Education International
Education International

GATS: Education is a right, not a commodity

published 22 March 2006 updated 22 March 2006

In the global economy where neo-liberal values of privatisation and market competition are dominant, it is crucial for those committed to public education to reaffirm the principle that education, including higher, technical, and professional education, is a right and not a merchandise.

Education is facing unprecedented challenges. The forces of economic globalisation, rapid technological changes in information technology, and the increasing commercialisation and privatisation of teaching and research are radically reshaping education. At the same time, efforts to expand the scope and application of international trade and investment regimes, through instruments like the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), threaten to impose serious constraints on the ability of governments to implement educational policies in response to these challenges. Education International's interest in trade matters began in 1994 when EI supported the broad movement to press the World Trade Organisation to establish a working group to ensure the respect of international labour standards in trade agreements. It did not take long to realise the connection between educational matters and trade in the discussions on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and later in scrutinising the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Education International (EI) has been concerned at the growing threat to education – in particular, higher education – of global, regional and bilateral agreements aimed at the creation of a profit-led education marketplace. EI believes this will not only create a range of challenges for employees and students, but it will undermine the quality of education and research, and subvert their role and purpose in a way which has implications for civil society globally. This is not a parochial or sectoral issue. For example, the presence of a large number of foreign universities in developing nations may discourage the capacity building of local universities and colleges. Also, many developing countries have no control over the contents of the curricula offered by foreign providers. Such curricula may not be culturally or socially relevant, and may not meet the economic needs of developing nations. Profit oriented education providers will probably neglect disciplines which do not attract commercial sponsorship particularly the human and social sciences. These profit-oriented providers may also deny admission of students from deprived groups such as women, indigenous people, rural poor, and academically under achieving students. The impact of GATS on education is multifaceted. The GATS Framework EI has taken a leading role in alerting its own member organisations –337 teachers' unions and associations worldwide–, national governments and international agencies to the dangers of the GATS process. It is of concern that GATS is purely driven by trade considerations without regard to the nature of the services affected. There is no consideration of the virtually irreversible damage which will result. A further concern is that GATS is advocated by powerful industrialised countries able to exert pressure on developing countries, which in some cases have been unaware of the disadvantageous and binding nature of the agreements they have entered into. While education remains one of the least covered sectors in GATS, pressure is mounting to change this situation. The United States has identified the liberalisation of higher and adult education services as one of its top four priorities in the current round of talks. American trade officials have called for the removal of obstacles to international trade that, according to them, prevent their institutions from operating in other countries. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have made similar proposals. A recent and particularly worrying feature is the possibility that higher education could be 'traded off' at the WTO to break a deadlock in negotiations in agricultural or manufacturing sectors. This was obvious in the last WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong in December 2005, with industrialised countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States pressing other nations to open their education "markets". "The right to choose which services sectors to open and to what extent, according to their own national needs, has been undermined," deplored the Africa Trade Network [1]. "The text on services will put enormous pressures on African countries to open up sensitive service sectors." Education is a public good At the centre of the current debate is a fundamental clash of values. On the one hand, there are those who would see international education simply as another commercial venture. On the other hand, those that assert that education is above all a human right and a public good, and that market forces alone cannot guarantee the maintenance and enhancement of an accessible and high quality education system. For EI, a number of key principles are essential to the integrity of education, and its capacity to play its vital role in society as an impartial generator and disseminator of knowledge. First of these is the fact that education is a human right. Second is the principle of public service: EI believes firmly that education is a public good which should be delivered through public institutions and with the ethos of the public sector, emphasising accountability, quality, access and equality of opportunity. "Education must be defended and promoted as a universal right linked to the human condition itself. As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to education is an inalienable human right that signatory states must guarantee," says Thulas Nxesi, President of Education International. "Developing and maintaining educational institutions for the creation and transmission of knowledge that enable people to play their roles as active citizens is a collective responsibility, falling primarily to states. Consequently, education at every level must be recognized as a public good," he adds. A further tendency is for the proponents of commodification in education, impatient at the slow progress in the GATS talks, to strike bi-lateral or multi-lateral deals, which will be even harder to police than the secretive GATS process. One characteristic all these treaties have in common is that they are profoundly undemocratic, taking place largely outside the public arena, outside the normal process of dialogue which should accompany proposed changes of this magnitude. The Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), for example, signed in February 2003 covers university, adult and vocational, and technical education with only limited exceptions. Such bilateral agreements are important as they often set the standard for other negotiations. Concessions that are made on higher education in bilateral talks will inevitably be placed on the agenda in multilateral settings. States view bilateral agreements as a means to push trade liberalisation further than can be achieved in multilateral negotiations alone. EI takes the view that education matters, including the mobility of staff or students, should be the subject of open and transparent international agreements between education ministers with the meaningful participation of the education community. The dangers of privatisation At its heart, the GATS is much more than a trade agreement. It is a legally-binding instrument that commits members to a liberalisation agenda, not just by eliminating barriers to trade an investment, but also by encouraging and locking-in domestic regulation in the form of privatisation, deregulation, and the contracting out of public services. GATS covers all service sectors, including education, in two ways:

