As the WTO's Doha conference opens, Eric Froment says universities must ensure their interests are looked after.
Debate about globalisation and the role of the World Trade Organisation is common and sometimes violent. But the higher education community is largely unaware that universities and colleges may soon be affected by the WTO and, perhaps, become a pawn in negotiations over other parts of world trade.
The danger comes from imminent negotiations about the General Agreement on Trade in Services. Initial discussion led to a proposal to liberalise education services along similar lines to other service sectors such as accounting, energy or tourism. Australia, New Zealand and the United States have formally tabled negotiating proposals and the WTO ministerial conference, starting in Doha today, will set a timetable.
A survey of 600 member universities of the European University Association and national rectors' conferences across Europe produced worrying results. Little discussion of this issue had taken place. Even more troubling, governmental Gats discussions seemed confined to trade departments; there had been little or no systematic consultation with the education authorities. EUA actions were mirrored by partner organisations across the Atlantic - the American Council on Education, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and the US Council for Higher Education Accreditation. These four organisations - collectively representing most universities in North America and Europe - have produced a joint declaration.
They support increased international cooperation in higher education including international student recruitment, the delivery of education programmes across borders and distance education - all part of a broader set of international activities that includes staff and student exchange, research cooperation, and capacity-building initiatives in developing countries.
However, such international cooperation should not be based on a trade policy regime. The Gats negotiations will bring few benefits. Our member universities do not face significant trade barriers to their international activities, but the potential risks are significant. Universities play many roles. The mix of public and private funding within individual institutions makes it difficult to separate one activity from another. Armed with a Gats agreement, private for-profit ventures might challenge the public funding of existing institutions as unfair competition, or ask for public funding themselves.
The WTO secretariat has suggested that public education would be exempt under an article of Gats. This article, however, is ambiguous. It exempts services "supplied in the exercise of governmental authority", where these services are defined as being supplied "neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with one or more service suppliers". But in many universities, some activities are run on a commercial basis, the difference being that any profits arising from these activities are reinvested in the core activities of the university. In some cases, our universities are probably providing services in competition with private suppliers. A worst-case scenario could involve foreign commercial institutions successfully using the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding as a tool to gain non-discriminatory access to degree-granting authority or core funding under the national treatment provision of the agreement.
Agreements already exist to regulate higher education exchange and cooperation. These can be further developed to ensure that exchange and cooperation in higher education take place within a strong rules-based environment. The point is, however, that our universities believe in values that are intrinsic to the sector: education as a public good, social responsibility and partnership, the promotion of knowledge, citizenship and participatory democracy.
Outside Europe, it is important that education exports complement, rather than undermine, the efforts of developing countries to develop and enhance their own domestic higher education systems.
For these reasons, the EUA and its North American partners have called on our respective governments not to make commitments in higher education services, or in the related categories of adult education and other education services in the context of the Gats.
Trade negotiations are arcane and convoluted. But they are important. Universities must make sure, before it is too late, that bargains are not struck that attack the core values of our work and the interests of future generations of students.
Eric Froment is president of the European University Association and former rector of the Université Lumière-Lyon 2.