Equality of access to higher education should be conceptualised as a human right, not a privilege or a reward for maximum economic utility. That’s according to our guest bloggers, Dr. John Walsh and Dr. Aidan Seery from the Culture Academic Values and Education Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948 – proclaimed that ‘higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit’.

Higher education in the late 1940s was the preserve of a small, privileged minority, even in the most egalitarian democracies of the West. So equal access to higher education was a hugely ambitious objective at a time when the newly formed United Nations had just emerged from the devastation of the Second World War and even as the Cold War was beginning to cast a long shadow.

At that time, fewer than 20 per cent of 16-year-olds in the UK were in full-time second-level education and, in Ireland in 1950, only 56 per cent of children completed a primary-level education.

Nevertheless, the post-war European democracies placed a high value on promoting greater equality across the whole social sphere, including education: the Beveridge Report in 1942 – which laid the foundations for the postwar British welfare state – identified ‘ignorance’ as one of the ‘five giants’ to be overcome by effective government intervention.

In the case of higher education, it is noteworthy that the equality striven for in the Universal Declaration was one of access on the basis of merit and the inherent tension between ‘merit’ and ‘equality’ was not explored by those who formulated the Declaration. Today, however, we have a greater awareness of how merit may be socially determined, not least by structures of power and privilege which shape life chances.

Merit is not a neutral yardstick, but is profoundly influenced by the socio-political context that shapes the cultural capital inherited or acquired by individuals. Yet the Declaration’s aspiration to equality of access – or equal opportunity – remains an ambitious vision that is far from realisation even in the wealthy, developed world.

Indeed, higher education in a number of developed nations that were involved in the drafting of the Universal Declaration is arguably further removed from equality of access now than it has been at any time in the last three decades. The rise of ‘academic capitalism’ over the last generation has not been kind to egalitarian aspirations forged in the more idealistic and collectivist post-war era.

Britain, which approved the Declaration under the direction of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin – a leading figure in the post-war Labour Government – has adopted a far-reaching marketisation of the higher education system. Since the Browne report in 2010, British ministers have sanctioned the introduction of de facto student tuition fees of approximately £9,000 annually, linked to a system of student loans. Widening participation is barely given lip service in a system whose function is to create a quasi-market in higher education, with students reduced to economic actors with a limited range of choices and universities as poorly functioning corporations.

The United States, where the former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, was one of the authors of the Declaration, has maintained a highly stratified higher education system dominated by prestigious private institutions. The more highly-ranked institutions within this system (and indeed many of the less prestigious colleges) can be accessed only by taking out student loans that are paid back over a 20 or 30-year period, effectively a lifetime burden for university graduates.

‘Widening participation’ is a consistent theme of Irish and international policy statements, most recently the Hunt Report (2011). Yet, too often, ‘widening participation’ is uncritically conflated with the economic objective of increasing participation to achieve a maximum upskilling of the workforce and enhance ‘human capital’, a theory that has had an extraordinary influence on Irish educational policy.

Increasing participation, a necessary (and welcome) feature of a mass education system, is not the same as opening up higher education to traditionally under-represented groups – the blue collar working class, mature learners or people with disabilities.

The predominance of economic concepts, theory and language in education policy is a direct challenge to egalitarian objectives. The over-arching demand for higher education to contribute to – or even in some more extreme flights of fancy by policy-makers to form the basis of – the famed ‘knowledge based economy’ has nothing to do with equality and is far distant from the aspirations of the Universal Declaration.

The primacy of economics, whether in the form of human capital theory or ideas such as ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’, in education policy is not inevitable, nor was it always the situation historically. The expansionist education policies pursued by most developed states between the 1950s and the 1980s were shaped both by concern to meet social demand for higher education and to provide a more highly skilled work force.

These policies transformed elite, university-dominated systems in a number of European countries – including Ireland – into more broadly based, diversified systems, offering higher education to a majority of school-leavers.

The development of an almost exclusively economic rationale for state support and intervention in higher education is a creation of the last generation, driven by globalisation, technological change and a strong ideological preference for market-based solutions to an ever-widening range of policy problems. This positioning of higher education primarily as a highway to economic competitiveness is narrow, utilitarian and discounts the complex motivations of those who enter higher education institutions.

The Universal Declaration provides a timely reminder that equality of access to higher education should be conceptualised as a human right, not a privilege or a reward for maximum economic utility.