Secret offer to open market

November 11, 2005

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

The European Union secretly made a formal offer this summer on liberalising access to its various services markets, including higher education.

Details of June's proposals have only now been released. They show that Brussels has so far not been prepared to accept a significant opening of the EU's 25 national higher education markets to non-EU universities, colleges, academics and remote teaching services beyond that agreed at the last World Trade Organisation Uruguay round.

There have been minor changes - Latvia and Poland would remove restrictions on overseas academics working in their countries, for instance, and France would stop imposing ceilings on the number of foreign non-EU professors and lecturers who can work there.

Otherwise, under the existing proposal, the Uruguay round commitments on higher education service access would stand, as written in the existing General Agreement on Trade in Services. On distance learning, Brussels is offering the right of higher education institutions and academics from the WTO's 148 members to teach EU students.

There are exceptions: Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Malta and Sweden would not be bound to allow such service imports; France could insist that non-EU nationals secure permission to teach from its authorities; Poland could prevent such services being incorporated in its public education system; and Italy could stop such services authorising nationally recognised diplomas.

Another area covers student travel to non-EU countries to gain higher education qualifications and experience. Here again, most EU countries promise not to impose restrictions on this kind of travel. Again, however, Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Malta and Sweden make no promises, with Poland insisting that its public education system and scholarships would not "cover educational services supplied abroad".

A third group of commitments covers an issue central to Gats - commercial presence - the right of non-EU higher education service providers to set up shop in the EU.

Unsurprisingly, Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Malta and Sweden make no commitments to allow this type of operation. But other restrictions would be imposed, too. The Czechs and Slovaks would insist on reserve controls regarding education and facility quality, while stating that a majority of board members must be Czech and Slovak respectively.

Slovenia would also insist on local national board majorities. Spain and Italy would insist on needs tests for opening private universities authorised to issue recognised diplomas or degrees, including consultations with their national parliaments. Greece could block foreign providers from offering state-recognised diplomas; Hungary would insist that local licences be obtained.

And then there are commitments allowing foreign non-EU academics to work locally. All member states offer some commitment on work permits and other rights.

But even here, there is hedging. For instance, Denmark reserves the right to insist that professors are Danish, France to limit contracts to nine months, and Hungary to limit promises to specially invited "personalities of internationally recognised reputations".

If there is progress at Hong Kong, this offer could be revised and probably made more liberal, although it could also be made more restrictive.

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