Norway has backed down from demanding access to South Africa's higher education market under the General Agreement on Trade in Services, but denies it has withdrawn a request for access that has angered South African education minister Kader Asmal.
Professor Asmal is at the forefront of the developing world's resistance to Gats as a "commodification" of education and has reacted angrily to proposals made by Norway, the US, New Zealand and Kenya to open up South Africa to their higher education providers.
While Norway insists it told South Africa earlier this year it would not aggressively pursue the demand, last month Professor Asmal specifically denounced the request during a visit to Bergen. Norway says it remains committed to efforts to regulate the globalised market in education services, and that lodging a request was a way of initiating discussions.
"We believe Gats, if successful, could lead to such regulation," an education ministry official said.
This week, Norway was at the forefront of efforts to strengthen international quality assurance mechanisms at an Organisation for European Cooperation and Development forum in Trondheim.
Commonwealth education ministers last week moved away from outright opposition to inclusion of education in Gats in the Edinburgh communique issued at the end of their conference. An initial draft recommends to heads of government due to meet in Nigeria next month "that Commonwealth countries stand together against the commodification of education and its inclusion as an actionable item under the World Trade Organisation and Gats". But the final version just recognises the widespread concern at the potential for commodification and calls on Commonwealth leaders to affirm the "paramount importance of safeguarding the values, standards and quality of education".
Secretary-general Don McKinnon said: "There is concern from some countries that education could become a tradable commodity at the expense of developing nations."
The prospect of an agreement between Australia and the US has heightened fears among academics that public universities could face further cuts in funding. Australia is already a signatory to Gats and may have to provide subsidies to foreign universities offering courses to Australian students, or to those operating onshore.
Academics at Melbourne's RMIT University said the decision to extend a federally backed postgraduate loans scheme to students enrolled at eight private institutions constituted a subsidy. Under Gats, funding available to private domestic suppliers must be made available to foreigners.
Academics Christopher Ziguras, Grant McBurnie and Leanne Reinke said the government was committed to treat foreign institutions providing courses to Australian students overseas, or by distance education, "no less favourably than local private providers".
Similarly, the Japanese-owned Bond University receives Australian subsidies. Under the "most-favoured nation" principle, other countries could claim their university operations in Australia should be accorded those rights.
"Foreign governments could make a case that Australian students studying in their institutions should, in principle, be able to apply for government-supported places in the same way as local private institutions," the academics said.