Global trade could profit all, given the political will

April 27, 2001

The internationalisation of education services has yet to receive the detailed attention foreshadowed by the World Trade Organisation more than two years ago. A focus on macroeconomic policy, strengthened productive capacity, competitiveness and conditions for business efficiency reinforces a public image of the WTO that causes consternation among those seeking a broader international consensus around social, cultural and ethical issues. Its concern for sustainable development, poverty alleviation, equity and a fairer distribution among and within nations of the benefits of trade liberalisation has not succeeded in allaying misgivings.

Higher education, internationally, is experiencing changes on an unprecedented scale, driven by demand for access, staff mobility and cooperation, increased opportunities for the exchange and sale of services in teaching and research, and online technology. While the WTO has acknowledged the significance of an emerging global environment for higher education and identified several barriers to be overcome, it is not evident that governments are collectively addressing the key issues.

Barriers include financial, regulatory and cultural considerations. Regional groupings such as the Americas and the European Union have made considerable advances, but in many countries, restrictive conditions impede staff and student mobility. Franchising and the establishment of campuses across national borders have been a feature of the 1990s, but are still hedged about with restrictions not always based on the best interests of students. The motives of private providers operating internationally (nationally, too) are questioned and institutional leaders are anxious about the threat of competition from prestigious universities that hope to use online technology for distance education. More concerted international efforts are necessary if these concerns are to be allayed. There is a fine balance between a deregulated international market in higher education, the maintenance of standards and the interests of nation states and their institutions.

Well-conceived policies and strategies for distance education could become a vehicle for meeting the WTO agenda of international education cooperation and free exchange of people and services. Consortia such as Universitas 21, which bring together universities and private-sector media corporations to design and deliver courses globally, are one example of how distance education may improve access to high-quality programmes and foster international partnerships. MBA degrees at a number of universities in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, programmes at the UK's Open University, and the global expansion of the University of Phoenix are among initiatives to reach an international market increasingly described as borderless.

But borders still exist. While data sources for thoroughgoing international trend analysis are inadequate, there are indications that distance education is not meeting needs; nor is it a solution free of difficulties.

The development of distance education has enhanced opportunities for some but access to computer technology is unavailable in many parts of the world. Providers' organisational capacity and management capability does not always guarantee high-quality teaching, sufficiency of study conditions or adequate control over standards of performance. System-wide licensing and regulatory controls, directed at standards and guarantees for prospective students, may tacitly aim to shut out competitors.

Too little attention is given to these issues by international organisations such as Unesco and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Individual institutions, consortia and some state and national governments have, however, promoted distance education. Their motives often have been as much financial and competitive as educational. WTO could become a more active partner in promoting distance education, as could other intergovernmental and non-governmental bodies. Distance education is a service for a more inclusive form of globalisation. A clearer focus on education would give direction to the WTO's espousals of social justice and more equitable economic opportunities.

The Quebec City declaration, which followed last weekend's Summit of the Americas, contains the right messages, including commitments to policies on the use of educational technology and wider opportunity for learning. Translating these into collective action, internationally, will be a measure of the capability of WTO as an agency for the advancement of higher education.

Malcolm Skilbeck is an education consultant and former deputy director for education at the OECD. Email: skilbeck.connell@deakin.edu.au

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