Fees: A Human Rights Issue: Opinion

By Van Bueren, Geraldine | Times Higher Education, April 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Fees: A Human Rights Issue: Opinion


Van Bueren, Geraldine, Times Higher Education


International law could help opponents of rising tuition costs fight their battle, counsels Geraldine Van Bueren.

The argument that economic pressures do not oblige those in power to increase tuition fees fell on deaf ears when legislation was passing through Parliament several years ago. Opponents of Pounds 9,000 fees have an opportunity to revive it, however, using international law - and the government may find it more difficult to ignore their case if it is focused through this lens.

What does international law tell us about setting tuition fees? First, that it is not true that British governments are free to set the level of university fees constrained only by the market. International law regards a university education as a universal human right. And since 1976 the UK has been legally bound by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which requires all states to introduce progressively free university education - in all subjects and at postgraduate level as well.

It is possible to limit obligations under the treaty by making a "reservation", but the UK has not done so in relation to university fees. Nor would the fact that the covenant has not been incorporated into British law exempt ministers from having to take seriously the requirement to move towards free higher education when setting fees policy.

What has happened, of course, is the opposite - and moving from providing free university education to charging fees of Pounds 9,000 a year, as England has done over the past decade, could be legally justified only if the change had resulted in a significant increase in the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds. Such a change is not evident.

Any attempt by the UK to argue that its economic circumstances necessitated the raising of fees would be fraught with difficulty given the wide range of fees charged in other European countries - all of which have been affected by the downturn. In Austria, university education, at undergraduate and postgraduate level, remains virtually free for students from European Union countries and those outside the EU with which Austria has an agreement.

In its latest report in 2009, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors the implementation of the covenant, recommended that the government review its fee policy with a view to providing free university education. Courts in England are now beginning to consider the duties of the government in relation to the covenant. …

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