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contact 180/MDE:

180/Movement for Democracy and 
     Education Clearinghouse 
c/o UW Greens Infoshop
31 University Square
Madison, WI 53715
USA

Ph: (608) 256-7081
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180-Movement for Democracy and Education

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 it.

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:

  • 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 administration;
  • Remove barriers to greater cross-boarder trade;
  • Remove obstacles to the free movement of people and business information.
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.

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 producers."

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.

Stifling Resistance

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.