Europe's vice-chancellors are seeking more openness in negotiations to create a global market in higher education under the General Agreement on Trade and Services, after learning by chance that the European Commission had submitted a formal request for bilateral talks with the US.
The European University Association discovered last week that the commission had formally asked the US to open its market to higher education bodies from Europe. The request matches commitments signed by the commission in 1994 to allow such institutions access to Europe.
World Trade Organisation countries had until the end of June to lodge requests - the opening move in a series of bilateral negotiations scheduled to run until the end of March 2003.
If the eventual level of agreement fails to meet expectations, higher education could be part of a new round of global negotiations after the conclusion of Gats talks in January 2005.
The commission's move brings closer the possibility of US-based for-profit organisations competing directly with European universities - and even demanding access to state funding and accreditation.
Eric Froment, president of the EUA, warned: "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 EUA is a driving force in the Bologna process of establishing a single European space for higher education and research and is committed to reducing barriers to international cooperation in higher education outside a trade policy regime.
EUA officials denied that they felt betrayed by the commission, but said that the EUA should have been more closely involved.
"The EUA regrets the lack of transparency in this phase of the Gats round, in marked contrast with negotiations involving other service sectors where providers are consulted," a statement said.
In a joint declaration with the American Council on Education and the Association of Canadian Colleges and Universities, the EUA said:
"Globalisation and strong encouragement of market forces in higher education may lead to undue stress on competition among universities, thus undermining the Prague communique (of European higher education ministers), which stated that higher education should be considered a public good."
Only 44 out of 144 WTO members have made commitments in education - and only 21 specifically in higher education.