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Lifelong learning for
a fairer Australia

Lifelong learning for
a fairer Australia

Adult learning and human rights

Dr Nigel Wilson is a current Board member of Adult Learning Australia and its Learning Changes Lives Foundation.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, in 1958 on the 10th anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration)

The Universal Declaration proclaims the inalienable rights that all humans are entitled to, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Australia is a party to seven core international human rights treaties.  Education as a human right is central both to the Universal Declaration and the 1966 International Convention of Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (ratified by Australia in 1975 and entering into force in 1976):

“the right of everyone to education. .. education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. .. education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration, Article 13 of the ICESR.

Importantly and particularly at this time, education, freedom, human rights and the maintenance of peace are fundamental human rights.  However, the challenges to promote, protect and enhance human rights are immense and ongoing. Despite developments in knowledge, technology and human achievement, illiteracy among adults internationally remains “stubbornly high” at over 770 million people, with women making up almost two-thirds of this number. (UNESCO)  In addition, the United Nations has observed that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults – those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons – to continue their learning. Accordingly, in 2020 the United Nations made an urgent call to reimagine education and to accelerate change in teaching and learning, in order to prevent “a learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe”. (United Nations, Education During COVID-19, 2020).

To improve literacy levels and meet the challenges of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, adult education is a key driver for change – globally and locally. In doing so, teachers require positive motivation and a sustained commitment to lifelong learning as change agents:

“I chose to be a teacher because I believe that education has the power to transform the society we live in. What motivates me to be a good teacher is to be an active agent in this change that is so necessary for my country, to fight against discrimination, injustice, racism, corruption and poverty. Our responsibility as teachers is enormous, and our commitment to provide quality education must be renewed every day.”

Ana, a teacher, Peru, UNESCO Report, 2014

Human rights protections are also seen as supporting freedom and democracy as:

“a countervailing force to the exercise of totalitarian, bureaucratic and institutional power – widely identified as the greatest threats to the liberty of the individual and democratic freedom in this century.”

Former Australian Chief Justice Mason, Australian Bar Review, 1989

For over 62 years, Adult Learning Australia (ALA) has been committed to its vision – Lifelong learning for a fairer Australia.  ALA’s broad policy agenda includes a Lifelong Learning Policy which supports a coordinated national policy as an essential feature of a healthy, active democracy in Australia.  The mission of ALA’s Learning Changes Lives Foundation, and its grants program for both individuals and projects, is based upon access to adult education as a human right.

Internationally and in Australia, we are approaching the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration.  Human rights are not static and continue to evolve. In 2020 UNESCO called for the recognition of lifelong learning as a new human right with three imperatives:

    1. Access to learning: always, across countries and languages.
    2. Resilience: an educational commons that can withstand different crises: ecological, economic, epidemiological and political.
    3. Transparency: learning resources and facilities, including software and technology, must be open and part of the public domain.

UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, 2020

Adult education has the capacity to provide an environment for lifelong growth, change and freedom.  Human rights can also be both a catalyst for change and a powerful force in the protection of freedoms and democracy.

In small places and close to home, let us renew our commitment to adult education every day and continue to uphold and advance human rights, including for lifelong learning, for all within the Australian community and internationally.


Dr Nigel Wilson, Australis Chambers, has thirty years of experience in adult education, law, regulation and human rights and is the international, award-winning author of Teaching Professionals (Archway Publishing). More information here.

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