CAUT joined an international delegation last month in an intensive three-day lobby of senior trade negotiators at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
Organized by Education International, which represents 350 teachers' organizations worldwide, the lobbying meetings focused on persuading key countries not to make trade commitments on education and other public services during the current negotiating process to expand the controversial General Agreement on Trade in Services.
David Robinson, associate executive director at CAUT, who was invited to take part in the lobby by EI's deputy general secretary, Elie Jouen, was joined by Carolyn Allport of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union, Angela Roger of the U.K. Association of University Teachers, Ann Shadwick of the U.S. National Education Association, EI's chief coordinator for Africa, Assibi Napoé, EI's coordinator of education and employment, Monique Fouilhoux and Mike Waghorne of Public Services International.
"While education isn't the most important issue in the current round of talks, it's nevertheless one of the key sectors that governments in developed countries are putting on the table in an effort to open up markets in the South," Robinson said.
He said that in 1994, when the GATS was first implemented as part of the so-called Uruguay Round negotiations, many developing countries made commitments to opening up trade in education services, granting foreign providers almost unfettered access to local markets.
But faced with an influx of private providers of dubious quality, many of those countries are now wondering whether that was a wise decision.
Ransford Smith, Jamaican ambassador to the WTO, told the EI delegation that while he's not certain that his country's decision to open up education services in the GATS has had any direct negative consequences to date, he did admit there was little consideration given to the long-term impact of trade liberalization on Jamaica's education system.
"The fundamental problem is that there is a lack of technical capacity when it comes to negotiating trade agreements in the less developed countries," Smith said. "Consequently, I think it's safe to say that some less developed countries were not aware of what they were doing when they made commitments under GATS in the last round of talks."
Pakistan's negotiator, Shaista Sohail, said her country was experiencing "a real lack of technical expertise when it comes to assessing where and how far we should liberalize."
Sohail said her ministry turned to an outside consultant to provide advice on whether to make GATS commitments on education services. The consultant recommended that Pakistan fully liberalize its primary, secondary and higher education sectors.
Robinson says when the EI delegation asked about the potential impact of GATS commitments on specific educational policies in Pakistan, Sohail admitted further consideration would have to be made before an official offer was tabled.
Other countries, however, will not have the luxury to second-guess the advice they've received. On Feb. 21, Indonesia tabled its initial GATS offer, opening its education and health sectors to foreign service providers.
"Many developing countries are being told that if they make GATS commitments, more foreign providers will be encouraged to set up shop and that will help meet the educational needs of their citizens and promote development," Robinson said. "But what they aren't told is that GATS commitments seriously narrow the policy space that governments need in order to regulate in a way that best meets their development needs. And the influx of private and for-profit providers just undermines an already weak public education system in these countries."
For these reasons, Robinson said, some countries he met with in Geneva, such as Brazil and South Africa, have publicly declared their opposition to including education in GATS.
"The cornerstone of our position is that the GATS should not apply to public services like education," said Audo Araùjo Faleiro of the permanent mission of Brazil. "There are just too many ambiguities and uncertainties in the GATS. In our view, GATS rules badly need clarification to reaffirm the right of states to regulate and set policy."
For many industrialized countries, however, the GATS is seen as one way to open up a whole new frontier of commercial opportunities in the developing world by allowing their providers access to compete in sectors that have traditionally been seen as public services like education.
"We don't have a purely commercial interest, but it's no secret that exports of education services are quite significant and important for us," said William Thorn, education counsellor with the Australian delegation, when he met with the EI group. "We are simply asking that other countries do as we do and provide our exporters with secure market access."
Along with Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Norway and Japan have also requested that countries make GATS commitments on education services.
Canada, by contrast, remains one of the few developed nations to date that has refused to negotiate education services.
"We will make no commitments on education services and have made no requests of other countries," said Bernard Li, deputy director of Canada's Services Trade Policy Division. "There are a number of countries who are very interested in the education sector. We have received requests from a number of them for us to make commitments on education services. We have said no and will continue to say no."
Over the course of the three days of meetings in Geneva, the EI group met with a dozen official country delegations and with Alejandro Jara, chair of the WTO's Trade Services Committee and the person responsible for overseeing the GATS talks.
In a surprisingly frank exchange, Jara admitted that negotiations were proceeding sluggishly for a number of reasons, including problems with the GATS itself.
"GATS is a young agreement, and as such it contains many ambiguities that we will probably need to clarify," Jara said. "There's also a need, I believe, to look at the quality of the rules. Now, when you couple this with the fact that we simply don't know how to negotiate services in an efficient way and that we are ill-equipped to deal with the fine policy matters in the area of services, it's not really a surprise then that we're facing an uncertain future."
However, Jamaica's ambassador went further, saying the talks may have reached an impasse.
"My view is that perhaps services liberalization may have gone as far as it can or should for now," Smith said.
Despite the slow pace of progress, however, CAUT's Robinson warned that EI and its affiliates need to continue their lobbying efforts both nationally and internationally to ensure more countries keep education services out of GATS.
"There can be a real snowball effect when even one country says it will not make a commitment on education," he said.
With this goal in mind, EI is planning a special seminar on the GATS and education at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in April.
As Elie Jouen of EI points out, "We've talked to the trade representatives. The next step at the seminar will be for us to talk to each country's education representative for UNESCO."