Talks aimed at creating sweeping new international trade rules resumed in Geneva in January, after a six-month hiatus.
The World Trade Organization’s Doha Round negotiations, named after the Qatari capital where talks were launched in 2001, were suspended in July when it became clear that deep divisions among countries over agricultural and industrial product tariffs and subsidies would prevent a deal from being reached by an end-2006 deadline.
The suspension of talks also ended formal negotiations to liberalize the trade in services — including education services — under the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services.
However, WTO director general Pascal Lamy announced in early February that all negotiations, including services under GATS, have now been formally relaunched.
“Political conditions are now more favourable for the conclusion of the talks than they have been for a long time,” Lamy said Feb. 7 in his report to the WTO council. “Political leaders around the world clearly want us to get fully back to business, although we in turn need their continuing commitment.”
Student groups and education unions, including CAUT, have been highly critical of proposals to include education services in GATS warning that applying legally-binding commercial trade rules to public institutions like universities and colleges would intensify and lock-in the pressures of privatization and commercialization.
“GATS really has the potential to reshape our institutions and reshape academic work,” said David Robinson, associate executive director of CAUT. “GATS rules are designed to promote free trade in education services by guaranteeing open markets for all providers, whether public or private, nonprofit or profit. But as we’ve seen both here in Canada and around the world, once you start opening the doors to for-profit education enterprises, you inevitably end up with institutions of questionable quality.”
Canada has so far not agreed to GATS in education, but pressure to commit will mount in the coming months, he said.
While negotiations are now back on track, serious differences between countries remain. In the services talks, the development of new restrictions on domestic regulation has emerged as a key stumbling block.
Domestic regulation refers to measures taken by governments and delegated authorities covering qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards and licensing procedures and requirements. Some countries argue these regulations are simply barriers to trade and have proposed new GATS rules requiring these measures are not “unnecessary barriers to trade in services” and are not “more burdensome than necessary to ensure the quality of the service.”
“Depending on the outcome of negotiations, domestic regulation rules could have a direct impact on post-secondary education in Canada,” Robinson warns. “Disciplines developed on qualifications could potentially allow other countries to challenge our educational requirements, professional accreditation standards and certification and testing procedures in areas where we’ve agreed to liberalize as ‘more burdensome than necessary.’ Rules on licensing procedures and requirements could call into question regulations related not just to professional licensing, but also to university and college accreditation.”
Countries remain deeply divided on the issue of domestic regulation, with Brazil and the United States in particular strongly opposed to the so-called “necessity test.” Canada has not yet taken an official position on the issue.
“Applying a necessity test to domestic regulations ignores the reality of how standards and regulations are developed,” Robinson said. “These rules and standards are the product of compromises that impose neither the greatest burden nor the least burden on service providers. Requiring all regulations to be the least burdensome would limit both the content and the process for democratic decision-making.”
He added that CAUT will be stepping up its lobbying efforts in the months ahead to ensure the federal government does not include education in GATS and opposes the necessity test for domestic regulation.