employment? Given that higher education develops critical reasoning, problem solving, analytical skills… and the ‘baristas with a degree’ debate
  •  Is this a temporary phenomenon within the economic cycle or a general trend? Could you have a temporary human right to higher education?
  •  Should any right just be access to a course programme? But what might that do to quality and achievement?
  •  Should it be access to a course programme in the subject area of your choice? But what about any mismatch between course popularity and vacancy levels across types of employment and is this just for the first time or does retraining need to be included?
  •  Should government funding be wholly or partially available to support individuals through a course? Can the country afford this, what might partially look like and does the answer depend upon the answer to the previous questions?
  •  If there is a right (or not) how (much) should employers generally have a role in designing, supporting and/or providing courses? Are they doing enough? Should the first aim of higher education be preparation for employment or is the wider agenda still as important today?
  •  Are university degree programmes the most effective way to prepare most individuals for all employment? Is there an alternative way that might be more efficient and effective for a wide variety of jobs?

I would propose that in general higher education at degree level is still not a human right. In fact, to be controversial, are too many people doing degrees that can only realistically develop the transferable skills for the majority of students given employment opportunities?

How can these transferable skills be developed in a widespread manner most effectively? If students support themselves then of course free choice should be OK, but what if they just can’t find employment is it still OK, what benefits should they then have access to? (However to go with that maybe not enough people are achieving the Masters level either prior to or during their careers, given the prevalence of the knowledge economy).

Perhaps any arguments for a human right to education beyond school should be focused on developing the transferable skills of analysis and critical reasoning alongside vocational learning in well-known, effective and valued programmes. Are these at degree level and within universities, what about colleges, maybe it’s their role that needs to grow more? Even then the same debates occur, and if education for employment is prioritized then the government/employer responsibility could be seen to change.

Now is that the idea?

Commerce involved with education at the next level with a key responsibility for ensuring a human right; increase those corporate social responsibility strategy agendas, Friedman is no more. So if baristas are degree holders then… hmmm? Try looking at the success employers have had through applied learning programs like apprenticeships.

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Readers Comments

Philippe 2012/02/09 at 10:30 am

Just because everyone has something doesn’t mean everyone MUST have that thing.

Many people have degrees – to be sure it’s become almost a “part of the process” for many students…just another step on the road. But that doesn’t make having a degree a right. Degrees are still earned, not handed out.

Debra 2012/02/18 at 4:32 am

Love the blog

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