Global trade threat

November 12, 1999

Philip Fine reports on an Ottawa union conference on commercialisation

A formidable global body could soon have the authority to dictate free enterprise policies to universities, economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen told delegates.

Professor Cohen, of Simon Fraser University, warned that if Canadian universities continue to commercialise, they will find themselves vulnerable to global trade pacts that treat education as a service commodity.

That would open the educational market and allow foreign educational enterprises equal access to students, the grants system and tax incentives.

That equal footing could lead to a subordination of higher education to the dictates of private corporations, said the Canadian Association of University Teachers and an international consortium of educational unions called Education International.

Professor Cohen based her presentation on the documents prepared by the World Trade Organisation in the lead-up to their millennial round of trade talks. The organisation's General Agreements on Trades in Services (GATS) negotiations begin at the end of this month. Canada and the United States have not joined the voluntary group, made up of 21 countries, including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.

The WTO's documents worry Canadian academics because GATS has called Canada's public education system a monopoly as if it was a for-profit corporation.

Such practices as giving funding priority to Canadian researchers and making available student assistance to more highly subsidised colleges could eventually be challenged as unfair practices.

"The trick for (the WTO) is to organise things in such a way that governments are forced to provide subsidies for private education," Professor Cohen said.

Canada can help defend public education by not joining the GATS, she said. However, both the US and Canada are planning to enter. A recent background paper issued by Canada's department of international trade differs little from the WTO paper.

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