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Promoting human rights through higher education

Education is one of the most potent means to spread the message of human rights. The higher education institutions can play a pivotal role in strengthening the human rights movement.

By Prof. P.S. Bisen

March 15, 2010

Though human beings are the supreme creature of all the other species on earth, yet they are perhaps the only one, among the numerous others inhabitants, with an unpardonable record of actions that will one day bring about their own degradation and destruction. The history of human race is full of gruesome chapters on human slavery, ruthless racial discrimination, outrageous gender bias, barbaric rituals like human sacrifices, Sati etc and colossal wars. 

For all practical purposes, the period after 16th century marks the beginning of a civilised age. Yet, we know that the record of human rights has been hardly any better even since then. In the under-developed and developing world, we have numerous instances of starvation, unemployment, feudal oppression, educational backwardness, social and environmental insecurity and child and women exploitation. Although, India has turned a few corners in the last 50 years, yet it still has to work a lot more to ensure sanctity of human rights for every citizen across the country. 

One way to effectively achieve such a target is a massive awareness campaign. Education is one of the most potent means to spread the message of human rights. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in its very first sentence, holds that recognition and respect for human rights is the foundation of freedom, peace and justice in the world. Article 26 (2) of UDHR states that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for Human Rights and fundamental freedoms. At the International Conference on Human Rights held in Tehran in 1968, it was resolved to call on the States to ensure that all means of education be used to stimulate interest in the problems of human rights in the fast changing world.

At its 18th session in 1974 in Paris, the general conference of the UNESCO, recommended that education be geared for the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedom. At the International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights in Vienna, 1978 and the International Congress on Human Rights Teaching, Information and Documentation in Malta, 1987, it was stressed that human rights teaching and education should aim at fostering on attitude of tolerance, respect and solidarity inherent in human rights, provide knowledge of human rights and inculcate among individuals awareness of the ways and means by which human rights may be realized in the true sense of the term. The World Conference on Human Rights held at Vienna in 1993 stressed that States are duty bond to ensure that education promotes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The universities have a major role to play in national development, not only through the academic courses run by them, but also by meeting the needs of the community of students and parents which supports the higher education sector. We need to break out of the four walls of our academic structure to reach out to the society. Knowledge is not static. There is a tremendous explosion in knowledge. Apart from this, we need to reach out to our graduates in the numerous continuing education programmes, and sensitise them about the human rights of the poor and marginalized sections of the society.

Besides, we need to provide a broad spectrum of extension education to people who will never enter into universities or college – working women, factory workers, farmers, small-scale entrepreneurs, school dropouts and a host of others – who will benefit immensely if the education system extends itself and makes them available its vast bank of knowledge and skilled human resource.

We do understand that resource constraints can sometimes impede dissemination and spread of these ideals, yet what we grudge the most is the general ignorance and lack of political and academic will to do it. It is highly unfortunate that even in the institutions of higher learning, the curriculum, including for law courses, rarely makes a mention of human rights even after 50 years of their proclamation. Howsoever, ruefully late we are, it is proper to give this issue an urgent thought now and make it an essential component of our educational system. The Sikri Committee set up by the University Grants Commission, in 1980 suggested different approaches at different levels of education. The Committee held the view that even postgraduate students should be exposed to the perspectives of human rights through diploma courses. The UGC had proposed to include Human Rights Education in its 9th plan agenda. Human Rights Education concerns almost all walks of life and in the Indian context, it shall include all those social, cultural, political, economic and environmental issues which our country needs to address for the achieving its constitutional goals.

The actual agenda for the implementation of these objectives shall have to be worked out at four levels.

The first is the simplest and the most workable level where information about human rights movement, its implications and its mode of execution can be directly passed on is our learners at various stages of schools, colleges and universities. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), set up in 1993, had suggested to the government that subjects pertaining to human rights be given wider coverage in text books. The institutions of higher learning in India have recently woken up to the need. The NCERT published a ‘Source Book’ on human rights to make available to teachers and students, policymakers and other personnel involved in educational programmes, a selection of major documents in human rights education. Academic Staff Colleges have been designated by the UGC to bring up this awareness in our teachers. Special subject studies are being promoted by UGC in areas like women studies, adult education, human resource management and human rights. Many universities have started diploma and post graduate courses on human rights. The National Law School in Bangalore has been the pioneer in this field having included the subjects of human rights in the curriculum about 7-8 years ago. However, the initiative has to be strengthened and a vigorous expansion drive is needed to broad base these studies.

