Learning is part of what makes us human and it takes place throughout our lives. This is so fundamental to our human existence, that it needs to be seen as a right, as the RTL campaign argues. What does this notion of an educational right mean, though?

Whist I am not a human rights lawyer, I am privileged to be one of the academic advisors to the Right to Education Initiative, an international NGO coalition working on ensuring that the right to education is practically realised. What then might the Right to Learn campaign learn from the RTE movement?

The first thing to note is an important limitation for RTL, that the right to lifelong learning is not enshrined in international law to the same extent as the right to schooling. RTE work is built on the foundation of international human rights law, in particular, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Almost every country in the world has signed the convention. This is crucial as it means that governments can then be held to account for their delivery on the provisions of international human rights laws they have ratified. Typically, these will also be enshrined in national education laws. This gives rights NGOs, civil society organisations and human rights lawyers an obvious way forward. Through strategic litigation, bringing high profile court cases about infringements of these laws, the state and educational institutions can be directed by the courts to act to remedy human rights abuses regarding education. This has been seen in cases about issues such as the availability and state of school buildings, access to textbooks and on the medium of instruction. The right to lifelong learning does not have the same weight of international law behind it, nor does it is it reflected in national laws, with a few exceptions. It will be difficult, therefore, to use these classic rights-based tactics.

However, there are more positive lessons to be learned. As part of the architecture of the international human rights system, the United Nations appoints a series of Special Rapporteurs on areas of rights concern. One of these is on the Right to Education. She produces an annual report to the United Nations on the state of the right to education. Both the current rapporteur and her immediate predecessor have indicated that they believe in the importance of a right to lifelong learning, even if this is less well-established than the right to schooling. However, it is to the first rapporteur, Katerina Tomaševski, that I want to turn.

Tomaševski was a pioneer in bringing together legal and educational perspectives on the right to education and her work continues to be influential in organisations such as UNESCO. She developed a 4A’s model of thinking about the right to education.

Availability is what I have been writing about so far, that there are laws and policies in place. What laws and policies can the RTL movement draw upon and motivate for?

Accessibility focuses on the conditions that make it possible for learners to pursue and progress in their studies. What financial arrangements are in place to support lifelong learners; what barriers are there to the recognition of foreign skills and qualifications; are specific groups excluded from the system?

Acceptability relates to the provision of learning that is of sufficient quality. Many learners globally are accessing unacceptably poor learning systems. Does the lifelong learning offer meet the needs of individuals in terms of their needs with respect to their lives more broadly and to their labour market needs? Does it provide qualifications that have accepted value? Does it support their human flourishing?

Adaptability focuses on the extent to which learning can be tailored to the individual needs of learners and adapt to changing trends in society and the world of work. It also asks us to consider whether learning respects where learners are coming from and where they hope to go to. Is lifelong learning guilty of hidden exclusions in curriculum, facilities, language use by staff, etc?

Whilst designed for the school sector, we have used the 4As in work within UNESCO over the last decade to encourage a stronger right focus in the post-school sector. It appears to resonate with much of what the right to learn campaign has been advocating. 

Finally, the RTE movement has a particular focus on the needs of the most marginalised, refugees, indigenous peoples, teenage mothers, etc. Lifelong learning as a right must also be about ensuring that those who were least well-served by schooling, or disadvantaged in other ways, are prioritised in their adult lives. If lifelong learning is a right, then we must start from those most deprived of this right.

Simon McGrath is the UNESCO Chair in International Education and Development, University of Nottingham.