Academic staff unions and associations from around the globe have unveiled an ambitious project designed to counter the increasing commercialization and globalization of higher education.
Meeting in Dakar, Senegal last month, the higher education affiliates of Education International reaffirmed their opposition to including education in trade agreements like the General Agreement on Trade in Services and agreed on the need to promote a new international instrument based on educational, not commercial values.
David Robinson, CAUT's associate executive director of policy and communications and one of the proposal's authors, said EI's organizations have been strong critics of GATS and other trade agreements like it.
"Today, we're moving beyond just opposing these agreements to proposing a new framework for international higher education," Robinson said.
In contrast to trade agreements, the new instrument would set out legally binding rules to promote the employment and academic rights of higher education teaching personnel and preserve the ability of governments to regulate higher education in the public interest.
"This vision of international education is fundamentally different from the current process of globalization and trade," Robinson said. "The application of trade principles to higher education threatens to lock-in commercial pressures over labour and human rights and accelerate the homogenization of higher education.
"Our vision of international education is one based on the promotion of cultural and linguistic diversity, a broadening of access and quality and the facilitation of international development."
In discussing the proposal, delegates also agreed that development must be at the heart of the global higher education and research agenda.
"Education International and its affiliates must provide solidarity and concrete support for the unions in Africa and other developing nations, in order that they can find and put into effect their own solutions," said Elie Jouen, EI's deputy general secretary. "In doing so, we must recognize that the problems and the solutions will vary from region to region and country to country. In rejecting the World Bank's 'one size fits all' prescription, we must not fall into the same trap ourselves."
African representatives emphasized that the diversity of national responses that are required can only be achieved if union voices in developing nations are heard, and real partnerships are forged between them and their counterparts in industrialized countries.
"We have spoken the rhetoric of international solidarity and of the international community that is higher education," said Nyamien Messou N'Guessan, a trade unionist from the Ivory Coast. "We must do more to give the rhetoric reality."
Delegates also noted that the failure of structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank on developing nations places a major responsibility on the international community. Structural adjustment programs in the education sector have usually been accompanied by privatization and public sector cutbacks that have undermined the ability of developing countries to build robust national higher education and research systems. "The damage done by these crude and inappropriate measures cannot easily be undone," said Louis M'Bemba Soumah, a delegate from Guinea.
The conference concluded with a call for more resources for higher education and research in developing countries and for universities and colleges to be acknowledged as a necessary element of a nation's infrastructure.
"A unifying theme of the conference was the reassertion of educational values as the determinants of the future of higher education and research," Robinson said. "This fundamentally challenges the validity of the 'trade' and globalization paradigm."