  1. Under the specific commitments on market access and national treatment made by countries within the sector schedules. Market access provisions prevent members from maintaining or adopting measures that restrict the entry of foreign providers into the domestic marketplace. National treatment prohibits members from treating domestic suppliers more favourable than those from other member countries.
  2. Through the general articles or "horizontal rules" contained within the GATS especially Article II (Most Favoured Nation), Article III (Transparency), Article VII (Recognition) and Article VIII (Monopolies and exclusive service suppliers).

Under the current GATS agreement, 52 countries [2] made specific sector commitments in education. Generally, only private higher education was committed with most commitments limited to allowing market access to foreign providers, with specific reservations taken to protect public subsidies. While some countries have been pressing for further commitments to be made on higher education in the current round, there has been growing resistance to this largely as a result of the successful lobbying efforts of EI and its affiliates. As successful as these efforts have been, however, higher education continues to attract attention in the negotiations. There is a pressing need to remain vigilant. The GATS Modes in a Nutshell GATS includes four "modes of supply" involving the trade in services. Each of these modes directly relates to education: Cross Border Supply refers to services flowing between countries transmitted by telecommunications or mail. Almost all countries that gave commitments in higher education made no reservations in this area. The growth of transnational e-learning means this is a significant area for higher education, particularly since universities have linked with each other in associations and cartels to provide electronic distance education. At times, these developments have affected higher education institutions in a positive way through enhancing collaborative projects. For academic staff, however, there have more often been significant negative outcomes. University management now claim intellectual property over course materials. Increasingly, teaching has been unbundled into course design, course delivery, assessment, and student learning support. This has accelerated the deskilling of teaching and led to an increased use of casual employment, especially in the student learning support area. It has also accompanied the adoption of new corporate governance arrangements and an assault on trade union rights. These changes are intensified when universities enter into partnerships with private for-profit companies to deliver e-learning, such as Universitas 21 [3]. Another issue in the cross-border supply of education is the cultural appropriateness of transmitting curricula developed for and within one national framework to students needs in another country. Some quality assurance and accreditation schemes specify that the curriculum must be exactly the same as delivered in the country of origin, while others speak only of the same standards. The recent adoption by UNESCO of the Convention on the protection and promotion of diversity of cultural contents and artistic expressions reasserts the important role played by education in sustaining cultural diversity. An element of hope is article 20 of this Convention which states that parties will not "subordinate this Convention to any other treaty", GATS or any other bilateral commercial treaty being included in this clause. Consumption Abroad refers to the movement of consumers from one country to another, such as students studying abroad. There are problems in terms of balancing the movement of students from the developing to the developed world with the need to minimise the brain drain from the developing world. There may also be impacts domestically for "export" countries as higher education institutions continue to increase the number of foreign students studying in particular countries. It is important to note that this movement of students can encourage greater cultural understandings between countries, and can have beneficial outcomes for exporting institutions. However, teachers' unions note with concern the accelerating trend towards the predominance of the English language as a medium for teaching and learning and for the publication of research. EI and its affiliates believe it is necessary to sustain the existing diversity of national cultural and linguistic heritages and to achieve a balance with the undoubted value of a common language for communication. Commercial Presence refers to a service supplier establishing a presence in another country. This covers all foreign direct investment related to the establishment of foreign education providers, branch campuses, subsidiaries, or programs and courses offered in local markets by foreign providers. While leading exporting countries are not dependent upon the GATS alone for establishing a presence in local higher education markets, the GATS encourages far easier market access for foreign providers. The major impacts on higher education institutions that have established campuses overseas are financial, organisational (in terms of quality assurance) and cultural. The establishment and maintenance costs for commercial presence are high, and foreign institutions have often been asked to meet specific demands by the receiving country. In the case of a public university, this cost is ultimately borne by the public university establishing commercial presence. Where commercial presence involves local partners, and is essentially delivered by a separate local entity, there can be significant quality assurance problems, particularly around the assessment of student work. There have been an increasing number of cases where institutions have been investigated because they have allegedly raised the marks of fee-paying students. When higher education acts in a commercial way, there have also been impacts on governance. Universities and colleges come to