I was really interested to see a poster with the words 'Education is a right not a privilege' at the recent student protests in London. Education is, or certainly should be, a right. It is a key, or should be, which opens worlds of opportunities, both intellectual and economic.
Of course, the phrase 'right not privilege' is used most often in protests about the lack of universal access to education in some developing countries (see picture above), and about the exclusion of girls from education in some parts of the world. The words of the inspiring Malala Yousafzai are powerful here.
The phrase resonates very differently in a British context. Talking about the effects of fees for tertiary education, is far-removed from reclaiming the basic human right to education where this is denied at a most fundamental level. What's changing in our own country is the not-so-gradual commodification of higher learning. The hikes in fees underline a fundamentally different way of thinking about education - in business terms of input and output, of value for money, competition, efficiency. And this is constraining in all kinds of ways - to researchers, to postdocs looking for jobs which will allow them to flourish intellectually, and of course to students who increasingly need to make educational choices based on very different sets of criteria.
But the phrase 'Education is a right not a privilege' made me pause for another reason. 'Privilege' is a loaded and many-layered term. In a medieval context it was repeatedly used in relation to universities, but with a quite different sense. 'Privilege' effectively meant 'private law' - it indicated that those who benefitted from it were not subject to the same laws as every else. This was about a kind of exemption. Medieval students had clerical status, which meant that they were subject only to ecclesiastical courts. These courts were much more likely to reach favourable verdicts on their misbehaviour, and were unable to impose corporal punishment (though they could hand the students over to other bodies for this purpose). The result was that students acquired an appalling reputation - it seemed to townspeople that students could literally get away with murder - they could (mis)behave however they liked with almost complete impunity. This wasn't quite the case, but it certainly stoked town-gown tensions so that they periodically erupted with terrifying violence.
This sense of 'privilege', of course, isn't what is meant today. But it's useful to think about. 'Privilege' in the medieval sense means exemption from the normal rules - 'right' can (or should) bring with it a sense of integrity, inclusiveness and equal opportunity. Fundamentally, 'privilege' in its medieval sense means 'setting apart'; 'rights' remind us that we're part of a society. Everyone should have access to opportunities which enable them to stretch their brains and open up new horizons, and everyone should acknowledge the social inclusiveness and responsibilities which this brings. If education is about rights, this is both because we value the individual, and because we see it as fundamental to a healthy social body.