Muñoz is a professor and researcher at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, member of the Deliberative Council of the Regional Civil Society Education Fund, and consultant to a number of UN and international organizations for the defence and promotion of human rights.
• In terms of the demands of the student movement in Chile, you said that “the good thing is how bad it’s getting”. Do you see it as an opportunity?
Absolutely. History does not have just one narrative thread, and the changes that have affected humanity have always arisen out of chaotic, critical and compromising situations. This is how we learn and add to our collective knowledge: from mistakes, from stumbles, from difficulties; that is why every crisis contains the seed of its own solution.
• Let’s talk about your study. What is the contribution of a comparative analysis on the legal framework and education laws of the four countries studied?
It’s a way of tallying up what you have and what you don’t have. When a country learns from its neighbour, it can consider which features of its social and political constitution it can improve. Comparisons allow this, tallying up what you have and what you lack.
• Comparing implicates identifying shared features and differences, and drawing critical conclusions. What do you consider to be the study’s most significant conclusions?
There are several, of different magnitudes. A key conclusion is that although the right to education is featured in most countries’ constitutional frameworks, it is understood in different ways. In Uruguay it is seen in terms of public benefit, in Argentina it is seen in terms of protection and guarantee; and in Chile, it is closer to the promotion of key stakeholders linked to freedom of teaching. This leads to a further necessity: the construction of a shared language regarding the right to education.
• We are using the same words to mean different things?
It’s a case of different concepts within a shared framework of the right to education.
• In Chile, is the concept of freedom of education valued more highly than the right to education?
That is clearly the case. But at the same time it would be unfair not to mention that the Chilean regulatory framework does recognise the role of international law in education. From that point of view, I would say that Chile does indeed have a commitment within the general framework of human rights, but with a different perspective than other countries.
• How do these different perspectives translate into areas in which further progress must be made so that the logic behind the legal framework meets the needs of social practice in exercising the right to education?
The vacuum that lies between the legal logic and social practice is something that occurs in all countries, even in the so-called developed countries. This is because the formulation of regulations creates not only obligations and rights, but also a political purpose in society. So it’s clear that there is always going to be a gap between what the law says and what we find in reality. What happens is that in the area of education this gap is often immense.
• A gap with major consequences…
Enormous consequences, because there is nobody taking charge of the fundamental right that education is, which is also characterised by empowering those who receive it; it is a right that allows the generation of capacities to enjoy all other rights. That is what makes it so important, because it has civic, political, economic and cultural implications.
• And who must take charge?
In complying with the right to education, the main responsibility rests on the State. However, it is also true that the educational community, donor countries and international organizations have a responsibility and an obligation to cooperate and to assist when a country has difficulties in guaranteeing this right. Extending this definition, we know that human rights are the responsibility of all persons, because the concept of “responsibility” means awareness on the rights of others.
• In your study you say that it is fundamental that education be available and free of charge, as a basic policy orientation for the realisation of the right to education. Are there other ways to address this option?
The issue of free education is a structural element at the most basic level; it is a requirement for the exercise of the right to education, not a trend or an invention. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and other regional agreements, clearly establish that education must be free at the primary level, and free secondary and university education must be progressively sought.
• Talking about things as progressive sounds like rhetoric…
But it’s much more than that. It implies that it must be eventually guaranteed. The progressive obligation, established in article two of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, establishes another concomitant but immediate obligation: states have the obligation to take concrete measures to advance towards providing education free of charge at the middle or secondary and university levels.
• Would it be enough along this progressive path to solve some of the current conflicts and open a new dialogue, as a start?
The provision of free education has at least two connotations. One is that of doing, respecting and protecting, which is unarguable in the case of primary education. But there is also a programmatic connotation – it also implies a declaration of public will, a declaration of principles, and of course this means an ideological vision in favour of the universalization of education for all. The mere declaration of free education, with no kind of follow up action, means nothing. However, if the principle of free education is espoused, that will spark actions and proposals to make it reality in a set timeframe. In the case of Chile, the debate is on free education, but there is no legal guarantee.
• Do you consider it vital for education to be free of charge?
It is a necessary feature because it means a political vision in favour of the right to education. By definition public education must be offered free of charge, either currently or progressively, as this guarantees equal opportunities and access to education for all.
• We know that there is a global shortage in education financing, and that inequalities within countries are reflected in disparities between countries in terms of secondary education. How can this report serve to rethink the global education situation?
The right to education is not a right of special interest to developing countries or low income countries. The right to education is an issue for all countries in the world, as it is not limited to the issues of access or dropout rates. The right to education is also directly related to education content and management, it is related to exclusion and inclusion processes present in all countries. Every new study allows us to return to basic questions like ‘why are we educating?’.
El derecho a la educación: una mirada comparativa. Argentina, Uruguay, Chile y Finlandia
• Chile: moving towards an improved Right to Education