The Future of Education Under the WTO
by Peter Frase and Brendan O'Sullivan
180/Movement for Democracy and Education
The Education Connection
What entrepreneur wouldn't salivate over, what corporate CEO could resist...a
trillion dollar industry? How is it possible then, that such a market has
yet to be fully explored and exploited? How is it possible that many of
us are completely unaware that this market exists at all? Normally, we
don't think of students, teachers, faculty, and staff as profit-making
resources. Normally, we don't view the institution of education as a market.
But then, most of us are not trade representatives or corporate CEOs.
Enter global capitalism, and it's proud sponsor, the World Trade Organization
(WTO). Corporate interests have found, in the WTO, a forum to push their
corporate agendas onto unaware and unwilling countries and people without
any democratic accountability. In this attack, they have discovered the
possibility of manufacturing the thinking, the attitudes, and the purchasing
choices of their corporation's consumers and workers... and they have seized
As the role of the State is attacked and its services criticized, public
education systems are being systematically under-funded in favor of prisons,
corporate tax breaks, and the like. U.S. companies have capitalized on
thistrend. Through school-voucher programs, corporate donations to public
education, and corporate education projects, like Channel OneTM, private
interests are increasingly infiltrating public education. But this is not
a U.S. phenomenon. Education is being targeted on all levels, across all
borders; the latest, and most severe attack coming from the international
business community. Corporations have seen the prospects of a deregulated
education sector. In 1996, the United States provided exports of education
and training services that reached $8.2 billion. It had a trade surplus
in education of some $7 billion. That's just the U.S.!
Internationally, education is a trillion dollar industry. Education-industry
groups have been active in pressuring the government to push for more international
deregulation in the field of education services, so as to open up more
foreign markets to private-education initiatives. This assault on education
is being led by the world's trade representatives in their new function:
unelected, unaccountable corporate goons deciding world governmental policy
in the name of 'free trade.' These are the people running and operating
the WTO. With their hands in the pockets of the various multinational corporations,
they have succeeded in establishing a New World Government based on profit.
This is a government of and for the corporation--an extremely undemocratic,
authoritarian institution. What better way to institutionalize corporate
rule, than to create a mild, corporate-run education system to reproduce
standardized people. All hail...WTO.
The World Trade Organization
The World Trade Organization was established at the Uruguay Round in
1994. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is also a product
of the Uruguay Round, and is one of many agreements covered in the WTO.
GATS is aimed at deregulating international markets in services, including
education. Most favored nation, and national treatment are the two underlying
principles of the GATS. Most favored nation requires that all countries
be treated identically with regards to import or export, while national
treatment requires countries to treat foreign companies at least as favorably
as their equivalent national competitors. The idea behind these principles
is the creation of a open, global market place where services, like education,
can be traded to the highest bidder. GATS covers the educational services
of all countries whose educational systems are not exclusively provided
by the public sector, or those educational systems that have commercial
purposes. Since total public monopolies in education are extremely rare,
almost all of the world's educational systems fall under the GATS umbrella.
In the agreement, four types of services are covered: 1) The cross-border
supply of a service from the territory of a member country to another member
country. In the case of the education sector, distance education is subsumed
under this category. 2) The consumption of a service abroad by the citizens
of a member country on the territory of another member country. In the
education sector, the most common example is undertaking a course of study
abroad. 3) The commercial presence of a service supplier from a member
country on the territory of another member country, enabling the supplier
in question to provide a service on that territory. In the education sector,
the activities carried out by foreign universities or other institutions
fall within this category. 4) The presence of natural persons enables a
form of trade resulting from the mobility of people from one member country,
who supply a given service in another country. As far as education is concerned,
courses offered by foreign teachers are a classic example of this.
Because services are not objects, barriers to trading services are referred
to as non-tariff barriers. The goal of 'free trade' is to remove these
barriers to further liberalize the world economy. In the case of education,
these barriers refer to government regulations which include, immigration
regulations, exchange controls, and nationality requirements of students
and teachers; non-recognition of equivalent qualifications; rules regarding
the use of resources; and government subsidies to national institutions.
