The Right to quality education: Vienna September 2021

The global conference on the human right to quality education to take place in Vienna from 21 to 23 September 2021. It aims at making a contribution to a contemporary understanding of the right to education, a human right to which World University Service has served for 100 years. The conference which had to be postponed twice due to COVID-19 restrictions will explore the main issues related to the present and future of the human right to education in three major areas of inquiry and challenges, i.e., quality education for vulnerable groups, the shrinking civic space and academic freedom and education for sustainable development and global citizenship.

 These concerns will already figure prominently in the high-level segment of the conference, where keynotes by Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection of UNHCR and thus responsible for the protection of the rights of refugees including their right to education, the representative of Michele Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Cecile Riallant, head of the migration and sustainable development unit of IOM and Sjur Bergan, head of the department of education of the Council of Europe will elaborate on the challenges of the right to education through different institutional perspectives.

World University Service Global Conference on teh Human Right to Quality Education. September 21-23, 2021 in Vienna, Austria
Global Conference on the Human Right to Quality Education

The analysis of the challenges will be further developed by an expert panel consisting of Manfred Nowak, WUS Austria, Robert Quinn, Scholars for Risk, New York, Liviu Matei, the provost of the Central European University, which itself was affected by restrictions of its autonomy and status by the Hungarian authorities which forced it to move its main campus to Vienna, Elmar Pichl, head of science and research in the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research and former head of the WUS office in Kosovo, Erhard Busek, former Austrian Vice-Chancellor and minister of education and science and pioneer for educational relations East-West in Europe, Kambiz Ghawami from WUS Germany and Chris Eaton from WUS Canada.

One cross-cutting issue will be the challenges from COVID-19 and how to cope with global inequalities in addressing them.  

The special attention given to this conference co-organised by the World University Service committees of Austria, Germany, and Canada together with the University of Vienna and the Central European University will be visible from the welcome and introductory speeches given by the President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, the Austrian Minister of Education, Science and Research, Heinz Faßmann, both professors at Vienna universities, the representative of the University of Vienna, Vice-rector Christa Schnabl and the president and new rector of CEU, Shalini Randeria.

Already on the opening evening, the Austrian Minister of Justice, Alma Zadic, who herself came to Austria as a refugee from the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, will address the participants. Her educational way may encourage and inspire others in similar situations.

The conference will deepen its analysis of the challenges at hand with the help of three working groups. Working Group A on “Vulnerable Groups and COVID-19” will look into a variety of issues, for example in particular future challenges of refugee education, education of national and ethnic minorities, for example, in particular, the Roma, the disruptions of the educational systems brought about by the COVID-19 crisis and the efforts various actors like UNHCR, IOM and WUS Committees have undertaken to address those challenges and the opportunities and limitations of digital education for this group of people.

The purpose of Working Group B on “Shrinking Civic Space and Academic Freedom” is to identify and discuss in the context of the shrinking civic space the main obstacles to the human right to quality education resulting currently from the increased restrictions placed by certain governments on the freedom of individuals (students, professors and researchers) in academia and on the autonomy of higher education institutions.

After analysing the facts in different countries, the working group will discuss the various countermeasures being taken by international and European institutions and associations to defend academic freedom, will assess the effectiveness of these measures and identify best practices. The group will also discuss approaches and strategies – how best to counter these worrying restrictions of academic freedoms.

Working Group C on “Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship” addresses holistic approaches to education that emphasise three inter-related dimensions of learning – the cognitive, social and emotional and behavioural. Education systems seldom fully integrate specific transformative approaches, however. As also outlined in the Incheon Declaration and Action for the Implementation of SDG 4, it is therefore vital to give a central place to strengthening education’s contribution to the fulfilment of human rights, peace and responsible citizenship from local to global levels, gender equality, sustainable development and health.

The content of such education must be relevant, with a focus on both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of learning. The knowledge, skills, values and attitudes required by citizens to lead productive lives, make informed decisions and assume active roles locally and globally in facing and resolving global challenges can be acquired through “education for sustainable development (ESD)” and “global citizenship education (GCED)”, which includes peace and human rights education as well as intercultural education and education for international understanding.

This working group will explore the status quo of implementation of SDG 4 with focus on SDG 4.7 globally and in different national contexts and will look at possible strategies required to promote ESD and GCE from different perspectives as tools for contributing to the achievement of SDG 4. Finally, a strategy on how best to counter efforts of education for sustainable development and global citizenship will be discussed in order to develop elements for a strategy strengthening these approaches.

QUOTE and actual president of the Union of international associations Cyril Richie will assemble a number of WUS alumni to share their memories and thoughts on WUS now and in the future

The Working Groups bring together a large number of experts on the topics under discussion from pertinent international organisations, civil society and academia, who together with the participants which will also include senior university students will provide a critical assessment of the situation and topics at stake in a future-oriented and transformative perspective.

The difficult COVID-19 crisis has not only resulted in disruptions of education, it has also stimulated the use of digital means like conferences organised in an online or hybrid way. Therefore, this global conference will also take place in a hybrid way allowing for global participation, which will at least partly balance the fact that because of travel restrictions not everyone interested will be able to attend.

The conference will also provide an opportunity to reflect on one hundred years of WUS history for which purpose former WUS International collaborator and actual president of the Union of international associations Cyril Richie will assemble a number of WUS alumni to share their memories and thoughts on WUS now and in the future.

A special panel will deal with this period starting with the origins of WUS at the University of Vienna in 1920. It will culminate in the launching and presentation of the WUS Centenary publication so ably prepared by the co-editors Bettina Schmidt and Robin Burns, together with a team of WUS alumni and staff at the WUS Germany office in Wiesbaden as well as a WUS centenary website which can facilitate better communication between interested (WUS) people in the future.

This creates an opportunity to revive the potential of the WUS network, which in the past consisted of more than fifty national committees and many WUS members, let alone the many beneficiaries of WUS support who until today serve in important positions. Examples in case are

Phumuzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who worked for WUS South Africa and now is UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women,

Manfred Nowak, former WUS Executive Committee member from Austria and now Secretary-General of the Global Camus on Human Rights, a network of some 100 universities running seven master programs on human rights and democratization or

Michele Bachelet, who has been supported by WUS in difficult times and now is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

One important outcome of the conference will be the “Vienna Declaration on the Human Right to Quality Education” to which all three working groups will contribute by looking into the pertinent parts of the draft to finalise it for adoption by the conference.

This document describes the challenges identified in a historical and future-oriented perspective and provides stimulating suggestions how to achieve a more efficient implementation of the human right to quality education in all the dimensions analyzed by the global conference.

Author profile
Wolfgang Benedek

Wolfgang Benedek is professor emeritus at the University of Graz. He was director of the Institute of International Law and International Relations and of the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (ETC) of the University of Graz; lecturer at Vienna Diplomatic Academy, University of Ljubljana and at the European Master Programmes on Human Rights and Democracy in Venice and Sarajevo. He was OSCE rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism on Chechnya (2018) and on Belarus (2019). He holds doctorates h.c. from Universities of Sarajevo and Pristina for leading the assistance to those universities during and after the war. In 1983 he was co-founder of WUS Austria and long-time head residing in Graz. He is at present chair of its supervisory board, leader of many projects in the field of the right to education and human rights in the Balkans and beyond and editor of the Manual on Human Rights Education: Understanding Human Rights, available in 17 languages.