GATS/WTO and trade in higher education: tension and dissension in the education community

VERGER, Antoni (2010)

In this article, Antoni Verger of the University of Amsterdam reflects on the complexity associated with the internationalisation of education implied by the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services and highlights the tensions arising from the Agreement and affecting the parties involved in the negotiations.

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)—long an item on the world education agenda—continues to generate tensions and dissent. This article aims to draw attention to the complexity associated with the internationalisation of education implied by the GATS and to highlight the tensions arising from the GATS and affecting the parties involved in the negotiations. We will refer, in particular, to three elements reflecting this complexity.

Firstly, the education community has not adopted a common position on GATS and education affairs. Many scholars were initially of the opinion that the GATS would unleash a conflict of interests between the commercial world (interested in opening services of all kinds, including education, to international trade) and the educational world (which would fully reject an international trade agreement that meddles in education regulatory affairs). However, as we shall see, the reality is far more complex than a simple dichotomy between trade and education; stances and positions, in fact, diverge, overlap and contradict one another on both sides, but especially in the education one.
Secondly, most trade ministers negotiating within the framework of the WTO does not think about the needs of their country education system when taking decisions in the context of the GATS, but use education as a bargaining chip that can potentially open up new overseas markets for their national industry.
Finally, although the education community in some countries is already taking a stand against the mercantilist plans for education of trade ministers negotiating within the GATS/WTO framework, greater effort and a more determined political will at the international level are necessary to prevent a trade rather than an education agenda from determining the principles and rules that will underpin the transnationalisation of higher education.
Education community stand on the GATS
The international education community does not have common interests or a shared stance regarding the costs and benefits of the GATS. When the GATS question was first raised, education stakeholders in both the North and South were primarily critical. However, with time, education ministries and universities in developed countries came to relent somewhat, with the main reason for this change in tack being the perception that trade in educational services could well represent an important source of revenue that would offset cutbacks (or containment) in the public funding of many higher education systems. Furthermore, in countries such as New Zealand and Australia, education and trade ministers are working closely to define a trade strategy that would promote educational liberalisation at the international level, in both WTO and regional contexts. Note that, for Australia, education is third only to coal and silver in terms of export revenue.
Many universities and education ministries in countries of the South, however, have maintained their initial stand against education liberalisation in the framework of trade agreements, given legal uncertainties in the education field and possible trade-related interferences in the construction of national higher education systems. Furthermore, there is a strong conviction, in regions such as Latin America, that higher education is a public good and that, as such, its distribution should be guaranteed by the state and regulated independently of free trade agreements. From this perspective, a free trade agreement would limit the capacity of governments to place education at the service of economic development and social cohesion. Consequently, many education agents consider that the transnationalisation of higher education should be discussed in an international education forum rather than in a trade forum like the WTO.
Education as a bargaining chip
Trade representatives have not been entirely united in adopting a consensus on the liberalisation of national education systems. A distinction can be drawn between trade representatives who wholeheartedly support free trade and others whose stance is more protectionist. In general, the trade ministries of most member countries of the WTO—and especially those from the South—have expressed a reluctance to open up their education markets at any price. Few WTO trade delegations, in fact, blindly believe in the benefits of free trade and even fewer are willing to liberalise their education system (or any other sector of their economies) without receiving something in return. The trade negotiation strategy of most delegations is based on a logic that is, if anything, mercantilist—paradoxically sidelining the free-trade logic that, a priori, should predominate in the WTO forum—with negotiators seeking to maximise exports from their national industries while minimising imports to key sectors of the domestic economy.
Since most developing countries have no great interest in exporting education services, this negotiating logic converts education into a bargaining chip, with many countries willing to liberalise education (or other services) if, in exchange, other countries, and particularly developed countries, were to open up textile, agriculture and other markets where the exporter enjoyed a certain competitive edge.
An inadequate reaction from the education community
There are cases of education representatives managing to displace the simplistic education-equal-to-bargaining-chip equation that is uppermost in the minds of trade negotiators. In some countries, members of the education community (mainly from teaching unions and public universities)—fully informed regarding the GATS—have formed strategic alliances with education regulators in an endeavour to prevent education from being used as a mere negotiating tool in trade agreements. This is the case, for example, with Argentina and Brazil, where education sector representatives ensure that GATS negotiations are transparent and that education ministers make public undertakings to block any move to liberalise education in the context of the GATS.[1]
This kind of response at the national level has an important political impact in terms of questioning the transnationalisation of education and putting a brake on processes governed by purely commercial rationales. However, such responses are insufficient in terms of developing, over the longer term and on a larger scale, an alternative education internationalisation model. Firstly, the international education community needs to bring the GATS issue squarely into the world public domain—as has been vindicated for some time by associations such as Education International and the International Association of Universities. Secondly, the education community needs to define and propose its own preferred internationalisation model. The internationalisation of higher education is inevitable, even desirable, as it can bring positive benefits, for example, by enriching education and generating research synergies. However, the process can be underpinned by a variety of rationales and principles and be governed by very different regulations and standards. The GATS and the regulatory environment it implies undoubtedly distil to perfection a concept of education internationalisation based on economic competition and market rationales, values and principles—contrasting with other models underpinned by a more cooperative logic or that prioritise cultural exchanges.[2]
Debating and agreeing these issues is no simple matter, largely because educational interests are not common to the entire world. That said, postponing this much needed debate simply leaves the way open to the trade faction, aligned with a small number of rich countries with vested interests in exporting educational services, to decide and put in place, on behalf of the rest of the world, their preferred education internationalisation model.

This undertaking was committed to paper in the Brasilia Declaration, signed by Argentina and Brazil. See article entitled Argentina y Brasil firmaron un inédito acuerdo en educación, available from
Along these lines, UNESCO’s Guidelines for quality provision in cross-border higher education may be considered an interesting, if indirect, response from the education community to the transnationalisation model implied by the GATS.

About the author

Antoni Verger was awarded a PhD on Sociology from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) for his work on the WTO/GATS and Higher Education. In the context of the UAB, he has worked in the research projects “Globalization and inequalities in Latin America” and “Beyond Targeting the Poor: Education, development and anti-poverty policies in South America”. Currently, he is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Amsterdam Institute for Mertopolitan and International Development Studies (AMIDSt) of the University of Amsterdam. Thanks to an IS Academy’s progamme fund (Minbuza+UvA), he is in charge of several research projects in the areas of the global governance of education (with a focus on international organizations and transnational civil society networks), and higher education and international development.

He has recently published in journals such as Comparative Education Review, Prospects, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Higher Education Policy and Globalization, Societies and Education. His PhD thesis has been published in a book series collection on Higher Education Studies coordinated by Philip Altbach, with the title WTO/GATS and the global politics of higher education (Routledge, New York, 2010).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


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