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Right to Education

Together, we could trigger huge change

Written by admin  •  Saturday, 22.04.2006, 11:57

ACCESS: one of those buzzwords of which the higher education sector is so fond. We have a very particular view of what it means, though.

Edinburgh University is currently working hard to attract low-income and minority students who would not normally consider coming to university.

This is wonderful, and the university should certainly be commended for its efforts, but you do not have to look too far beyond the confines of George Square or King’s Buildings to see that the term “access” means so much more.

Last November, at the Students’ Association AGM, policy was passed calling for a twinning arrangement between our institution and the University of Birzeit, in the West Bank. The first Edinburgh delegation has just returned from Palestine and I was one of those lucky enough to go.

There, access does not just mean overcoming financial hurdles in order to enter higher education. It means overcoming physical barriers too; students fighting their way through military roadblocks and checkpoints every day in order to attend lectures; taking eight years to complete their degree instead of four, because the university is forced to shut down so regularly by the occupying forces; and active student council members facing the threat of imprisonment or deportation without trial.

In many ways, Birzeit is a university just like ours. There is a wonderfully vibrant campus atmosphere, with girls sitting outside on benches, eating their lunch and reading Chaucer, or Austen, or Shakespeare. Guys stand around in groups, preening themselves and talking about politics; there are posters on lampposts to promote candidates in the upcoming student elections. Our delegation is greeted with smiles, questions and, always unprompted, the phrase: “Welcome. Thank you for coming.”

In other ways, the students at Birzeit have experienced things that we at Edinburgh never will. The collective punishment of the occupation has inflicted both physical and emotional wounds on the majority of young people.

It is easy to make sense of the situation in the Occupied Territories when you think about it in vague political terms and read about it in the papers over breakfast. It is less easy to make sense of when you speak to a teenage girl who has not seen her family for three years, or a second-year boy whose house was demolished to make way for a settlement, or a final-year student who missed an exam because they were detained for so long at an Israeli checkpoint.

The occupation is not about politicians, or professional soldiers. It is certainly not something vague, or distant, for the students of Birzeit who suffer humiliation at the hands of Israelis on a regular basis. It is a dirty, dusty, choking situation. It is about having a machine gun waved in your face every day, and a seven-metre concrete wall built through your garden. It was both heartbreaking, and humbling, for a group of Edinburgh students to see.

The right to education is non-negotiable. It is a basic human right; and one which we have a responsibility to see met not just in our own country but across the world. Where there is access to education, there is hope.

Many of the students at Birzeit said again and again that they feel education is the only way to improve the situation in the Occupied Territories. They do not want to escape their country; they love it with a passion. All they want is to leave for as long as it takes to fulfil their intellectual potential, and then go back and help solve the situation. That is where we, at Edinburgh, can help.

The student councils at Edinburgh and Birzeit have already twinned. We had rather naively assumed that they would have a lot to learn from us, but it seems not.

The council in Birzeit conduct their elections under the banner “a model for Palestinian democracy”. They achieve voter turnout of 70 per cent; pretty impressive compared to our ten per cent.

The majority of Palestinian political leaders are former members of Birzeit Student Council. Their student population is more than 50 per cent female. Every single person we met was able to quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When the university is struggling financially, all the staff work for half-salary to enable the students to continue their education. When the university is subject to closure, they hold lectures on the streets, beside the roadblocks, to prove a point. The entire country has a literacy rate of around 98 per cent. Put like that, it sounds like a pretty nice place to be.

What remains to be seen is whether Edinburgh University will take the bold step of formalising a partnership arrangement. I am in no doubt that such a move will be productive, if we are humble enough to admit that it must be a two-way dialogue.

I certainly learned as much in my ten days in Palestine as I did in four years of an Edinburgh degree. Students at Birzeit may need financial support to leave their country and undertake further study but, in exchange for that support, our own students will have their eyes opened to the world and that which exists within it. Access is a word with so many meanings.

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