As it stands, the GATS only applies to the 40 countries that have agreed
to its provisions. Most governments that have agreed, have also chosen
to limit the scope of both national treatment and most favored nation status.
However, with a mandate to relaunch the discussion of services by 2000,
it is almost certain that education will be on the menu this November,
at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle, and that there will be a
concerted effort toward further deregulation.
The Coalition of Service Industries (CSI) has outlined their principal
goals for the Seattle round of the WTO:
Besides pushing deregulated education, there are many who want to use the
WTO as an opportunity to resurrect the Multilateral Agreement on Investments
(MAI.) The MAI, which would have allowed transnational corporations to
challenge any national regulation which they considered a barrier to free
investment, was defeated by the grassroots efforts of activists around
the world. But if its provisions are adopted by the WTO, the future of
democratic public education will be further threatened. In fact, our very
protest of corporate run education could be seen as a barrier to investing.
Ensure the right of US companies to establish operations in foreign markets,
including the right to wholly own these investments;
Ensure that US companies get "national treatment", so that foreign investors
have the same rights as domestic companies in a given market;
Promote pro-competitive regulatory reform focused on an adequacy of appropriate
and consistent rules as well as transparency and impartiality of regulatory
Remove barriers to greater cross-boarder trade;
Remove obstacles to the free movement of people and business information.
Privatized, Mono-Culture Education
Imagine it... You are a Mexican student attending the Autonomous University
of Mexico. But something is wrong. Very wrong. As you type in the web address
of your newly constructed virtual classroom, you notice that you cannot
understand what is being taught - the professor on the screen is speaking
English! So you panic, you grab the local newspaper and see that the Edu
Corporation has just bought your education service, and is now teaching
it in English -- language requirements are a barrier to trade, you know.
You pause to think things over, but then you realize that Edu is a subsidiary
of MonsantoTM, and you know that you will be groomed for a wonderful future
in bio-transgenetic engineering. Now all you have to do is learn English!
This is not as far-fetched as it seems. With the increasing commercialization
of education, many particulars we take for granted are being threatened.
As long-distance virtual learning gains acceptance, corporations and schools
funding education will increasingly push for this cost effective form of
communication. Face to face contact with teachers will slowly be phased
out. For those people that had a difficult time selecting their educational
institution of choice, there will be less hassle. As education standardization
is institutionalized through international equivalency, the uniqueness
of each educational institution will vanish. Classes and credits must transfer,
otherwise they pose a barrier to trade, forcing such standardization. The
whole idea of culture will be threatened as this standardization eliminates
cultural focuses, thoughts, language, and educational themes. The most
powerful corporations and countries will control the educational agenda
of the world. With corporate controlled education, the security of an educational
institution will disappear as it looses out to big merger deals and high-stakes
investing. In fact the very idea of education will change. No longer will
truth be sought, but rather, whatever suits the interests of the multinationals.
Students will be paying to work for a corporation, as it contracts with,
or owns their educational institution.
No More Government Interference
Under the deregulation regime of the WTO and GATS, the ability of any
country to regulate or support its public education system will be severely
hindered. In the name of free competition, governments may be prevented
from intervening in the education market in any way which can be construed
as hindering foreign investment.
The existence of a public education monopoly or the provision of government
subsidies to nation establishments could be considered a barrier to free
trade. Attacks on funding of our public education systems at the university
and K-12 level can thus be cloaked in the language of globalization. An
international, corporate-dominated body like the WTO is much harder to
influence from a grassroots level than even a massive bureaucracy like
a federal or state government. Governments, at least ostensibly, have elected,
accountable representatives. The WTO has no such accountability. Setting
guidelines on the content of an education is another barrier to free trade.
Governments may be forced to allow private companies to issue accredited
diplomas, even if there is little control over what is being taught by
these private institutions. The quality of education will suffer. But perhaps
more disturbing is the potential for education to increasingly serve only
as a corporate training-ground, rather than encouraging critical inquiry
and other democratically agreed-upon ends.
