Free trade agreements, such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) or, more recently, the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), pose important challenges for the construction and consolidation of public education systems, particularly in developing countries.
Once signed, such agreements require governments to guarantee transnational service providers access to their national markets for an unspecified period, and limit governments’ regulatory capacity in a broad range of services sectors. In the particular case of education, these challenges are multiplied, particularly because of the strategic role education plays in the promotion of social fairness and distribution of opportunities, and because education is a fundamental human right.
Free trade advocates consider that the liberalisation of the education sector will make it possible to diversify the educational ¬offer and foster competition among providers (which they consider to be synonymous with the promotion of quality education). Meanwhile, an important faction of the education community remains sceptical about this argument.
The main concerns raised by the interference of trade agreements in the field of education are:
- The regulatory capacity of governments: The liberalisation commitments obtained under trade agreements limit the capacity of governments to introduce new regulations in the education sector, since these can be considered as unnecessary “trade barriers”. This applies to key areas in the regulation of the entire education system, such as qualification requirements or certification processes for new providers. Moreover, trade agreements may hinder governments from setting limits to the profit-seeking operations of providers, or the percentage of profits that the latter can repatriate as royalties.
- Quality control: In line with the previous point, from the perspective of the WTO, certain rules and procedures for the assessment and accreditation of quality may be considered as trade barriers that are more onerous than necessary (and need to be removed accordingly). In addition, the theory that the entrance of new providers means more competition and, ultimately, better quality of services does not tend to work so mechanically in the education field, and even less so in contexts with weak regulations. In fact, profit-making education providers (whether transnational or local) often offer poorer working conditions to teachers, have teachers with a lower level of qualification, or work with less suitable facilities such as laboratories, libraries, etc. For example, in the European University of Madrid, which belongs to the transnational corporation, Laureate Education, only 17.6 per cent of the lecturers have a PhD (whereas the average in Spanish public universities is 70 per cent)*.
- Development perspective: In less developed countries, the opening of the education sector to international trade may make it difficult for an adequate local education offer to emerge. In the words of Professor Philip Altbach of Boston College, in a context of an absolute liberalization of the education sector: “developing countries and smaller industrialized nations will be at a considerable disadvantage. Local academic institutions will find it difficult to compete with providers that choose to set up institutions in their country.”
The World Trade Organisation’s GATS encountered much opposition from the international education community and, as a result, many countries committed themselves not to offer nor to ask for the opening of the education sector to trade. Even so, countries more interested in the commercialization of services, including education services, proposed to continue moving forward with the liberalisation of services through a new trade agreement of lesser territorial scope, the TiSA.
For the reasons stated briefly in this article, countries should exclude education from the TiSA negotiations. UNESCO itself, in the context of the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, called on member countries not to make liberalisation commitments under the WTO. Meanwhile, beyond these reactive measures, the best immunization against the effects of free trade agreements can be said to lie in the construction of solid public quality education systems. Profit-making transnational providers are more likely to find fewer business opportunities in countries with a sufficient, diversified, and excellent public education.
Finally, opposing TiSA must not be confused with opposing the internationalisation of education. Quite the contrary. Exchanges for non-commercial purposes between teachers and students from different countries, and the constitution of international consortia for the creation of study programmes and research projects strengthen the exchange of ideas and the quality of our education system worldwide. Consequently, international cooperation is another instrument at the disposal of the education community to counteract the dynamics of education transnationalisation that are driven by a merely commercial or profit-seeking rationale.
*Statistics from the Spanish Ministry of Education (2014)