Canada's public university system lies unprotected under key international trade rules, according to a recent legal opinion.
An international trade law firm contradicted the Canadian government's assurances that higher education was a public service and exempt from the ongoing negotiations of the General Agreement on Trade in Services.
The narrow scope of trade tribunals could enable international private education providers to argue for the opening up of public service sectors under government protection, according to the 26-page opinion. Critics said this could result in a loss of national control over research grants, domestic hiring preferences and awarding of degrees.
The opinion states that if a country were to subsidise its own services, Gats rules would oblige governments to provide an equivalent subsidy to the private service providers.
"That means that every foreign investor will be treated as if they were domestic," said Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, one of four groups that commissioned the C$20,000 (£8,860) opinion.
The CAUT argued for years that mixing private and public education created a system that was not truly public. In the past decade, Canada has built a small private addition on its largely public frame. It has two private degree-granting institutions, several full-cost programmes and international private education providers.
A group of four international university associations expressed similar scepticism about whether public education could be protected under international trade law. "It seems unrealistic to assume that public education at the tertiary level is exempted from the Gats," a declaration by the European University Association, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the American Council on Education and the United States Council for Higher Education Accreditation says.
The declaration states that higher education differs from most other service sectors and argues that public and private higher education systems are intertwined and interdependent.
Gats is likely to be on the agenda of the World Trade Organisation's ministerial conference in Qatar next week.
According to Mr Turk, the only way Canada's public universities will have protection is through a "total carve-out", which places higher education on an equal footing with national security, a sector with no private services.