The final draft of international guidelines designed to monitor the quality of post-secondary education provided across borders was released last month amid continuing controversy.
The guidelines on quality assurance, developed jointly by UNESCO and OECD, are ostensibly intended to protect students from the growing numbers of rogue providers and degree mills that are now operating internationally. But critics say the guidelines are also designed to facilitate the commercial provision of higher education through trade agreements like the General Agreement on Trade in Services.
"The rules of GATS are designed to promote free trade in services like education by guaranteeing market access for all providers," said David Robinson, CAUT's associate executive director.
"Given the proliferation of diploma mills now operating internationally, there is real concern that granting open market access to all foreign higher education enterprises will usher in a flood of poor quality providers. This is one reason why so many countries remain reluctant to make GATS commitments on education services."
Robinson suggests the guidelines are now being used to put pressure on more countries to commit education services to GATS.
According to the OECD's deputy director of education, Bernard Hugonnier, at a May meeting of the Trade Union Advisory Committee, "the guidelines, we understand, are having a major impact on GATS negotiations."
Robinson says it's worth noting that at the final drafting meeting for the guidelines in January, "Hugonnier made a presentation in which he insisted the OECD and UNESCO initiative was completely unrelated to GATS."
Robinson also said the guidelines' impact is already being felt in Canada. Citing the OECD/UNESCO document, Canada's Council of Ministers of Education last fall launched a consultation process aimed at developing a "pan-Canadian" initiative to assess the quality of new degree programs and institutions.
"In the context of growing international trade in education services in which quality assurance standards and procedures are a major marketing theme, Canada may be disadvantaged in attracting foreign students and exporting programs abroad," according to the consultation document.
"Quality assurance is now being reduced to a marketing or branding exercise," comments Robinson. "This reveals a fundamental divide between what we as academic staff understand as a quality education and what the drafters of the guidelines intend. For them, quality assurance is primarily about expanding market opportunities."
Robinson suggests rules are needed to protect students and to promote quality in international education but that "as opposed to the current draft guidelines and GATS, these rules must be based solidly on educational values, not commercial objectives."
The adoption of the guidelines will be discussed and debated at the OECD governing board and the UNESCO general conference later this year.