Call to arms over Gats changes

October 18, 2002

Opponents of the potential liberalisation of higher education are mobilising following the launch of a Department of Trade and Industry consultation paper on the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Critics warned that if higher education comes under Gats, quality could be weakened, public funding reduced and casualisation of staff increased. And in Scotland, there are fears that the Scottish Parliament's policy-making powers could be undermined.

While responsibility for higher education has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, trade is a reserved matter under the DTI, which says the UK "strongly supports" the Gats negotiations.

Public services are to be exempt but many people believe these are highly unlikely to include universities.

The student campaigning body, People & Planet, will next week send a document on the dangers of Gats to all vice-chancellors, higher education unions, the DTI and the Department for Education and Skills.

It says that at the heart of Gats is "non-discrimination", that could mean foreign for-profit providers competing alongside universities for public funds.

Campaign officer Jess Worth said: "The higher education sector hasn't got to grips with Gats at all yet and that's an incredibly dangerous position because once it's agreed, it will be effectively irreversible. Now is the time for people to have their say before it's too late."

Scotland has taken a lead, with the World Development Movement holding a briefing at the Scottish Parliament for MSPs and interested organisations. Universities Scotland, the Association of University Teachers Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland and the National Union of Students Scotland all voiced concern.

Andrew Hamnett, principal of Strathclyde University, told the briefing that he supported the internationalisation of higher education, in which the transfer of staff, students, skills and knowledge was seen as being between equal partners. But he opposed globalisation, which he described as "McDonaldisation, in which one dominant provider generates a paradigm which is then effectively franchised down the world".

He said Gats potentially decoupled teaching from research and undermined the capacity to cross-subsidise from lucrative disciplines to less profitable ones.

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