The World Trade Organisation talks on liberalising international trade in services - through the General Agreement on Trade in Services - may not sound earth-shattering, but if higher education services are included, it will bring into focus the very purpose of universities. In its simplest form, "higher education services" refers to the delivery of educational courses at a level defined as higher, but this is only one part of the purpose of universities. Dearing identified four purposes: inspiring and enabling individuals to develop their capacities to the highest level; increasing knowledge and understanding; serving the needs of the economy; and shaping a democratic and civilised society.
One thing Dearing did not suggest was that universities exist primarily as profit-making organisations dedicated to the enrichment of shareholders; indeed, the report emphasised the importance of maintaining universities' independence from political and commercial interests. However, since its publication in 1997, we have seen the steady rise of the for-profit university sector, particularly in the United States. This sector has a clear purpose: to make money by selling courses. Insofar as this is convergent with the other purposes identified by Dearing, fine; but if, for example, universities were to lose the capacity, as they would under Gats, to cross-subsidise their teaching to allow delivery of intrinsically unprofitable subjects, then significant swaths of subjects would disappear. The advancement of knowledge in those areas would also vanish.
Gats advocates argue that the higher education sector in the United Kingdom has strong international links and has begun to invest heavily in distance delivery of its courses through web-based modes. Surely an agreement ensuring that restrictive practices elsewhere would be monitored and outlawed would be in our interests? Possibly, but we are as likely to be on the receiving end of others attempting to access our markets as we are to act as cultural arbiters elsewhere. We could argue that provision in the UK is subject to one of the most rigorous quality checks in the world and that others will find it just as expensive to deliver courses that pass our internal quality audits. However, Gats does not work in this way: in any Gats treaty a "necessity" test has to be applied; in the case of quality regulation, this test would translate into one consistent with the minimum requirements for areas such as health and safety. The current quality assurance process would inevitably be swept away, with all the good things it has achieved and the distinctive edge it has given to provision in the UK.
The blunt reality is that commoditisation of higher education will inevitably lead to homogenisation of subject teaching, with the cheapest providers grinding out local provision everywhere in the world. Education exports must complement, not undermine, the efforts of developing countries to build their own higher education systems, and while the internationalisation of higher education is vital for research and the quality of delivery and student experience in the 21st century, its extension to globalised commoditisation and homogenisation will, in the end, work to everyone's disadvantage.
In fact, the higher education sector in much of the world exists not simply to deliver programmes but to serve the public interest on a far wider canvas, as Dearing recognised. Higher education is not a commodity. Public funding through a variety of algorithms recognises, explicitly or implicitly, national need in specific subject areas, and in the UK it is the vehicle for the delivery of social equity through programmes such as widening access. All this would become more problematic were full inclusion of higher education in Gats enacted; universities would probably have to cease to play this type of higher societal role. The only criterion would be profitability.
University of Strathclyde