The second level deals with the business of living and earning livelihood. One way of achieving a secure and steady social order is to prepare people for work and get them opportunities for material progress. Academic information alone does not make one ready for gainful employment. Our education system, therefore, must impart professional skills in the young people and not useless theoretical knowledge which makes them fit only for back-end, file-pushing jobs. One of the fundamental articles of Human Rights relates to human need for work and safeguards against exploitation in work situations. A well conceived educational curriculum contributes a great deal in ensuring the exercise of this right. We rarely follow what we preach. Even the institutes of higher learning such as universities are not exception to this. If one takes an insight into the administrative functioning in the universities, the facts become evident. For example, the helplessness of daily wagers is exploited to the maximum possible extent. These are the employees who are least paid but maximum work is extracted from them. Many times, they are called for duties at 8.00 A.M and sometimes even on holidays without any extra payment or incentives. Similarly the teaching departments of most of the centers of higher learning in the country are being run by teachers appointed on adhoc basis and there is a tremendous shortage of qualified staff. At some places the adhoc faculty is being hired at a salary of Rs 5000-8000 per month for the past several years with no retirement benefits. This is particularly true in the newly emerging streams in the higher education. Students and teachers are not satisfied with each other. The students of these departments are being exploited with hefty fees in the name of eye catching degrees.


At the third level, we realise that human rights education is not a matter of merely passing relevant information or developing skills of the targeted communities. It goes much deeper than that and is concerned basically with their attitudes and value orientation. Education is one of the most enduring instruments of fostering values and sensitising people about the delicate issues of human aspirations. Our educational objectives, therefore, must include the nurturing of such Indian values like secularism, democracy, equity, social justice, liberty, freedom etc. Value orientation has to be done both within and outside class room. The teachers play a pivotal role. Any human rights curriculum will fail to achieve its desired purpose if the teachers do not integrate the subject into their behavior. Teachers themselves have to be embodiments of such values and set an example for their disciples. Only such teachers, who help the nation in creating a human resource with a strong sense of values, have the credentials to be rightfully called the Acharya. And only then can the educational institutions be deemed as ‘Temples’. 

The fourth and the last level involves turning the development of awareness and attitudes among the people into social action. Human rights are all about social change and direct intervention into some of the established social, cultural and political norms. Education must encourage social movements and must help people protect the rights of the victims and restore their legitimate position in the society.

To work at the first two levels is much easier, although not much headway has been made so far even in them. The real difficulty is at the third and fourth level. In fact, human rights education can not be imparted in the true sense unless the level of literacy in all parts of our country is raised to a satisfactory position. The present day educational institutions, unfortunately, with their focus on ‘consumerism’ and competition for vocational courses have lost their sanctity. The main concern of the education i.e. developing a social and moral fabric into a student’s personality has been sidelined. The curriculum focuses mainly on the pursuit of knowledge, much to the neglect of inculcating moral values.

Look at the mushrooming of the so called professional colleges all around the country. Many colleges lack the requisite basic infrastructure, qualified teachers and other basic amenities. Several colleges running postgraduate courses in highly technical subjects like Biotechnology, Masters in Computer Applications, Microbiology, Biochemistry, B. Ed., Nursing etc. are running in small flats and offices, charging huge sum of money in fees from the admission seekers. What is the quality of education provided in such Institutions? What kind of human resource can be expected from these colleges? Don’t the students and their parents have the basic right of expecting due return for the payment made in the form of fee? Who should be held responsible for putting a student’s future in jeopardy – the college management or the higher education department for giving clearances to the college or the universities for giving affiliation to such colleges? Or should we be looking at the political system as a whole to find the answers?

The teachers too have lost their moral values and ethics in the present system of education. The teaching profession was once considered to be the noblest profession and a teacher a symbol of moral values. In the present day education system, the teachers have become symbols of materialistic idealism and not value based idealism.

Towards the end, I would like to add few words of caution. It is a common practice to discard a good lot of ideas by labeling them as theoretical, presuming that they are impossible to be translated into action. The fact of the matter is that what is true in theory, and based on valid assumptions, is also possible in practice. Yes, we can say that some ideas are more radical in nature and demand a few fundamental changes. If human rights education requires such basic changes, then we should not desist from making them. By devising effective teaching methodology, co-curricular and extra-curricular programmes such as debates, essay writing competitions and seminars on the issue of human rights, the desired goals can be achieved. The NHRC may take a lead in this direction.

Secondly, with the growing concern about human rights and the participation of a large number of government and non-government organisations, there is an apprehension that the movement is for personal gains. The obligation, therefore, rests with the planners and teachers to conduct the education in such a manner so as to ensure that no undue advantage can be taken by the individuals and organisations with vested interests. 

December 11th is observed as the National Human Rights Day. Let us, as the enlightened and privileged citizens of the country, pledge to promote and protect them. 

The author is a former member of the University Grants Commission, New Delhi and former Vice-Chancellor of Jiwaji University, Gwalior. At present, he is Chairman of the Vikrant Group of Institutions. 

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