Olga Wojtas's report of fears that the Department of Trade and Industry is trying to pressure Universities UK to support the application of the World Trade Organisation's General Agreement on Trade in Services to public higher education in the United Kingdom should sound alarm bells in every university senate ("Academic freedom threat from Gats plan", THES , February 22).
Gats exists to create and expand private markets and to eliminate government actions that hinder private-sector growth, such as government monopolies. Its implementation could require private providers to be given degree-awarding powers and entitle them to receive the same subsidies as public providers (grants and low-interest student loans and subsidies for buildings, facilities and overheads). They would surely cherry-pick courses in subjects with high demand.
Appealing to bland, inadequate Quality Assurance Agency benchmark statements as proof of quality, they would provide a bare-bones service at lower cost and at a profit.
It is difficult to see public grants and subsidies persisting in such circumstances: education would be reduced to what could be packaged in terms of "learning outcomes", delivered at maximum cost-effectiveness. Lost would be the more abstract, but vital, aspirations, such as concern for developing values, attitudes, conduct and qualities of character for which Grenville Wall argued (Soapbox, THES, February 22) and the chance for students to think critically about the importance of democratic values.
Our Canadian and Australian colleagues are well aware of these problems: visit http://www.uwo.ca/uwofa/regulatory/GATS-CAUT.html ; http://www.bctf.ca/social/globalization/CohenPaper.html ; and http://www.nteu.org.au/debates/gats/trade.html .
It is time for a public debate in the UK.
Materials Research Centre
University of Bath