British universities will not be opened up to the global market under the current world trade talks, the European Commission has announced. But union leaders warned this week that research could be affected.
The commission said that education would not be included in the current round of negotiations on the World Trade Organisation's General Agreement on Trade in Services. But no decision has been made on research and development, which is being considered separately from education.
Brian Everett, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said the union was relieved by the European Union's announcement, but he warned that research could still be under threat.
"Any foreign companies will be able to commission research and then take it away again. It will become a very competitive market where institutions have to undercut one another."
Most R&D in the UK takes place in universities. If it were included in Gats, overseas research institutions would be able to set up in the UK, enter the research assessment exercise and become eligible for funding-council support.
A Department of Trade and Industry spokesperson said requests had been made to exclude R&D from Gats, but no decision had yet been made.
Mr Everett also warned that higher education could be included in later rounds of Gats. "If fees go up even more, higher education will become an increasingly commercial activity," he said.
"It will be only a matter of time until private bodies open up rival institutions. This time, universities are a public service, but how long will it remain so?"
A spokesman for lecturers' union Natfhe said: "Research remains vulnerable to 'liberalisation' as it is funded from diverse sources, public and private. Nobody knows how robust the protections are against a possible future Gats-based obligation to permit international tendering for research or other services, such as cleaning, waste disposal, catering and building maintenance - which could affect higher education by the back door."
The commission's announcement followed a public consultation on what the EU should include in the latest round of negotiations on Gats. The proposals have yet to be approved by the European Parliament, but the deadline is the end of March.
EU trade commissioner Pascal Lamy said: "This carefully constructed proposal ensures that services of collective interest in the EU, such as education and health, are preserved."
Student lobby group People and Planet lobbied the government with the unions to withdraw higher education from Gats. Campaign organiser Jess Worth said: "This welcome climbdown vindicates student and staff fears that Gats would make profit the priority in higher education."
But she added: "Gats is still alive and kicking, and the threat it poses to higher education and other vital public services across the world has not disappeared."
A spokesperson for Universities Scotland said: "Scotland's universities had some very real concerns about the possible impact of Gats and these were shared by universities around the world.
"This may not be the end of the negotiations, but it is an encouraging move and recognises the possible risks to higher education."