Education International
Education International

TISA, a threat to free quality public education

published 21 August 2013 updated 26 August 2013

EI has sent out a briefing note on the Trade in International Services Agreement (TISA) to its affiliates, informing them about these trade negotiations that threaten to liberalise public services like healthcare and education.

TISA is a set of negotiations being undertaken by some members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the aim of further liberalising trade in services. Initially proposed by the United States and Australia in early 2012, TISA arose in response to the ongoing impasse in WTO trade talks, including talks to expand the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

Formal negotiations began in early 2013, and participants are aiming to conclude an agreement sometime in 2014. As of June 2013, participants in the TISA negotiations are the following: Australia, Canada, Chile, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Colombia, Costa Rica, European Union, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States.

Public education potentially covered by TISA

TISA is intended to be a broad and comprehensive agreement with no service sectors excluded at the outset. Potentially, therefore, all service sectors could be covered, including public services such as healthcare and education.

“Education remains one of the least-covered sectors in the GATS because of legitimate concerns that trade liberalisation can constrain the ability of governments to effectively provide and regulate quality education,” EI’s letter notes. “However, private sector lobby groups and several countries have been pressing for further and deeper commitments.”

TISA aims to build upon the GATS agreement that contains a general exemption for “services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority”. However, this exemption is extremely narrow and open to conflicting interpretations because these services are defined as those that are provided on a non-commercial basis and not in competition with other providers. In other words, if any part of a country’s education system is provided on a commercial or for-fee basis, or if private schools operate in that country, education may not be covered by this general exemption. Given that most education systems do in fact contain a mixture of not-for-profit and commercial, public and private provision, it is unlikely that the education sector in most countries would be excluded from TISA, EI argues.

“Including education services in any trade agreements raises significant concerns,” the letter highlights. “Trade rules are legally binding and can have the effect of locking-in and intensifying pressures of commercialisation and privatisation. For instance, rules around market access can limit the ability of countries that make commitments on education services to limit the entry and regulate the operations of private and for-profit schools and institutions. TISA is aimed at ensuring ‘competitive neutrality’ or a level playing field between public and private providers, meaning governments could not treat public schools more favourably.”

Commercialisation of education endangers its quality

The letter also notes that trade agreements can also adversely affect the ability of authorities to ensure the quality of education provided. TISA, like GATS, is intended to promote free trade in services by guaranteeing open markets for all. However, by granting unfettered market access to all foreign education enterprises, governments could very well usher in a flood of providers of questionable quality, EI states.

“EI is actively monitoring TISA negotiations and related talks to press for the broad exclusion of education and other public services,” EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen said. “We are working closely with Public Services International to develop more research and analysis of why TISA is a bad deal for public services.”

He further highlighted that public authorities are responsible for ensuring free quality public education for all.

EI calls on affiliates in countries that are involved in TISA talks to interact with relevant government officials and explain why education and other public services should be excluded. For affiliates in countries that are members of the WTO but are not engaged in TISA, EI advises them to meet with officials to secure guarantees that they will not join the negotiations.

The circular letter can be read in its entirety here