Government negotiations to open up trade in educational services are scheduled to begin next month, during a two-year renegotiation of the 1995 World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). GATS binds all WTO member countries to allow access to foreign-service providers wanting to operate within their borders. Education is one of 12 service sectors it covers.
So far the trade-liberalization push in education has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, from exporting countries – the US, Australia and New Zealand – who have called on other countries to open up their borders to private providers from abroad. The most vocal criticism of freer educational trade has also been coming from the North, but from educational institutions, academic associations and trade unions who see GATS as a way for governments to promote the growth of private education at a time when funds for public providers are becoming more scarce. There is also widespread concern that trade agreements treat education as a commodity rather than a vehicle to transmit culture, language and knowledge for the public good. GATS supporters respond that – like it or not – the market for education exists and that they are simply trying to establish transparent rules for how the market should operate.
International education delivers mixed results for developing countries. On the one hand, it means that many of their overseas-qualified students return home each year with international connections and big ideas. However, these students take large sums of currency out of the country with them to pay fees and living expenses while they study. Consequently, most developing countries have a large trade deficit in education, as growing numbers of students go overseas each year to study, mainly in the US, Britain, France, Germany and Australia.
At the same time, developing countries in which there is an undersupply of places in educational institutions are increasingly being targeted by British and Australian transnational education providers – institutions which run courses in multiple countries using branch campuses, distance education or partnering with local institutions. This is the fastest-growing form of trade in education. By making it easier to offer courses transnationally, exporters can use the excess educational capacity of the North to increase capacity in the South.
The problem for importing countries is how to ensure that foreign institutions act equitably, offering programmes that are in the broader national interest rather than only benefiting an international corporate élite, and developing a curriculum that responds to the needs of local students rather than producing a homogenized curriculum for global consumption.
Documents being exchanged between governments under GATS negotiations are already being (and will continue to be) leaked. This will at least provide some transparency and an opportunity to help ensure that international trade serves public as well as private interests.
The GATSwatch website has leaked documents prepared by the European Union requesting access to other countries’ markets. They are available from [http://www.gatswatch.org]