Opinion
Accountability Commentary

Trading Coffee, Computer Chips, and Degrees in Education

By Lois Weiner — October 18, 2005 4 min read
Unless we keep higher education from being included as a tradeable commodity in the next round of GATS negotiations, schools in this country are likely to be transformed before we realize what has happened.

How is a college degree different from coffee, textiles, steel, and computer parts?

According to Washington’s most powerful lobbyists and politicians, it’s not. Education, lower and higher, is a “commodity” to be priced, bought, and sold. With bipartisan backing, U.S. negotiators are pressing to include education as a tradeable commodity in trade treaties. If they have their way, the General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS, an international treaty, will allow for-profit companies to offer degrees in the United States, with no oversight or control by local education authorities.

Researchers in Canada have identified and publicized the detrimental impact global trade agreements have on public education, both higher and lower. (See the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation Web site, at bctf.ca/social/globalization.) In the United States, this information has been hard to come by. Our lack of attention to the issue is understandable, because schools have so many other concerns that assume crisis proportions, such as budget shortfalls, violence, and the need to push test scores up to avoid penalties. But it is hard to underestimate the changes that can and probably will result if GATS includes education, as the U.S. government wants.

The GATS treaty already allows vocational training to be traded as a service. Opposition from many governments in Latin America, combined with activity from global justice organizations and teachers’ unions in much of the world, has stalled expansion to the other sectors of schooling, from preschool through university, as the proponents of “free trade” advocate for their inclusion. Master’s-degree-granting institutions, which prepare most of the teachers in this country, will likely experience the greatest impact. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, of the roughly 500,000 master’s degrees awarded annually in the United States, about one-quarter are in education. Master’s degrees in education are seen as a lucrative market by for-profits, primarily online universities that outsource teaching. Online for-profit universities, many of them run by transnational corporations based in other countries, are poised to penetrate the U.S. market, using low-paid adjunct faculty members. Increasingly, faculty members in online for-profits live outside the United States, in countries that contain large numbers of well-educated English-speakers.

State governments now have regulations that establish institutional requirements for colleges and universities to be accredited, and can require teachers to have degrees from accredited institutions. Won’t transnational corporations be required to abide by these same standards? And what about school district regulations that prohibit teachers from using online courses or degrees from unaccredited institutions for salary advancement? As the Canadian researcher Marjorie Cohen notes, if higher education is included in new treaties, local regulations that transnational corporations claim discriminate against them are highly vulnerable. They may well be seen as inhibiting free trade. GATS can override local laws through international courts that rule on trade disputes.

Master’s degrees in education are seen as a lucrative market by for-profits, primarily online universities that outsource teaching.

For-profit universities are betting that any country that is a signatory to GATS will be an open market, allowing it to offer degrees that must be considered the equivalent of those awarded by public institutions, for all purposes, including certification of teachers or salary advancement. If the profits of a transnational company are jeopardized by state regulations, the corporation can take the case to the World Trade Organization as a restraint of trade. Precisely this situation occurred in Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement: No-fault laws in Ontario that limited legal suits in auto accidents were overturned when a U.S. insurance company sued in the international tribunal.

Though we don’t generally consider the World Trade Organization a regulatory agency, its authority trumps our courts. Once a nation signs on to WTO pacts, it must accept rulings of WTO tribunals, whose proceedings are held in secret. Even more frightening, signatories to GATS agree that they can not pull out of a treaty, even if voters subsequently direct their government to do so.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have been painfully aware of the nation’s physical vulnerability to attack and the need to be alert in ways we never before imagined. At the same time, however, we are ignoring an assault on American education. Expansion of the GATS agreement to include education would threaten our ability to regulate the kinds of degrees and educational experiences we want our teachers to have. Unless we keep higher education from being included as a tradeable commodity in the next round of GATS negotiations, schools in this country are likely to be transformed before we realize what has happened.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Trading Coffee, Computer Chips, and Degrees in Education

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