Universal Access to Education

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the concept of universal access to education

Access to Education

Another global concern in education is universal access. This term refers to people’s equal ability to participate in an education system. As called for by the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, all individuals around the world are entitled to a free education at the primary level, both to develop skills and to become more functional members of society through learning tolerance and a respect for freedoms.

However, on a practical global level, educational access might be more difficult than the United Nations hoped for when first drafting the Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, particularly for certain groups based on class or gender. This was the case in much of the United States–even in the mid-twentieth century–though substantial progress has been made since that time.

Watch It

Watch this video, or other videos from Unicef’s Education for All playlist to learn more about the importance of access to education.

Universal Education in the United States

The modern idea of universal access arose in the United States as a concern for people with disabilities. In the United States, one way in which universal education is supported is through federal and state governments covering the cost of free public education. Of course, the way this plays out in terms of school budgets and taxes makes this an often-contested topic on the national, state, and community levels.

A graph titled "Public Elementary-Secondary School System Revenue by Source and State: Fiscal Year 2012". The graph shows how much money schools in all 50 states get from federal revenue, state revenue, and local revenue. California is at the top with about 65 billion in total revenue, and North and South Dakota are at the bottom with about 1 billion in total revenue. The United States total revenue was 594.5 billion, 59.5 billion in federal revenue, 270.4 billion in state revenue, and 264.6 in local revenue.

Figure 1. How has your state’s revenue affected your educational opportunities? (Graph courtesy of Census of Governments: Survey of School System Finances 2012)

A precedent for universal access to education in the United States was set with the 1972 U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s decision in Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia. This case was brought on the behalf of seven school-age children with special needs who argued that the school board was denying their access to free public education. The board maintained that the children’s “exceptional” needs, which included mental retardation and mental illness, precluded their right to be educated for free in a public school setting. The board argued that the cost of educating these children would be too high and that the children would therefore have to remain at home without access to education.

This case was resolved in a hearing without any trial. The judge, Joseph Cornelius Waddy, upheld the students’ right to education, finding that they were to be given either public education services or private education paid for by the Washington, D.C., board of education. He noted that

Constitutional rights must be afforded citizens despite the greater expense involved … the District of Columbia’s interest in educating the excluded children clearly must outweigh its interest in preserving its financial resources. … The inadequacies of the District of Columbia Public School System whether occasioned by insufficient funding or administrative inefficiency, certainly cannot be permitted to bear more heavily on the “exceptional” or handicapped child than on the normal child (Mills v. Board of Education 1972).

Today, the optimal way to include differently-abled students in standard classrooms is still being researched and debated. “Inclusion” is a method that involves complete immersion in a standard classroom, whereas “mainstreaming” balances time in a special-needs classroom with standard classroom participation. There continues to be social debate surrounding how to implement the ideal of universal access to education for students with a variety of needs.


Inclusive education movements are not unique to the United States—UNICEF, which oversees education for the United Nations, encourages the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream education.


Universal education continues to face challenges regarding geographical, socioeconomic and gender inequality. One of the United Nations’ goals for Sustainable Development is that of a quality education for all—this is in response to the estimated 57 million children who are not enrolled in primary school, over half of which live in sub-Saharan Africa, and of which half live in violent conflict areas.[1]

Watch this video to better understand how poverty, lack of funding, teacher training, lack of supplies, discrimination, political instability, geography or distance, hunger or health concerns, and school fees or expenses all lead to unequal access to primary education: UN Goals: Achieving Universal Primary Education.

The following are the specific goals outlined by the UN:[2]

4.1 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes

4.2 By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education

4.3 By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university

4.4 By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship

4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations

4.6 By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

4.7 By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

4.A Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all

4.B By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrollment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries

4.C By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states”

Further Research

Though it’s a struggle, education is continually being improved in the developing world. To learn how educational programs are being fostered worldwide, explore the Education section of the Center for Global Development’s website.

Think It Over

  • Do you believe free access to schools has achieved its intended goal? Explain.

Try It


universal access:
the equal ability of all people to participate in an education system

  1. UN Sustainable Development Goals: Quality Education. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/.
  2. UN Sustainable Development Goals: Quality Education. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/.