International university leaders are striving to build a framework to regulate delivery of quality higher education across national boundaries, which they hope will head off initiatives such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services.
By September, leaders of the International Association of Universities and three North American organisations hope to complete consultations on an international consensus on a fair and transparent framework to protect cross-border provision from "sacrifice" to commercial interests.
The IAU - and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the American Council on Education (ACE) and the US-based Council on Higher Education Accreditation - argue that trade frameworks are ill-suited to deal with the academic or research purposes of cross-border higher education. They warn that such frameworks may weaken the value that societies place on the social and cultural purposes central to higher education's mission.
They also claim that application of trade rules to complex national higher education systems designed to serve the public interest may have harmful consequences, especially given an emerging consensus that the relevant Gats article is "ambiguous".
The ACE has joined the European University Association to warn of the implications for state-funded provision if Gats is interpreted to require governments to give global private providers equal access to public funds.
Key to the initiative is an assertion that governments should retain the right to establish and implement higher education policies to serve cultural, social and economic goals. "Principal among these are measures to ensure the sustainability of domestic higher education systems through public finding, and to promote... equity for domestic students."
A consultation paper says that cross-border provision should strengthen developing countries' higher education capacity to promote global equity; contribute to the broader economic, social and cultural wellbeing of communities in the host country; and be accessible to qualified students irrespective of financial need.
The IAU meets in Sio Paulo later this month. While the collapse of the CancNon summit stalled the Gats process, leaders are convinced the issue remains on the agenda. Individual countries are pursuing bilateral agreements designed to open markets to their higher education providers.
Governments in the developing world are alert to the risk of poor-quality products being foisted on consumers. South Africa has come close to a diplomatic row with Norway over the issue, and the African Union has pioneered a framework agreement to protect its members from exploitation.