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Unrestricted Trade In NZ Education Of Major Concern

26 September 2001

The future of New Zealand's public education system may be threatened by the global free trade agreement, GATS, which allows foreign private education providers to operate here without restriction, warns a paper presented today at the New Zealand Educational Institute's 118th Annual Meeting in Wellington.

The paper, Cattle and Classrooms - the Kiwi commodities: The Global Free Trade of Education, said for the past seven years education, along with health care, libraries and other traditional public services, had been included in the little understood global trade agreement known as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

About 140 countries belong to GATS, which was organised by the World Trade Organisation (run by former New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore). The aim of GATS was to liberalise and increase international trade of services - including education, which accounted for US$2 trillion dollars of the world's economy each year. The paper was presented at the launch of the NZEI Te Riu Roa Occasional Papers - research and information papers for members - during the four-day Annual Meeting, which has attracted about 400 members and invited guests.

The paper on GATS said countries signed up particular areas or types of services in which they agreed to treat foreign interests the same as domestic interests. Despite being allowed to make trade reservations on any service, New Zealand had become one of the least restrictive countries in GATS by putting far more of its public services in the agreement than other countries.

"We are among only 30 countries that have made commitments relating to education. Most of those have retained some reservations over particular areas of their education system. New Zealand has not," the paper stated.

A major concern with GATS was that each time member countries entered into a round of negotiations, they were required to liberalise more and were not allowed to move back to greater state intervention in any sector. The next round of GATS negotiations was in Qatar in November.

"The rules of GATS affect all laws, practices, regulations and delegated powers. They prohibit the government or any other body in the country with government authority, such as city councils or the Education Review Office, from discriminating against foreign corporations or investors."

This also had implications for such things as the yet-to-be established Teachers Council, the government funding or subsidy of public education and on the training of teachers in New Zealand, which could all be considered as "trade barriers" to foreign investors.

"But the areas most likely to be affected by GATS are the early childhood and tertiary sectors, where a large number of private providers already exist and receive government subsidies," the report said. These two sectors were in danger of being taken over by multi-national investors.

International education now accounted for 0.5 percent of New Zealand's gross domestic product - nearly twice the size of our fishing industry.

"In order to protect New Zealand's education system from the adverse effects of GATS and free trade, we need to either remove privatisation from our education sector or fundamentally alter the nature of the GATS agreement," the report concluded.

Press Release by NZ Educational Institute

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