David Jobbins and John O'Leary report on the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Belfast.
As trade ministers prepare to review progress towards the goal of unfettered trade in higher education at next week's World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun, Mexico, Commonwealth education leaders are split on how to respond to what many see as a threat to public universities.
South Africa has already declared publicly that it will oppose any moves to liberalise trade in higher education under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) that would endanger its own higher education system. The issue is expected to be high on the agenda for next month's Commonwealth education ministers' conference in Edinburgh.
Kader Asmal, South Africa's education minister, told the ACU conference this week: "Free trade is, after all, a quest for money rather than enlightenment, which surrenders our own national needs.
"I will advise my government not to enter into any bilateral relations in that regard under Gats, which can then be generalised to the world at large under the 'most favoured nation' clause."
He resisted charges of protectionism, insisting that South Africa's motive was a determination to ensure that increased trade in education did not undermine efforts to transform its higher education and to strengthen the public sector to cope with a globalised environment.
"Our response to Gats should be firmly located within a commitment to genuine international collaborations and partnerships in education, which is critically important to the health of any higher education system," he said.
"It should not be informed by parochialism and narrow chauvinism."
But, calling for a fundamental rethinking of the inclusion of education within the Gats round, he said: "The unintended consequences and costs of trade liberalisation cannot be underestimated.
"We must avoid at all costs a Gats in education that puts our education, our culture and our future in peril."
Instead, internationalisation of higher education through student and staff exchanges and transfers of expertise - already well established between Commonwealth universities - should be pursued "energetically".
And Robert Giroux, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, told a conference session: "Globalisation has some negative aspects that can seriously threaten academics. We have to remain vigilant to ensure increased trade in higher education does not undermine national efforts to transform higher education."
Mr Giroux, whose association has joined with the American Council on Education and the European Universities Association to warn of the threat from Gats, challenged the opinion that higher education - despite its international marketing activities - was exempted.
The organisations have begun to draft principles to guide the terms for regulating an international trade in higher education - which Mr Giroux said could operate through Unesco. But a number of vice-chancellors and academics from Europe felt that point had passed.
Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, compared the prospect with the acquisition of privatised public utilities in the UK that were owned by foreign companies.
"Some of our hesitation about the trade in higher education is a natural fear of unforeseen consequences," he said.
Some vice-chancellors and other academics from universities in the developing world favour all-out opposition to the Gats process.
David Melville, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, pointed out that much of sixth-form provision in the UK was delivered by the private sector.
Prime movers behind the inclusion of education - particularly at university level - are Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US.