Monique Fouilhoux: What GATS Means to Higher Education

Monique Fouilhoux: What GATS Means to Higher Education

"Contrary to popular belief, there is significant trade in higher educational services: a rough estimate puts the value of this trade at about $US 30 billion in 1999, equivalent to 3 percent of total services trade in OECD countries."

In 1996 the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was extended to educational services, in particular, higher education. To date 38 member countries of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have already agreed to liberalise at least one sector of their education systems. Of these 38 countries, half have made commitments with regard to at least four of the five sectors identified in the GATS classification. They have therefore undertaken to reduce or even completely eliminate the barriers to the supply of educational services from abroad. The leaders in educational trade include Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Britain.

The WTO Conference on Trade in Services met twice in the autumn of 2001 and will meet again in March 2002. WTO member countries have until 30 June 2002 to formulate their claims vis-à-vis other countries and until 31 March 2003 to indicate which areas they are prepared to liberalise. Australia, New Zealand and the USA have already submitted new proposals for multilateral negotiations, mainly with regard to higher education – a move that is obviously related to the fact that the educational services in these three countries are respectively the third, fourth and fifth most important "suppliers" world-wide.

Although higher education has been "internationalised" for a very long time now, globalisation and the extension of the GATS to the education sector have considerably modified the environment in which higher education establishments must function. In a climate characterised by the growing mobility of persons, capital and knowledge, as well as by a sharp increase in the demand for higher education, new information and communication technologies are today creating opportunities to broaden the market of educational services.

Through their organisations, teachers, students and representatives of higher education establishments are mobilising to assess the impact of the GATS and to draw the attention of the authorities and public opinion to a number of serious problems.

"Education is not a commodity"

For the National Union of Students in Europe (ESIB) "the notion that education is a tradable commodity with the same rules as any commercial product is unacceptable." The ESIB believes that the right to education in general, and access to higher education in particular, should not under any circumstances be regulated by market forces.

For their part, four major organisations representing higher education institutions have issued the Joint Declaration on Higher Education and GATS. Referring to the 1998 UNESCO Declaration, which was widely ratified, the document states that "higher education exists to serve the public interest and is not a ‘commodity’." The joint Declaration also insists on the need to establish international regulations and to help developing countries expand and improve their national education systems rather than weaken the latter by imposing "foreign models" from abroad.

The Third Congress of EI of course addressed the implications of the commercialisation of education. The resolution published following the Round Table on New Information and Communication Technologies refers to these issues. EI’s Congress also adopted a specific resolution on the transnational provision of higher education (see box), and a special task force was appointed to implement the resolution. Several EI affiliates (see references) have conducted a number of studies and research projects which show that, while it is difficult "to predict statistically the impact of liberalisation, especially as distinct from commercialisation…, it is possible to attempt to identify trends."

Some governments and technocrats are arguing that education does not fall within the scope of the GATS by virtue of Article I.3 , which indeed contains ambiguous definitions open to interpretation. The legal firm Gottlieb & Pears, in consultation with the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), concluded that GATS gave such broad definitions of certain concepts, such as "trade in services" and "governmental measures", that national authorities were free to interpret the provisions at will. In the opinion of CAUT President Tom Booth, "legal opinion leaves us with no doubt as to the inadequacy of the WTO’s current protective measures for education."

For the British Association of University Teachers (AUT), the GATS agreement inevitably leads to a decrease in public funding, job security, professional autonomy and status, academic quality, and will have a negative impact on academic freedom, intellectual property rights and access to education.

The AUT's remarks on academic freedom are particularly telling: "Insecurity, short-termism, declining individual professional autonomy and the pressure to make research projects and the dissemination of their findings through teaching attractive to commercial sponsors, effects ‘locked-in’ and emphasised by the GATS, are seriously undermining to academic freedom."

The AUT, highlighting the impact of the GATS on intellectual property rights, points out that "work completed in the service of for-profit higher education providers would be registered as their property, as they sold it for commercial gain. Especially in combination with the proliferation of short-term teaching contracts, this would create difficulties for members who then went onto work for another organisation. Potentially they could be sued for breach of copyright if they used the same or similar material again. This may even be extended to that material replicated in both research and teaching…."

Numerous studies and reports show just how urgent it is to carry out an in-depth evaluation of the impacts of GATS on education before going any further down the path of liberalisation. We must ensure that the WTO and its member countries carry out such an evaluation and that, in the meantime, governments submit no new negotiation proposals to the WTO.

Monique Fouilhoux


The Third Education International World Congress met in Jomtien, Thailand, from 25 to 29 July 2001:


  1. The growth of provision of higher education across national borders, utilising mainly internet-based technologies, by traditional universities as well as by solely on-line providers;

  2. The participation by a number of universities in joint ventures with for-profit corporations and other higher education institutions for the provision of higher education relying on internet-based materials and technologies;

  3. Growing concern among higher education personnel, students and the communities they work with regarding the lack of clear and unambiguous information available in relation to governance structures, quality assurance and accreditation procedures, and employment practices within such joint ventures;

Believes that:

  1. Predominantly on-line higher education providers should be subject to rigorous quality assurance mechanisms to ensure a curriculum developed, taught and under academic control of faculty who have tenure and academic freedom, and this principle should be reflected in international accreditation procedures;

  2. It is the responsibility of national governments, international organisations and higher education providers to ensure that the expansion of web-based transnational higher education provision is informed by public interest concerns and objectives, and not solely by profit motives or market forces;

Accordingly, EI should:

  1. Encourage higher education trade unions to develop strategies for actively organising members across national boundaries to ensure that the employment rights of personnel employed by transnational providers are protected;

  2. In conjunction with higher education unions that have already undertaken significant work in this area, develop guidelines for best practice in relation to the provision of transnational education and actively pursue their endorsement and implementation by UNESCO, the ILO, the World Trade Organisation and international accreditation bodies, such implementation to be pursed in conjunction with EI.

Such guidelines should address, among other issues, governance structures, quality assurance, the importance of culturally relevant content and modes of delivery, accreditation, intellectual property management and academic freedom.


Trade in educational services: trends and emerging issues, Working Paper OECD, November 2001

L’enseignement supérieur à l’heure de la mondialisation – Dirk Van Damme, UNESCO, 2001 – abroad

The General Agreement on Trade in Services: An Impact Assessment for Higher Education in the UK – Alex Nunn, Association of University Teachers, 2001

GATS Impact on education in Canada: A legal Opinion – Gottlieb&Pearson commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, British Columbia Teachers Federation, Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, 2001 –

The General Agreement on Trade in Services: Implications for the Domestic Regulation of Higher Education and Professional Accreditation – Briefing Paper National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU) Australia 2001 –

Education International Quarterly Magazine, Marzo 2002