Free Trade -- The Middle East Solution?
I am an instructional technologist, not an economist.
I only started keeping up on the Free Trade movement because higher education services are a "trade liberalization" target -- and Transnational Ed (TNE) is what I do. For newcomers to this blog (it's only been going for one week, so that means just about everyone) -- TNE refers to modes of higher education service delivery in which the degree granting institution is in one country and the students are in others. In GATS-speak, that means Mode 1 (Cross Border Supply) and Mode 3 (Commercial Presence).
I commented on the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) when it was signed a few days ago because the strong DMCA-like component made me aware of the kind of overhead which comes along with free trade. The trade might be free; i.e., tariffs get reduced (although Singapore had almost none anyway) -- but there are other costs. Fair Use, for example, allows educators to break copyrights under certain circumstances without permission. However, in a DRM/DMCA World in which computers might only display educational resources on a pay per view basis, a new set of unimaginable costs emerges.
Now, Free Trade is being proposed by President Bush as an incentive to follow his Middle East Road Map. This is clearly one powerful concept. Consistent with its non-multilateral inclinations, Washington is not pushing its newest panacea (tax cuts for domestic problems, FTAs for international ones) through world initiatives such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). A 146-member body not wholly identified with U.S. interests is just a bit too cumbersome and unmanageable for current tastes. So instead, the strategy seems to be a series of bi-lateral deals, rewarding friends (like Singapore and Australia) and punishing non-supporters (like Chile and New Zealand).
Punishment can take the form of long-term delays on FTA negotiations, no invitations to Free Trade conferences, or most stinging of all -- sanctions; that is, tariffs and other barriers to a B-List country entering the lucrative U.S. market. But, attempting now to turn this discussion to my main interest -- exporting higher education services -- it is worth pointing out few if any countries have a chance at entering the U.S. higher education marketplace anyway. Philip G. Altbach of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education puts it this way: Americans happily buy automobiles made in other countries, but they do not like foreign educational products. While most of the half million foreign students in the United States are studying for degrees, few of the 143,000 American students who go overseas are studying for degrees--they typically spend a semester or even less abroad. Foreign universities would not find a receptive audience among American students.
Easy access to the U.S. in the higher education service sector is probably no great prize. But how about the flip side? If countries with the temerity to oppose U.S. policies receive trade sanctions as a spanking from Washington, aren't those countries likely to respond in kind, with sanctions of their own? And wouldn't higher education services be a logical target? Higher education is a lucrative business, the fifth largest service sector export in the U.S. economy. There are serious competitors, though, including the European Union and Australia. Will bi-lateral sanctions work against U.S. universities in important emerging markets? Suppose Malaysia, whose outgoing Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sees Malaysia as a candidate for regime change by Western powers, instead finds itself on the receiving end of punitive sanctions. I find it hard to believe that such actions would help put the transnational ed program I now direct on an equal footing with universities from less hostile nations.
The issue here is not me and my little program. It's the idea of higher education getting tangled up in support for national policies that is a frightening but logical outcome of the current U.S. predilection for regional and bilateral FTAs. I am involved in Transnational Ed in the hope that, through the appropriate use of technology, life-long learning will cross national boundaries and help bring people together. It wasn't until I discovered "Free Trade" that I saw a way it could drive us apart.