Grad Jonathan Beck on Law & Social Inquiry: Inequality and the Human Right to Tuition-Free Higher Education: Mobilizing Human Rights Law in the German Movement against Tuition Fees

For many students, tuition fees and student debt feel like they're just part of life. When German policymakers considered introducing tuition fees in the late 1990s, they faced massive student resistance, and students argued that the introduction of tuition fees would violate their human right to tuition-free higher education. Tuition fees were introduced in multiple German federal states after a 2005 court case authorizing them, but by 2014 not a single state charged fees.

Why do activists employ international human rights law in domestic policy struggles, and to what effect?

In an article published with Law & Social Inquiry, Beck explores this question in the context of socio-economic rights, which have historically lagged behind their civil and political counterparts. He argues that student activists were not naive about the potential offered by human rights, as they expected neither neat court victories nor widespread public acceptance of their human rights claim.

Instead, activists invoked human rights to resist political elites’ framing of education as a private good and students as consumers. They argued that tuition fees would violate the human rights of current students, and would exacerbate human rights violations for those whom Germany has historically excluded from higher education. Human rights claims, in turn, helped activists to broaden their demands and their coalition to include demands for social justice and inclusion in German education more generally. The mobilization of human rights law also was an effective means by which activists generated media attention and pressured politicians.