Global Trade in Higher Education

Countries continue to negotiate on a new global trade agreement as part of the functioning of the World Trade Organization. In addition to GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, talks are also taking place on GATS, the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

On aspect of GATS deals with the provision, and consumption, of higher education across borders. The US government is willing to make American higher education services more accessible to other countries. However negotiations could conceivably also result in educational institutions in other countries easily being able to offer services to US students. All in all, this should be a good thing – or so one would think. Alas, nothing is ever that simple.

Some American education associations are protesting the US move saying in essence that compliance with GATS rules could result in a difference in the treatment of public and private colleges in the US and also adversely affect the regulation of higher education institutions by states. In a letter to the US trade representative, Susan Schwab, the associations expressed concern that “a U.S. commitment in the higher education services sector could ultimately undermine all of our institutions’ time-honored autonomy with respect to important prerogatives, including the approval of credit transfers”. Even state officials are protesting; the governors of Maine and Iowa also wrote to the US Trade Representative expressing reservations about the impact of GATS rules on higher education in the US.

An educational association official quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education said “Some bureaucrat at the World Trade Organization could be making decisions that overturn the judgment of the U.S. Congress or state governments,”. Would you have expected to hear this kind of statement in connection with issues in higher education? Does it sound familiar?

Apparently the US Trade Representative has not yet formally replied to the educational associations’ letter but a spokesperson for her provided assurance that the US offer for trade in higher education services would not harm US education policies and services.

Meanwhile another group, the National Committee for International Trade in Education , is advocating the enhancing of global trade in education. Its efforts are supported by some educational institutions such as Jones International University, a for-profit institution that provides online education and serves non-US markets. Other US-based for-profit higher education institutions and testing companies seeking to expand into the international market also support the US proposal.

The tussle between the supporters and detractors of trade in higher education service is likely to continue for a while, and not just in the US. It is quite likely that groups in other countries will also get involved. I wonder if we will see public spectacles like the protests associated with GATT talks. I think I’ll continue to follow this topic so stay tuned for more reports.

(Some of the material in this post draws upon an article by Andrea Foster in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 30, Page A29, March 30, 2007)

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