Update on GATS talks

published 24 April 2007 updated 24 April 2007

With little progress being made in agricultural negotiations, talks aimed at reaching a WTO deal on the trade in services under the GATS also remain stalled according to trade officials in Geneva.

Representatives of Education International met with services negotiators in March from the European Union, Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Organization of East Caribbean States. Officials indicated that with the exception of new rules on domestic regulation, there has been no real movement in GATS talks since the resumption of formal negotiations last November.

Notably, no date has been set for new GATS offers to be tabled. Members were supposed to indicate what service sectors they are prepared to open to trade liberalization last July, but the deadline was lifted after all talks were suspended.

EI has been pressing delegations to keep education and education-related services out of the GATS. Several delegations told EI that that lobbying effort has had an impact, with many countries now unwilling to allow education to be covered by the commercial rules of GATS.

Even the United States which has been seeking access to overseas education markets through the GATS has pulled back on its demands in recent weeks, one official said.

Nevertheless, some countries are planning to include their education services in the GATS. Pakistan has already tabled an offer on private education services, and Malaysia is planning to follow.

According to a Malaysian official, the intention is to make the country an "international hub for the global education industry".

"We expect Harvard and Oxford to set up branch operations in Malaysia to take advantage of emerging education markets in our region," the official added.

The experience of other countries with trade liberalization in education services, however, has been decidedly different, warns EI’s deputy general secretary, Elie Jouen.

"Where countries have opened up their markets, it hasn't been the Harvards or the Oxfords that have set up shop," Jouen says. "Rather, it's been private, for-profit career colleges of poor quality and of little relevance to local needs."