Will Gats be good for global quality?

November 11, 2005

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

When crunch ministerial talks on trade liberalisation resume in Hong Kong next month, the odds are that easing restraints on cross-border higher education will be part of the effort to resolve international deadlock on agriculture.

A failure to clinch a deal with developing countries over agriculture sank the Cancun talks in 2003 and the World Trade Organisation's new director-general, Pascal Lamy, has warned that time is running out to complete the Doha round by the new unofficial target date of late 2006. A General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) - including transborder higher education - will be a key bargaining chip.

Many opponents of liberalisation had been pinning their hopes on Unesco-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines for cross-border higher education, which will set standards for its delivery. But the guidelines will be launched next month as a secretariat document rather than as a full Unesco convention after US intervention.

The US, anxious that international legislation would be a restraint on trade, stepped in after the guidelines had been tabled at Unesco's conference in October to ensure that they were not binding. Sources close to the negotiations said the US was ready to reject the guidelines in their totality if it did not get its way.

A US diplomatic source told The Times Higher : "We are satisfied with the final form."

But this may not go far enough for countries such as South Africa, which will see the episode as a failure of education to regain control from trade ministers.

The International Association of Universities next week convenes the first global meeting of leaders of university associations, a number of which have issued warnings over Gats. The IAU has sought to regain the initiative from trade interests in a statement attacking the validity of a trade-driven approach to higher education.

Critics claimed that the inclusion of higher education opened a door to privatisation and diluted standards. But the WTO assured doubters that governments would still be able to demand that foreign suppliers of education (or health) services met the standards required of national suppliers. The WTO said they could also choose to impose additional requirements on foreigners. There are signs the US approach is becoming less aggressive.

Sir John Daniel, a former Unesco deputy director-general and now president of the Commonwealth of Learning, said heightened awareness of cross-border higher education was coupled with fears about its impact on developing countries.

Sir John, his CoL colleague Asha Kanwar and Unesco official Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, warned the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education in Wellington, New Zealand, earlier this year that the effectiveness of the guidelines would depend on strengthening the capacity of national systems to assure quality.

They said that ill-equipped or non-existent systems left developing countries open to unscrupulous or inappropriate higher education providers.

Origins and aims

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

* The General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) was one of the achievements of the Uruguay round of talks that came into force in January 1995. Gats supporters see it as a credible system of international trade rules, stimulating economic activity through guaranteed policy bindings, and promoting trade and development through progressive liberalisation.

All 148 World Trade Organisation nations belong to and commit to opening their markets on a non-discriminatory basis.

Education is one of 11 services included, but it is one of the least committed sectors. According to the WTO, 44 countries have so far scheduled commitments in education, with 21 (counting the European Union as one) including commitments to higher education.

The US, New Zealand, Australia and Japan have submitted a negotiating proposal, underlining their governments' right to determine domestic educational policy.

* Gats covers four higher education activities: cross-border supply; consumption abroad; commercial presence; and presence of people in the country (for example mobility of academics).

* The barriers to trade include: difficulties in translating degrees obtained abroad into national equivalents; inability to obtain national licences; measures limiting direct investment by foreign education providers; nationality requirements; refusal to recognise foreign providers as universities; denial of student benefits; nationality conditions for teachers; and limits on the inflow of foreign professors through various regulations.

 

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