Quality as a Barrier to Trade
In the second half of the 20th century, nations became the dominant entities in the governance of higher education. Institutions once thought of as the exclusive domain of elites, were seen as centers of learning for all citizens and treated as vehicles of social policy, social cohesion, and social mobility. In the 1990s, however, transnational bodies such as the WTO and GATS emerged and began to assume roles which may conflict with national regulatory perogatives.
GATS, the arm of the WTO concerned with services, has a business agenda. In the words of the European Commission: "The GATS is not just something that exists between Governments. It is first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business, and not only for business in general, but for individual services companies wishing to export services or to invest and operate abroad."
Its goal is simple -- to create a stable environment for business and to remove barriers to market entry. And herein lies the conflict, because what may appear to be a barrier from a GATS/business perspective may appear to educational authorities at a national level as legitimate regulations, necessary for furthering national policy objectives, including access, consumer protection and quality assurance.
GATS contains within itself the means for resolving such conflicts, the Disputes Settlement Body (DSB) -- and the means to enforce its decisions through penalties imposed on WTO member nations which break the GATS rules or refuse to comply with DSB decisions. Working parties set up within the GATS framework are charged with evaluating national regulations in order to determine if they are more restrictive or burdensome than necessary to maintain service quality. Thus, accreditation standards, for example, may be judged as more of a barrier to market entry than a protection for prospective students. In fact, any regulatory measure designed to ensure quality in higher education may be nixed by GATS.
This level of prioritization of business interests at the expense of a nation's interpretation of the interests of its citizens is finally creating concern and generating a "Stop-GATS" movement, centered in Europe. Nevertheless, the momentum will be difficult to reverse. Once a country joins the WTO, it is almost impossible to withdraw, and once a country makes a commitment to opening a given service sector even a temporary suspension of that commitment requires an appeal to the WTO for a waiver.
True, education is the least committed of all service sectors. Then why can't WTO members nations retain their authority over domestic education policy simply by staying on the sidelines and not participating? Maybe they can. But the pressure to make concessions will never end. Why? Because the condition of joining the WTO is a promise to "enter into successive rounds of negotiations to achieve a progressively higher level of liberalization," (see "The Agreements" at the WTO website). In other words, hold off on commitments within a service sector now, and they will only have to be faced again in a later round of negotiations.
Is this a "GATS is evil" post? Not necessarily. A return to the closed national economies that WTO and GATS seek to transform is not the path to a better world, nor is exclusive national authority over vital services such as education always in the best interests of all citizens. The problem is the radical transfer of power to business representatives with no mandate to consider the social implications of its actions. The WTO has no expertise in the educational aspects of education -- only the economic aspects. The GATS perspective should be represented in multilateral decisions affecting education, but it should not dominate. UNESCO, with its "Education For All" mandate, is one example of an international organization which at the very least should share the stage with GATS in shaping the future of education for the planet.