Leader: Education will suffer if just treated as a service

February 22, 2002

British universities and staff are understandably concerned at the potential opening of the home market to foreign competition - possibly at the British taxpayer's expense - implicit in the General Agreement on Trade in Services. Curiously, there is less idea of doing the same themselves in other countries, despite claims about the high regard for UK higher education around the world.

The worry is only partly about the money that new entrants to the UK market might remove from existing universities. Harder to cope with will be the new ethos that Gats envisages for higher education, in which corporate delivery of a definable outcome is likely to be favoured over a personal educational experience. The problem, in part, is that Gats does not distinguish between higher education and fully commercial services where consumers have a genuine interest in reducing protectionism.

While schools are regarded as a valid cultural concern for states, and as a human right for children, universities are not. Some recognition that they are part of the cultural and economic mainstream, not just a service industry, might make Gats more acceptable and encourage universities to seize opportunities rather than defend their existing positions.

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