Unesco has launched a worldwide forum to ensure that international higher education standards will be upheld and not fall victim to growing commercialisation.
It sees the initiative as a complement, rather than a rival, to the profit-motivated World Trade Organisation General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats).
Unesco's Global Forum on Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education would "provide a place where individuals and institutions concerned with higher education can debate the issues from a wide range of perspectives" and "decide what to do about them", Sir John Daniel, Unesco's assistant director-general for education, said.
Among developments to be discussed are the growth of information technologies, transborder education, virtual universities, private education and the liberalisation of trade in educational services. This has become more controversial since 1995 when Gats, which offers countries opportunities to open their markets to services, including higher education, was established.
Many teacher and student bodies want governments to avoid making higher education deals under Gats. Others argue that trade and commercialisation are happening anyway and could result in benefits and opportunities if they were properly managed and controlled.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the higher education market in its member countries is worth at least $30 billion (£19 billion) a year. In 1999, 1.47 million foreign students were studying in OECD countries, about 100,000 more than the previous year.
Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, head of access, mobility and quality assurance at Unesco's higher education division, said this week: "The aim of the forum is to promote dialogue and include educational communities in the debate."
Too often, she said, trade negotiations were carried out by ministers concerned with "the benefit of economic departments, without thinking of the impact on education".
Six regional conventions dealing with recognition of qualifications and ratified by 130 Unesco member countries will be considered as international standards during trade negotiations.
An international quality assurance framework and a code of good practice for providers of higher education will also be created.