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The human right to higher education

In her new book, Dr Jane Kotzmann explores how the law can make higher education fairer.

While the topic of human rights is often linked to issues such as life and liberty, poverty and protection, free speech and freedom, Deakin Law School academic Dr Jane Kotzmann has explored its important connection to higher education.

Dr Kotzmann’s recently-launched book The Human Rights-Based Approach to Higher Education: Why Human Rights Norms Should Guide Higher Education Law and Policy  provides a detailed analysis of what humans rights means in higher education by providing a strong outline of the market-based versus human rights-based policy approach.

She says the inspiration behind her research came from working at the coalface of educational inequality with Teach for Australia – a non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to breaking the cycle of educational disadvantage.

‘The more I thought about it and researched, the more I realised that the human right to higher education is important – in part because it is only through education that we can understand what human rights mean, why they are important and how to ensure that they are respected. If we want to ensure that “life and death” rights are protected, then education is essential. Moreover, human rights are interrelated – for example, it may be difficult to obtain work and enjoy rights such as the right to food or the right to housing if the right to education is not enjoyed.’

Dr Kotzmann obtained a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Commerce from Deakin before practising as a lawyer in the field commercial litigation. She then joined Teach for Australia before returning to Deakin where she completed her PhD in human rights and higher education in 2016.

She says the current higher education landscape is in a state of transition.

‘Many states have, and are, transitioning away from a welfare type approach towards a more market-based approach. However, the market-based approach has been criticised for its negative impacts on equity and social inclusion.’

In the book, Dr Kotzmann goes beyond arguing that the right to higher education is important because she says more will be required to convince states to change their approaches. 

‘Rather, on the basis of empirical data analysis, I contend that states that use human rights to inform their policy and legislative approaches to higher education will end up with better higher education systems than those who pursue market principles,’ she says.

By examining countries that use a human rights-based approach (Finland, Sweden, Iceland) and comparing them to those who represent a market-based approach (US, UK, Chile), she concludes that a human rights-based approach will produce better results.

Reflecting on the ‘very personal’ task of research, Dr Kotzmann says it was her inherent interest in justice that first drew her to the study of law and perceived injustices that inspired her to pursue research.

‘I wanted to know whether the law could assist in making the education system fairer. Given the state of change of higher education, and the lack of consensus that there actually is a right to higher education, I decided to focus my research on this particular area.’

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