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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 1999

New Trade Rules Target Education

Education unions and associations are warning that new rules being considered by the World Trade Organization will lead to the further subordination of post-secondary education to the dictates of private corporations.

Critics are pointing to a document prepared by the WTO in the run-up to next year's millennium round of negotiations which identifies post-secondary education as a potentially lucrative new market ripe for exploitation.

Citing with praise the growth of branch campuses, "virtual education" and the international marketing of curricula and academic programs, the WTO paper notes that trade in post-secondary education services has exploded in recent years. In 1996 alone, US exports of higher education services reached $7 billion, making it the country's fifth largest service sector export.

Nevertheless, the WTO argues that the continued growth of this market is being hampered by a number of so-called barriers to trade in the sector. Private companies seeking to establish a commercial presence abroad may be restricted by limitations in many countries on the operation of private universities and colleges. Where private institutions are permitted, the WTO maintains they may still face other barriers. In same nations, students enrolled in private universities and colleges may not qualify for financial assistance or even, according to the WTO, subsidized bus passes.

The paper asserts that these regulations not only constitute restrictive trade practices, but also prevent "innovation" within universities and colleges. The WTO praises a number of nations for moving toward "greater market responsiveness" and "corporatization" of public universities which "increase competition and encourage investor and corporate participation in the education sector."

"There is a lot of pressure mounting to open up post-secondary education in Canada and other countries to increased privatization and commercialization," said CAUT executive director Jim Turk. "That clashes head-on with those of us committed to quality publicly-funded education."

Education International, representing 294 educational unions and associations worldwide, is also expressing concern about the WTO initiative."Given the existence of huge disparities between countries, is the idea of placing national education systems in a competitive situation not tantamount to selling out the education system in the weakest countries to a handful of large transnational corporations?" EI asked in response to the WTO discussion paper.

EI notes that the import of higher education services by South-East Asia gives some idea of the harmful consequences which trade liberalization will have: "increased dependence on foreign educational resources, acculturation caused by the use of a foreign language for teaching, a tendency to the standardization of education, and a curtailment of sovereignty."

WTO members, including Canada, are to meet in Seattle in November.