Talks aimed at further liberalizing the global trading system collapsed in Cancun, Mexico last month after the world's richest nations refused to address the demands of developing countries worldwide on the thorny issue of agricultural subsidies.
Canadian trade minister Pierre Pettigrew had hoped the 5th ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization would produce an agreement among the 146 member countries to launch an ambitious new round of global trade negotiations covering everything from goods and services to investment rules, government procurement and competition policy.
However, in a statement released after the meeting abruptly concluded without consensus, the government of Canada admitted that "some issues discussed in Cancun this week were simply not at a stage where common ground could be found."
CAUT associate executive director David Robinson, attending the Cancun meeting as an accredited delegate, expressed concern with Canadian officials about the inclusion of education services in trade rules like the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services.
In a presentation on trade and education, organized for the official Canadian delegation by the Canadian Teachers' Federation, Robinson emphasized that trade rules can have a negative impact on public post-secondary education.
"It's not so much that GATS forces governments to privatize or commercialize education, as it locks in and intensifies these pressures, reducing the policy flexibility of governments," he said. "The surest protection we have is to keep education at all levels out of these agreements."
Paul Robertson, Canada's chief services negotiator, said the government has clearly stated that "public education is off the table" at GATS negotiations.
However, Robinson argued that while the government appears intent to shelter K-12 education from GATS rules, it is not clear whether officials believe that post-secondary education is "public" and therefore should be equally protected.
In addition, he noted that GATS commits members to progressive liberalization of all services. Even if education is excluded from the current round of talks, there will be future pressures to include it.
A draft ministerial statement circulated during the third day of meetings had called on WTO members to accelerate GATS negotiations and to expand the list of services they are willing to have covered by the agreement. However, continuing disagreements over agricultural subsidies scuttled the official release of the statement.
Even though WTO members could not agree on the draft statement, Robinson says there are still good reasons to be vigilant about the possibility of education services being included in GATS.
"The impasse in agriculture really overshadowed the services negotiations in Cancun," Robinson said. "But behind the scenes, there was intense pressure from developed nations and business groups to push ahead on a more ambitious GATS round if a deal could be brokered on agriculture. The real danger was that if there was a breakthrough on agriculture, we could have seen some major concessions made on services without much debate or consideration."
These concerns were echoed by education unions from other nations. At a meeting organized by CAUT and Education International in Cancun, representatives from Canada, the United States, Australia and Europe shared their views about the potential impact of GATS and other trade agreements on education.
The National Tertiary Education Union in Australia said their organization has been aggressively pressing the Australian government not to make any new GATS commitments on education.
"If granted, the requests made by other countries for complete free trade in education would make public funding for public secondary schools and universities equally available to foreign and private schools and tertiary campuses," NTEU national assistant secretary Ted Murphy said. "This would mean reduced funding for public universities, higher fees for students and taxpayers subsidising overseas-based commercial providers of education."
Joseph Davis of the American Federation of Teachers said the Bush administration in the U.S. is requesting significant commitments from other countries on higher education services, and is willing to make commitments of its own.
"In our meetings with American officials, we've expressed our concern about what making these commitments might mean for the quality of higher education and the ability of states to regulate colleges," Davis said. "The response so far has been that we don't need to worry. If an educational policy or regulation is successfully challenged under GATS, we've been told, all the government would have to do is offer compensation. I somehow suspect it's more complicated than that."
Robinson claims GATS talks were not derailed in Cancun, but are continuing as part of the built-in agenda of the WTO.
"Even though Cancun ended in failure, talks are still taking place in Geneva with the aim of producing a dramatically expanded services agreement by 2005," he said.