There are even more unsettling possibilities. If student financial aid
was challenged as an unfair government subsidy, we could see a further
narrowing of educational opportunity to a narrow elite or, more precisely,
a stratification in which class determines what sort of training you can
afford and therefore what sort of job you are qualified for. Procurement
is also targeted by GATS. Recent student victories regarding their university's
participation in the sweat shop-plagued apparel industry could be nullified
by the requirement that procurement policies not "unfairly advantage foreign
Because corporations which donate money to schools are considered investors,
GATS opens the door to increased corporate pressure from within public
education as well as outside it. Corporations could use the provision of
the WTO as a lever to restrict free speech and democracy on campus. A chilling
example is provided by the University of Wisconsin, where Reebok donated
a large sum of money on the condition that university officials be prohibited
from portraying the company in a negative light. This provision was eliminated
after students and faculty protested. But under a more comprehensive global
fee-trade regime, free speech would be less likely to triumph.
Ideologies for the Future
The corporate education paradigm is taking shape quickly. The Korean
Ministry of Labor drafted paper for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperative
(APEC) summit, with strong pro-corporate language. The paper asserts that,
"The emphasis on education for itself or on education for good members
of a community without a large emphasis on prepa rations for the future
work are no longer appropriate." Any idea that education should build democratic
culture or work towards the betterment of humanity is rejected, in favor
of molding education into the training division of the transnational corporations.
In other news...an organization, consisting of a network of universities
from 7 countries, has already applied to become an incorporated business
in Britain. Universitas 21 is the first, in an inevitable string of organizations,
that is attempting to register for commercial purposes as a group of educational
institutions. Corporations are expected to utilize this organization in
the fields of technology transfer, the commercialization of new patents,
and recruitment and training. Michael Clarke, an administrator at the University
of Birmingham, in Britain, reflects this commercial ideology, "Our business
is business, and I think this group is lucky to have been the first to
really realize that this will be the way of the future." Their are already
dozens of applications from other universities to join this organization.
With $25,000 per year dues, and a requirement that institutions be large
and research-oriented, it is easy to see how smaller universities, liberal
arts universities, and poor universities will be forced to expand, or perish.
If educational systems cannot compete, they will be taken over and assimilated.
The following institutions are already members of Universitas 21: Australia
- U. of Melbourne, U. of New South Wales, and U. of Queensland; Britain
- U. of Birmingham, U. of Edinburgh, U. of Glasgow, and U. of Nottingham;
Canada - McGill U., U. of British Columbia, and U. of Toronto; China -
Fudan U., Peking U., and U. of Hong Kong; New Zealand - U. of Auckland;
Singapore - National U. of Singapore; and United States - U. of Michigan.
Amidst all of the worries about corporatization, an important point
cannot be elided. The educational system is one of the few institutions
left in our society that is perceived to be above the bottom line. It is
supposed to foster intellectual growth, and in doing so, allow for critical
thinking. The teach-ins concerning the WTO are occurring on educational
institutions across the country. What happens when this resource is subverted
by the new global powers, and profit becomes the goal of universities?
Will teach-ins be allowed by corporate owned education? The WTO is undermining
our very means of resistance. There will be no power base to fight from
if the university becomes a business. Even worse, what happens if corporate
universities are able to retain this semblance of contribution to personal
and societal growth, and use that association to validate their existence?
What is necessary is a reframing of our questions and actions.
We cannot ask, "What corporation did what?" but rather, "Why is it that
corporations are able to do this?" How did we get to a point where corporations
had the rights of individuals and the power of governments? It is necessary
to question the notion of a corporation. What does it exist for? Does it
exist for us? We should be defining how corporations relate to us, not
allowing corporations to decide how we relate to them. With regards to
education, we must ask, "What is the purpose of education?" We must then
act to ensure that what is called education in our world is truly education.