GATS and Education

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Alex Nunn, University of Manchester
Jess Worth, People & Planet

Education has long been a corollary of democracy as it gives 'the people' the necessary skills, knowledge, reasoning and confidence to make democracy meaningful. However, the freedom of education and thus the vitality of democracy is under threat.

Education has come to be seen as a global market opportunity worth an estimated US$2 trillion per year. This realisation has led business lobbying groups, such as the powerful European Roundtable of Industrialists, to argue that: "too often the education process is entrusted to people who appear to have no dialogue with, nor understanding of, industry and the path of progress... The provision of education is a market opportunity and should be treated as such."

GATS is clearly now regarded as one mechanism to achieve this end, by removing such barriers to global trade in education 'products' as accreditation restrictions, investment ceilings, government monopolies, selective application of government subsidies, professional qualification restrictions and visa requirements.

The USA is already explicitly targeting Higher Education (HE) in its requests for sectoral liberalisation through GATS. Given the weakness of the 'exemption' for public services, education at all levels may be covered by the horizontal provisions on domestic regulation, which apply to all services. The European Commission (which negotiates in the WTO on behalf of EU member states) has also demonstrated its commitment to the liberalisation of public services, as well as Public Private Partnerships in education. Given that the Commission's 'Towards GATS 2000' statement of intent calls GATS "first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business", the coverage of education by GATS would contribute to the extension of private initiatives to education at all levels throughout the world.

There are many shapes that this expansion of private involvement may take, each bringing its own challenge to the vitality of democracy. In fact, GATS will essentially speed up and spread a process which is already happening to education in many countries -- notably the USA and UK. The experiences of these countries provide a salient indicator of where our public education systems could be heading under GATS.

In the USA, commercialisation in schools is rife and most openly manifest in massive advertising programmes such as the Channel One project, which beams a daily news broadcast containing lucrative advertising programmes into 350,000 classrooms. In return, schools receive free use of satellite dishes, VCRs and television monitors as well as other Channel One broadcasts. Other examples of advertising direct in the class room are 'free' materials such as exercise books bearing company logos, or even texts such as the Decision Earth environmental kit paid for by Procter & Gamble (a leading nappy producer), which extolled the environmental benefits of disposable nappies over their cloth alternatives. The motivation for business is not just that "School is the ideal time to influence attitudes, build long-term loyalties, introduce new products... to generate immediate sales" (as US company Lifelong Learning Systems puts it), but that it offers the chance to inculcate long-term patterns of consumerism generally.

Governments are interested in promoting private sector involvement in education as a means of tailoring the country's skills base to the needs of business. To this end the New Labour government in the UK has launched a raft of policies and proposals aimed at generating "entrepreneurship, motivation, teamwork, creativity and flexibility". Higher Education too is to provide the 'transferable skills' necessary to the workplace.

More worrying still is the tendency towards the commercialisation of Higher Education research. As more research funding comes from the private sector, it is increasingly tailored to commercial needs. Even where funding is sourced from the public sector, governments -- eager to boost competitiveness -- attach commercial priorities to it. The implications range from the gradual deselecting of research not seen as commercially useful to the direct curtailment of academic freedom by forcing the termination of the contracts of individuals who are critical of powerful commercial sponsors.

The UK, following in the footsteps of the USA, has embarked upon a more advanced stage of private involvement in schools, out-sourcing aspects of school building, maintenance and education delivery. The motivation for the private sector is that long-term government contracts can be extremely profitable, but only where costs can be reduced by lowering wages and cutting quality, as has been the case with UK hospital ancillary services. Further profits can be generated by 'asset stripping', as demonstrated by a proposal to privatise one school in London (Pimlico), where the profit motive was the real-estate value of its playing field.

The intrusion of these private sector motives into education, especially under GATS rules, threatens to bring about tiered and inequitable education systems. GATS rules may effectively prevent government subsidies from being selectively applied to public services. This raises the possibility of having a basic government-funded education system, with funding given to all providers, and then allowing individuals to enhance this by paying top-up fees to providers with varying 'brand images', or for the provision of 'optional extras' at an additional charge. In other words, GATS could dramatically boost the trend away from universal and equal access to free, publicly provided quality education, towards the spread of education systems based on the ability of pupils and students to pay.

In the developing world the situation is even more serious and the anti-democratic challenges even more stark. Whilst the provision of any education is obviously better than the provision of none, programmes run by multilateral agencies in partnership with the private sector, motivated by the potential for developing cheaper workforces and new consumers for both educational and other products, have serious implications for the development of autonomous democracy. The perceived potential for profit making is highlighted by the degree of interest from both traditional and e-Universities in emerging markets, especially China.

The provision of business-focused education for profit also threatens the long-term sustainability of cultural and linguistic diversity, especially through the dominance of the English language. Indeed, universities in Europe and Asia are already beginning to offer degrees taught only in English: the language of international business.

The redefinition of education as a profit-generating 'product', through GATS, threatens to destroy the professionalism of educators, to asset-strip schools and to focus educational priorities solely on profit, the production of a compliant workforce and willing consumers and to nullify challenging innovative social criticism.

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