With 40 members of the World Trade Organisation having agreed to include it among the services to be opened up, and more likely to follow suit, it is feared that education will become just another commodity to be caught in the middle of a future trade war.

By Abid Aslam

November 1999

Question: Why is education like a side of beef?

Answer: Both are commodities - destined to be in the middle of a future trade war as members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) expand their theatre of operations.

Schooling - along with health care, telecommunications and finance - falls under the 1994 General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which adds these to the panoply of goods covered by the older General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor, the WTO.

Forty of the WTO's 134 members have agreed to include education among services to be opened up under GATS.

The number likely will increase during the next round of international trade negotiations, dubbed the 'Millennium Round', expected to start following the 30 November - 3 December WTO ministerial meeting, in Seattle, say analysts.

Trade in higher education - mainly through study abroad - exceeds $27 billion per year, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Public spending on schooling at all levels surpasses $1 trillion and the number of students worldwide tops one billion.

Corporations peddling educational services, therefore, are eager to exploit the market opportunities and this worries educators and public-sector employees.

'An opening-up of the education sector would give a free hand to a small number of transnational corporations specialising in education, who could establish subsidiaries wherever they pleased by using...standardised teaching modules...based on a single system of values and projecting a single outlook on reality,' says a report by two leading public-service organisations.

Rapid expansion could be subject to heated debate, trade analysts believe. Governments want to protect national education systems from foreign influence and could hold the issue hostage to disputes over trade in manufactured goods and agricultural commodities.

However, 'the very fact that the education sector is now included in the discussions on trade liberalisation is in itself alarming', according to the two groups - Education International and Public Services International.

Education International is a federation of 23 million teachers and school workers from 152 countries. Public Services International represents some 20 million public-sector employees in 141 countries. Members of both groups face potentially massive upheaval.

'There is a major risk that the WTO's initiatives will clash head-on with the principles upheld by all those who value a quality public education system,' says their report, titled 'The WTO and the Millennium Round: What is at stake for public education?'. The report draws on anecdotal evidence, mainly from South-East Asia, to argue that liberalisation will result in increased foreign dependence and loss of local decision-making power and cultural identity. Experience in a number of Western and Third World countries shows that 'the subordination of education to market forces may well undermine its accessibility and aggravate social inequalities', the report adds.

Moreover, the groups ask, 'given the existence of huge disparities between countries, is the idea of placing national a competitive situation not tantamount to selling out the education systems in the weakest countries to a handful of large transnational corporations?'

WTO rules allow countries to slow the pace of liberalisation and to use select measures to defend their cultures against a commercial onslaught - so long as these do not interfere with the end goal of creating an open field for competition.

GATS also exempts services provided under government authority and without a commercial purpose. The report notes, however, that 'the vast majority of countries have mixed (education) systems, in which the private sector...competes with the public sector'.

What's more, since many public institutions charge school fees, trade negotiators can argue that they constitute commercial activity and therefore fall under rules demanding that foreign firms be treated on equal terms with local ones and that countries, at least, impose no new barriers against foreign entry into local education.

The United States has pushed most forcefully for liberalisation and holds first place among countries exporting education services, followed at some distance by France, Germany and Britain, the report notes. Australia is another exporter of education services - with many from South-East Asia going there.

Foreign students represent a huge 'export' market for the United States with more than half coming from Japan, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and South Korea.

In 1996 alone, foreign students spent more than $7 billion to obtain US degrees - making education the country's fifth-ranking services export-earner, according to government estimates.

The World Bank and its IFC [International Finance Corporation] and other organisations have pushed privatisation and deregulation of education in borrowing countries as an answer to chronic public-sector inefficiency and under-funding.

But according to the report, 'the quest for new sources of funding and new investors is already pushing a number of university institutions down the slippery slope of commercialisation'.

Educators in rich and poor countries alike blame commercial pressure for cuts in humanities courses and increased corporate influence over research in science and technology.

Primary and secondary schools have also seen an increase in corporate-oriented curricula.

US school children conduct science experiments designed to endorse brand-name products including tomato sauce and tinned soup. Private schools in poverty-ridden Pakistan have followed their US counterparts in opening their canteens to transnational fast-food franchises.

No government has agreed to lift all controls on its education system - including restrictions on the number of foreign teachers and the power not to recognise foreign credentials - and many developing countries are loath to expand the services agenda until old GATT disputes are resolved, the report notes.

Educators and public servants nevertheless fear that further market-opening is inevitable.

That is because the services agenda is being driven by swift development of communications technology and by investment firms who have turned to the WTO to advance their interests following last year's formal abandonment of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Abid Aslam is a correspondent for Inter-Press Service, with whose permission this article has been reprinted.