The National Union of Students is concerned about the detrimental impact of the General Agreement on Trade in Services on the provision of services in post-16 education (Soapbox, THES , March 22).
While we welcome more freedom for students to study abroad and equal treatment of foreign teachers, Geoffrey Alderman's "level playing field for public and private providers" could mean the following for the United Kingdom:
* Limits on overseas/private higher and further education provision would not be allowed
* Foreign education providers could access state subsidies
* Government subsidy in the form of student support could also be deemed an unfair advantage
* The Department for Education and Skills might be limited in helping to start initiatives such as the e-university as they would have to give equal treatment to any similar foreign provision
* Education policy could be constrained as Department for Education and Skills regulations would have to pass a World Trade Organisation "necessity test" to prove that they achieve a "legitimate objective" and that no commercially less restrictive alternatives are possible
* The UK's interpretation of "services supplied in the exercise of government authority" could be eroded and allow challenges to funding attached to public-private partnerships.
Despite the public services exemption, most universities and colleges are involved in some commercial activity and would not be covered. The NUS's concern is not how individual governments interpret public service exemption, but the way a WTO dispute panel would adjudicate over an issue.
Gats could dramatically encroach on the UK's ability to make post-16 policy and posit regulations onto colleges and universities to achieve educational aims, rather than commercial objectives.
National president, NUS