SA claims free trade will undermine national values

November 11, 2005

The Times Higher examines the reactions to the international guidelines on transborder higher education

For more than two years, South Africa has been a cheerleader for the developing world against higher education's inclusion in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats).

The stand is based on the principle that education is a public good rather than a market-led commodity, according to Saleem Badat, chief executive of the Council on Higher Education.

"Higher education has no business being in Gats," he said.

South Africa argues that higher education's engagement with the world must be guided by national objectives or, as former Education Minister Kader Asmal put it, "we run the risk of further entrenching the unequal power relations between the developed and developing worlds".

South Africa believes that unfettered trade in education threatens not only to undermine efforts to strengthen public education in developing countries, but also to homogenise curricula and weaken their national relevance along with institutional and national cultures and values. It says internationalisation should be regulated "through bilateral commissions that are already there".

But in the face of pressure, South Africa set about trying to mitigate the impact of the inclusion of higher education in Gats.

South Africa supported the draft guidelines that went to Unesco's general conference last month, but it is unlikely to continue to do so if it they have been "significantly diluted". It supported an Association of African Universities response, in April 2004, which committed universities to internationalisation and stronger quality assurance systems, but was against higher education's inclusion in Gats.

Professor Badat said that post-apartheid South African higher education had internationalised not only in rhetoric but also in substance.

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