adopt a more corporate identity, often with reduced transparency in their financial operations and reduced roles for faculty and students in governance. Finally, there is nothing in the GATS that would encourage higher education to promote capacity building in the developing world. Rather, the challenges of rising demand and an under-funded public system confronting developing nations is viewed solely as a market opportunity for institutions and businesses of the developed world. Presence of Natural Persons refers to the temporary movement of people from one member country to another to supply a service, such as academics working in other countries. Measures limiting the presence of natural persons and prohibited by the GATS include quotas on the number of temporary staff, hiring preferences for nationals, and residency requirements. EI supported in 2005 the adoption of the OECD/UNESCO Guidelines for quality provision in cross-border higher education. These voluntary guidelines provide States, education institutions and students a safeguard against low-quality provision and rogue providers [4]. Brain Drain The danger of introducing trade patterns in education are summed up in the concept of 'brain drain' – a one-way traffic of academic staff and students from developed to industrialised countries to work and study. This is accelerating the brain drain from the developing world and impoverishing local universities and colleges. But the damage is more complex and more subtle than this, ranging from international institutions – together with chronic resource constraints - effectively denying education systems in developing countries the right to develop capacities of their own; and the cultural and linguistic hegemony of a few industrialised countries globally, undermining national cultures. EI believes that protocols must be established which protect education institutions and staff in developing countries, and promote contractual arrangements which facilitate students and staff working or studying abroad, to return to their countries of origin. EI member organisations adopted a reciprocal membership agreement in recognition of the increasing mobility of education staff. The agreement allows academic staff working abroad to become "associate member" of the teachers' union in their host country, thereby protecting themselves from unscrupulous employers. Trade union strategy International trade is a complex issue and few ordinary trade union members understand how committing education can affect their own work, the workplace and their interaction with colleagues both within the home nation and overseas. EI therefore encourages its affiliates to raise the matter at national union conferences through policy motions and alliances with other public service sectors, in particular the health sector, and with students movements, rectors associations, NGOs, community-based organisations, etc. There may be scope for common strategies and actions, particularly in raising member awareness of the threat from GATS. EI and the teachers' unions worldwide have consistently undertaken awareness-raising and lobbying activities to exclude education and other basic social services from trade agreements. Last year, an EI delegation composed of trade union experts from teachers' unions in Australia, Canada, the UK and the United States, met senior trade officials from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, India, Jamaica, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa, Switzerland, and USA. During the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong, EI held another series of meetings with officials from Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden and Venezuela. Because committing education to trade agreements will be determined at government level, either nationally or internationally (for example the European Union), it is extremely important that teachers' unions lobby government representatives. Making representations to government in conjunction with other organisations is showing a broad base of protest. Teachers' unions should encourage their governments not to commit their education sectors to GATS or other trade agreements. It must be stressed however that EI's position is one of supporting and encouraging internationalization of higher education without an overt influence of commercialisation. EI has also established contacts with the WTO, the World Bank, the OECD, UNESCO and other international organisations. EI focuses its lobbying activities on the major meetings of world leaders where an impact can be made; for example G8 summits, meetings of OECD members, World Bank meetings, WTO meetings and other world events where trade issues may well be raised. Summary EI strongly supports increased international cooperation, mobility and exchanges of students and staff as long as education values prevail on commercial profits. Education is simply not a commercial product. For it to be governed by commercial agreements like GATS is inappropriate. Therefore EI recommends [5]:

  • States not to make or seek commitments in private education
  • States to amend article 1.3 of the GATS in order to exclude public-commercial services
  • States to review the GATS as it had been agreed in the treaty, in view of removing education from the GATS
  • States to involve education ministries and education unions in examining agreements being considered by trade ministries before any commitment is made

Notes:[1] Africa Trade Network (ATN) is uniting hundreds NGOs, trade union and other labour organizations, faith-based, women’s and other networks and social movements across the entire African continent. http://twnafrica.org/atn.asp [2] The European Union is considered as one single country. [3] Universitas21 is an online network of 18 universities in 10 countries, including China, supported by corporate partnership. http://www.universitas21.com/ [4] http://www.ei-ie.org/hiednet/ [5] EI Declaration on GATS and Education submitted to the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference