This month trade ministers from around the world will meet in Hong Kong in an effort to revive stalled negotiations aimed at expanding the agreements governing international trade in goods and services. Those of us who work in universities and colleges should pay close attention to what happens in Hong Kong. Any deal struck there could have an enormous impact on our institutions and on the work we do.
For us in Canada the most immediate concern is that our colleges and universities, along with other public services, could be covered by the commercial rules of the General Agreement on Trade in Services. This agreement, adopted in 1995, is an extremely broad treaty that applies legally binding restrictions to virtually every government action affecting the delivery of services. The agreement now covers more than 160 service sectors, including health care, social services, postal services and education.
In the current round of talks a number of states are pressing other countries, including Canada, to commit higher education services as one of the sectors covered by GATS. The United States has identified the liberalization of higher and adult education services as one of its top four priorities in the current round of talks. Australia, New Zealand and Japan are also key supporters of trade in education services.
Distance education providers and institutions seeking to expand overseas have been the key proponents of GATS, saying the agreement would help eliminate policies that restrict trade in education. They are frustrated that some countries prohibit for-profit education providers from entering the “market” while others require that a local institution must be a partner to any foreign educational venture.
But these “obstacles” to trade are in most cases legitimate public policy tools countries use to ensure national education meets domestic needs. By allowing education to be covered by GATS, countries would lose their policy flexibility. So, for universities and colleges, the result would be the locking-in and intensification of the pressures of privatization and commercialization.
To date, the Canadian government has said it will make no commitments on “public” education services. That seems to leave the door open to commitments on private education services. Would this exclude higher education? As our institutions come to rely more and more on private sources of financing, and are increasingly engaged in commercial activities, at what point are they no longer “public” universities or colleges? It is an open question.
Some observers now warn that commitments made in private education services could allow foreign, for-profit providers to argue that GATS entitles them to the same range of government supports given to publicly-funded universities and colleges.
Meanwhile, if Canada were to succumb to pressure from its trading partners and make commitments on higher education services, a whole range of policies and regulations would be at risk, from rules requiring preferential hiring of Canadians and landed immigrants to government subsidies for only domestic and public institutions.
Once a country agrees to apply GATS to its education system, institutions and companies from other countries can move freely into the local market by setting up, branch campuses or offering on-line degrees. Local authorities would have little control over this new, open higher education marketplace.
Until recently, the education community worldwide had little awareness of GATS and other WTO agreements. But all of this has changed. Student organizations, faculty unions and even many public university associations have increasingly challenged the view that education is simply a commodity to be traded as any other.
CAUT has played an active role in this debate and will be involved in the Hong Kong ministerial meeting. The message we will deliver is that post-secondary education is far too important to be subjected to the vagaries of the international marketplace or to the restrictive rules of commercial trade agreements like GATS.