Education International
Education International

Education is not a tradable commodity

published 5 June 2008 updated 5 June 2008

One of the most dramatic developments within education in recent years has been the emergence of the “international trade” in education services. The aggressive recruitment of fee-paying international students by schools, the explosion in borderless commercial e-learning, the franchising of offshore schools and campuses, and the sale of course material overseas are all features of an emerging multi-billion dollar trade in education.

To date, this trade has been much more difficult to regulate and codify than trade in widgets or wheat. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to do precisely this — to develop rules governing the international trade in education services. This is occurring through numerous bilateral trade negotiations and agreements, and multilaterally within the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). These agreements could have far-reaching consequences for our schools, students and teachers. Trade agreements are legally-binding treaties that promote liberalization, not just by eliminating barriers to trade and investment, but also by encouraging domestic liberalization in the form of privatization, commercialization, and deregulation of public services like education. Trade agreements don’t necessarily force governments to privatize and commercialize education. But they can have the effect, through the legal restrictions they place on governments, of intensifying and locking-in pressures to do so. Most trade treaties contain two sets of rules. One set requires members to publicize measures and regulations that may affect trade, and to treat each party to the treaty equally. A second more onerous set apply to service sectors where a government has explicitly agreed to liberalize trade. “National Treatment” obligations require that countries extend the same benefits and privileges that domestic providers enjoy to foreign providers. “Market Access” rules prohibit governments from preventing foreign providers from entering the marketplace. If a country agrees to open up its education sector, these two rules could threaten a number of important policies. National Treatment requirements, for instance, prohibit any conditions being put on foreign schools relating to nationality, such as hiring preferences given to local citizens. More controversially, it has been argued that if countries were to fully include education services, National Treatment would require them to provide the same public subsidies to overseas institutions as they provide to domestic schools. Alternatively, governments could be forced to eliminate those subsidies altogether. Market Access rules would prevent governments from placing any limits on the number of overseas schools allowed to operate locally, thereby enabling institutions and companies from other countries to engage freely in education activities. Governments would be prevented from adopting measures that discriminate between public and private institutions, as this would be seen as a restriction on Market Access. Until recently, the education community had little awareness of GATS and other trade agreements. But all this has changed. Student organizations, teachers’ unions, and even many schools are increasingly voicing their opposition to the notion that education can simply be viewed as a commodity to be traded as any other. EI and its affiliates have strongly opposed including education in trade agreements. That does not mean that we oppose the internationalization of education. On the contrary, we believe that cross-border collaboration, overseas studies, school partnerships, and academic cooperation should be encouraged. We oppose agreements like the GATS because they would subject education to commercial values, treating it simply as a private commodity to be bought and sold in the international marketplace. We are concerned that the inclusion of education in trade treaties will have a powerful narrowing effect on public regulation, and promote privatization and commercialization. Above all, teachers believe that education is not a tradable commodity. It is part of the cultural and social infrastructure of a society. By David Robinson

David Robinson is Associate Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers and a consultant to Education International on trade and higher education. This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 26, June 2008.