Human Rights in Higher Education: Incorporating practical experience

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, November 19, 2008 to Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Conversation type: 

Summary available

Human rights education has the ability to raise awareness to global and local issues, and can encourage greater understanding of human conditions. It also has the ability to empower and inspire students, and teach them about human rights in relation to their own experiences.<--break-> In this dialogue, participants shared their practical experiences in integrating human rights education into higher education curriculums.

At times, starting with practice of human rights and sharing stories of violations before teaching theory may assist in making some of the materials more tangible and less abstract. In addition, engaging practical experience and conducting confidence-building exercises can bring students closer to the subject, and away from the impression that human rights only happen on an international level. By reaching out to the local community, students can become active rather than passive learners.

Human rights have multidisciplinary nature that can be incorporated into many academic departments. Since it applies to different aspects of life and can be taught with flexibility, it could be included in different discipline curriculums, such as in the curriculums of medicine students. Encouraging cross section of disciplines could take place for example, by creating collaborative projects. Overall, developing dialogue within and outside the class room can enrich the experience of the students. It is also possible for students to introduce human rights into their own discipline, when human rights courses are not available, by facilitating activities such as the "human rights incubator” and “the human rights campaign studio.” These collaborative approaches allow students to research, develop and implement human rights projects within the framework of their work place or their discipline. 

Engaging the class itself is a great place to start when trying to incorporate human rights into the curriculum. There are many activities which can assist in better illustrating some of the principles of human rights. The class could stimulate an NGO, participate in role-play exercises, connect with students from other universities, explore human rights centers, and use in-depth case studies from New Tactics Tactical Notebooks. Curriculum gaps on human rights in universities can also be bridged by distributing scholarships for distance learning courses. More specifically in the law discipline, there are activities which can enhance the curriculum through legal practical experience such as free of charge legal information and assistance  for persons whose rights have been violated, conducting legal research for various practitioners and interning with human rights based groups.

There are also many opportunities outside of class that can enrich the students’ experience with human rights. Resources outside of the university, such as organization that offer human rights training and civic education, could be utilized to further students’ understanding of human rights. Students can participate in human rights focused internships, Interfaith Youth Core and other advocacy work.


Several reoccurring themes were evident throughout the dialogue. Educators expressed a concern that introducing human rights education in societies which associate this kind of education with westernization and imperialism can cause suspicion and hostile reaction. When people fundamentally oppose the notion of human rights education, it is harder to gain access to institutions where human rights education could be taught and to raise money to sustain the programs. It is especially difficult to gain access to these institutions when there is a conflict of interests between education institutions that sponsor and host programs.

Another challenge which was discussed was the risk of burnout and disappointment that students may experience when working with real life cases, especially when the outcome of the situation does not turn out as they anticipate it would. The essentiality of reminding the students about being realistic may in turn create frustration, and dissolution with the process.  Hence, careful planning is needed before introducing human rights courses to higher education programs. It is important to understand in depth the situation in which specific tactic was used, for example, and to put it with respect to the background of the location and of the students themselves. One of the greatest challenges is to create a bridge between the local and the international, in order to illustrate how human rights can solve daily challenges and are not just an abstract theoretical concept. Another challenge is that some institutions are less flexible about course curriculum.  When there is less flexibility, it is harder to utilize more relevant information in the course. 

Finally, human rights education is not accessible to everyone and a further challenge would be to reach under-privileged students. In general, there could be more monitoring of the curriculum of human rights. In addition, there is a need for sustainability in human rights education, through student projects and networks. Many people who work in the human rights area, for example, do not define themselves in that way, which creates distance between them and narrows opportunities for expanding and collaborating.


There are many resources available for educators and students on the internet and outside of it. The important task is to make students aware of the tools available to them, and to utilize the recourses in a way that would be beneficial for the class.

Online tools have the ability to serve as powerful illustrations. Here are some tools mentioned in the dialogue:

There were many examples of the effectiveness of technology in delivering messages about human rights:

Students can also create online group on the New Tactics website, and utilize social networks such as Facebook. There are also curriculum building resources such as  New Tactics Resources for Educators, and the Advocates for Human Rights: Teaching Guides which are available for educators online.

In addition to tools available online, human resources could also be utilized to assist in incorporating human rights. One of the examples discussed was mobilizing alumni to participate in training and academic programs for new students, creating a regional network, conducting follow up seminars to share experience with new students, creating an alumni e-forum and using alumni feedback and experience for future evolution of the curriculum.  

Conversation Leaders

JadwigaMaczynska's picture
Jadwiga Maczynska
Jagiellonian University Human Rights Center
abigailbooth's picture
Abigail Booth
Raoul Wallenberg Institute
Alice Nderitu's picture
Alice Nderitu
Fahamu networks for Social Justice
gemingzhen's picture
Mingzhen Ge
Human Rights Center, Law School, Shandong University
diane sisely's picture
Diane Sisely
Australian Centre for Human Rights Education, RMIT University
freyx001's picture
Barbara Frey
University of Minnesota Human Rights Program
Robin Kirk's picture
Robin Kirk
Duke Human Rights Center
amyweismann's picture
Amy Weismann
University of Iowa Center for Human Rights
satwood's picture
Susan Atwood
Center for Victims of Torture
NPalasz's picture
Nicole Palasz
Institute of World Affairs