- by Bill Rosenberg
Education is one of New Zealand’s second largest services “exports”, behind tourism. Just to describe education in this way shows how twisted “trade” thinking has become. Pushing “education exports” is high on the Government’s negotiating priorities, both as an earner of foreign exchange when trade in agriculture is struggling, and because the Government has made State schools and universities dependent on that income to compensate for their chronic underfunding.
The paradox is that there is no evidence that GATS commitments have done anything to address the so-called “barriers” to New Zealand education institutions seeking international students, setting up offshore campuses, or selling their consultancy and qualification services offshore. Yet the Government has locked New Zealand’s liberalisation of private education in through GATS commitments and has “requested” other governments to do the same – even governments like South Africa whose Minister of Education has expressed outrage at the idea.
As part of New Zealand’s support for the European Union’s (EU) moves to “up the ante” in the GATS negotiations, our trade officials announced in November 2005 that New Zealand is initiating a “Friends of Private Education Exports” group in the WTO. This step was taken without consultation with interested parties in the education sector, and without Cabinet approval. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade states that the group is to “seek commitments on private education from members that constitute priority education markets”. The purpose is “to inject greater momentum into the WTO Doha Round services negotiations”. It is clearly responding to EU demands, which make extensive opening of services markets a condition of its offers in agriculture.
There is no evidence that the domestic implications of this initiative have been considered. The Government is currently trying to mop up the mess in the tertiary education sector resulting from activities of private education providers. There is widespread concern both as to the quality of their offerings, and their duplication of high quality courses offered by the public education system. Only two to three years ago, a boom and bust in private English Language Schools caused great disruption to students, staff and other institutions, and threatened the international reputation of New Zealand’s entire education system. The Government appears unworried at the hypocritical spectacle of reining in the private sector at home, while acting as the leading “Friend of Private Education Exports” abroad. For its part, the Government insists that this “Friend’ is only to promote export opportunities in private, not public education. Michael Cullen, the Minister of Tertiary Education, was typically dismissive. “One can jump at shadows on the wall in that respect, but they are puppet shadows, not real ones” (Tertiary Update [Association of University Staff weekly newsletter], 24/11/05; “Questions Remain For Universities Over Trade Agreements”).
While technically, this proposal makes no change in New Zealand’s GATS commitments or domestic policies, in practice, it will undermine the Government’s ability to control the private sector. Private educational companies and institutions establishing themselves in New Zealand in increasing numbers will put pressure on the Government to allow them to expand and get government funding. GATS will prevent the Government from regulating their number, type, or legal form. For example, while the Government has declared it wants to limit the number of public universities, it would not be legal under GATS to limit the number of private universities. Nor could it require private institutions to be non-profit or have staff and student representation on their boards, nor to limit the number of private English Language Schools in any locality to ensure their viability or availability.
Overseas owned private pre-school companies are already operating in New Zealand; this initiative will encourage more private entry into the pre-school and primary sector. It may lead to extensions of New Zealand GATS commitments to Adult Education, one of the most difficult areas to regulate. There is additional pressure in the WTO to change the GATS rules on Domestic Regulation. That would control standards, licensing, and qualifications in ways which curtail our ability to control the quality of these institutions.
The great majority of educationists internationally, including European Ministers responsible for culture and education, University and College associations, student representative groups, and virtually all the major education unions, agree that international education should not be governed by a commercially-oriented agreement such as GATS. We have made that demand of successive New Zealand governments ever since we became aware that education was being included in the Uruguay round. All we have secured is empty promises. It is time for a renewed campaign among the real “friends of education” so this latest foolhardy “trade” strategy can be knocked on its head.
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