Canada's free trade fear

May 19, 2000

As they look over the rows and rows of World Education Market booths dedicated to selling educational technology, Canadian policy-makers will be reminded next week (May 24-) of how many private education businesses want a foothold in the Canadian public system.

Canada has been identified by the World Education Market as one of the "major growth markets". Paul Cappon, director-general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, will try to temper that enthusiasm, as he describes to conference attendees a country not ready to sign up for all that is on sale at the WEM.

Mr Cappon will be speaking at one of four spotlight sessions. Brazilian, Chinese and South African representatives will also be explaining their countries' education policies throughout the four-day conference.

The CMEC - which is one of the few national voices in a country characterised by provincial and territorial education ministries -Jwould like to make it clear both to international marketers at the conference and to those who make Canada's trade policy that the flurry of commercialism in the sector could hurt the public education system's curriculum and the country's efforts to develop home-grown education technology.

"We want to make sure that education is not treated as another marketable good," said Mr Cappon, who admits to getting "very worried" when he hears the World Trade Organisation using the word "monopoly" to describe Canada's public education system. "Who is empowered to bring in these definitions?" he asks.

The fact that Canada has just 30 million people, a growing - but widely spread - information and communication technology industry and a political patchwork of provincial education policies on commercialised education, makes the CMEC nervous.

The council fears that large e-businesses will have the ability to dictate national education policy by overselling pedagogical materials to its universities, while not allowing for the technology being developed in Canada to find its footing.

"Our universities are not large enough to compete with large consortiums," Mr Cappon said.

The CMEC is trying to move Canada's universities away from typical international marketing efforts in which one institution on its own tries to develop and sell educational technology to an international market.

He is trying to foster a situation similar to the American model, under which universities pool their resources. He also admires the Open University in the United Kingdom, where he sees technology developed with both professors' and students' approval.

Mr Cappon wants to make sure that the country's strong pedagogical skills - such as teacher and second-language training - can help to build a national network that also serves educational needs.

"The very nature of international trade is to find exportable commodities," Mr Cappon admits. But his first priority is not international commercial success. "I have to be concerned about our own markets first."


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