Teaching Profession

Unions Decry Global Economy’s Education Impact

By Jeff Archer — August 08, 2001 12 min read
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Teachers’ unions from around the world have issued a collective warning about the potential downsides of globalization, contending that the new global economy based on free trade and deregulation, if left unchecked, threatens the quality of, and access to, education in rich and poor countries alike.

The alarm was sounded in this resort city near the Gulf of Thailand, where some 1,100 delegates gathered for a meeting of Education International, a worldwide coalition of labor organizations representing education employees in 154 countries, including the United States.

Throughout the July 25-29 event, known as the World Congress, attendees decried what they see as a worldwide trend toward treating education more as a commodity than as a public good. Union leaders from the most prosperous countries joined their counterparts in the developing world in accusing governments of abandoning their responsibility by privatizing and commercializing education services in the name of competition.

“We don’t want our schools to be open to the market,” Fred van Leeuwen, the general secretary of the Brussels-based EI, told the assembly. “We want them to be open to all children.”

Such was the dominant sentiment at the Congress, an event held every three years to allow representatives from member unions to help set policy for the international confederation. About 70 delegates from the two major teachers’ unions in the United States—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—were on hand this year as the body passed a resolution opposing continuing efforts to liberalize international trade in education services. Delegates also adopted resolutions calling for debt cancellation for developing nations and demanding that trade agreements include conditions on labor standards, such as a ban on child labor and a guaranteed right to form unions.

Losing Control

Once little more than a vague buzzword, “globalization” has become a fiercely debated issue in recent years. Though the term’s meaning tends to shift, it usually refers to the increasing move toward integrating economies through trade liberalization and investment by multinational business interests.

Its ability to raise the ire of such diverse groups as environmentalists, human-rights advocates, and blue-collar workers was demonstrated in 1999 when a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle prompted several days of sometimes-violent protest. And just last month, similar protesters seized the world spotlight as the leaders of major industrialized countries met in Genoa, Italy.

At the heart of the debate is the question of whether the global economy is benefiting only businesses and the wealthy or if it has the potential to lift all people, economically and socially.

Some argue that lowering trade barriers helps disadvantaged nations by allowing them to connect better to the world market. But others maintain that the new interdependence leaves many workers, particularly those in poor countries, at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control.

Critics also point to the intense focus on the bottom line by governments and corporations vying for advantage in the marketplace—a situation that leaves little room for addressing such problems as pollution, political oppression, and poor working conditions, they maintain.

“The workers of the world have not seen their human rights globalized; the only thing that has been globalized has been profit,” Marta Maffei declared at the Education International conference. (The Argentine teachers’ union leader, like a number of other conference participants, spoke through an interpreter.)

Still, many at the Thailand gathering—whose theme was Educating in a Global Economy— acknowledged that some aspects of the trend have been positive. With globalization, students and educators face a world “filled with daunting risks, but also filled with exciting opportunities,” said EI President Mary Hatwood Futrell, a former president of the NEA.

The same advances in information technology that are fueling growth in transnational investment, some here pointed out, also put many new education services within the reach of some of the world’s remotest regions.

The key, EI officials emphasized, is not to oppose the development of a global economy, but to find ways to make it function for the benefit of working people.

On balance, however, many here said the move so far toward free trade and privatization of public services has meant a net loss for their school systems.

Take, for example, the situation of teachers in much of the Caribbean, where Adolph Cameron, the secretary general of the Jamaica Teachers Association, said his members are starting to feel the sting of trade liberalization. As a former part of the British empire, Jamaica has long enjoyed an exemption from import taxes on its bananas in the European market, he said.

But with banana producers elsewhere complaining that the tariffs placed on their own products violate the intent of international free-trade agreements, those barriers are being phased out. The result, said Mr. Cameron, is a sharp drop in income derived from one of his country’s most important crops at a time when schools are charging families fees to help cover the cost of education.

“Parents are employed in the industry, and when they lose their jobs, that will have consequences for their efforts to educate their children,” he said in an interview here. “And we have found that in our banana-producing areas, there has been a falloff in attendance in schools, because parents cannot afford to provide for it.”

‘Running in Reverse’

Educators from many developing nations complained here of feeling squeezed by the effects of globalization.

The increasing use in such countries of cost-sharing policies, in which governments charge fees for services once wholly supported by taxes, means that families are paying more for education out of their own pockets. And yet, the volatility of prices on the world market can quickly deal a serious blow to a country’s economy, making it harder for parents to afford those fees.

“People remember a time when these services were free, and it wasn’t that long ago,” said Frances Vavrus, speaking from Teachers College, Columbia University. “And they remember a time when their crops were earning a lot more. So they’re hit from both sides, and caught in between are teachers and parents and students.”

An assistant professor in the college’s department of international and transcultural studies, Ms. Vavrus has observed the impact of those trends on school attendance in her research in Tanzania.

“Most of us in the U.S., and a large segment of the Third World, have grown to believe that education leads to a better life,” she said. “But now, you have parents who have had better education than their children because they can’t afford to send them to school, or, if they can, the schooling is of a much lower quality. It’s almost like history running in reverse.”

Blaming the Moneylenders

Representatives here from many less-developed nations laid considerable blame for the plights of their troubled school systems on such organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which provide countries with financial and technical aid.

The two institutions— which have repeatedly been tagged as villains by the critics of globalization— were accused of coercing governments to enact such policies as cost-sharing as a way to rein in spending as a condition of receiving aid.

John Katumanga, the president of the 210,000-member Kenya National Union of Teachers, maintains that it was pressure from those institutions that led the Kenyan government to start charging parents school fees in 1992 and later to renege on a promise to raise teachers’ salaries. Currently in Kenya, he said, the government pays for school personnel, but families must raise the money to cover all other expenses, including school buildings and textbooks.

“Parents are paying colossal sums of money,” he said. “Many of them have sold property to get the money to pay the fees, like land and animals. So a lot of children are not in schools. And in particular these are girls, because in an African setting, if you have to choose between sending a boy or a girl to school, you’ll send your son to school.”

Although recognizing the serious problems faced by educators in many less-developed nations, officials at the World Bank and the IMF respond that to blame them is to misunderstand their role. For one thing, they say, governments seek out the help of the two groups when their countries are already in financial crisis.

“It’s easy to point at the fire brigade as being at fault for the fire,” Jozef Ritzen, a vice president with the bank’s human-development division in Washington, said in a telephone interview.

What’s more, while the World Bank and the IMF require that the countries they help make efforts to control spending, it is those governments that ultimately decide where to cut and what services to privatize, officials with both groups said. Some countries, for instance, cut education instead of military spending.

“We have no policy whatsoever that is designed to attack education, and in fact, we view social expenditures as some of the most productive expenditures that can be made,” said William Murray, an IMF spokesman at the organization’s Washington office. But, he added, “we do not have such power that we can overturn sovereign decisions.”

The Education Trade

Discussions at Education International’s meeting here also made clear that the evolution of a global economy is fast becoming an issue of concern for educators in more prosperous nations as well. Many worry that the increased international trade in education services poses serious challenges to efforts to maintain professional standards and raise the quality of instruction.

Some of the most immediate concerns focused on the provision of distance learning in higher education and the growing practice of recruiting teachers by one country to work in another.

While EI officials say no teachers should be denied the opportunity to work overseas, they also argue that less-developed countries should be adequately compensated for those educators they lose to school systems in wealthier regions.

“In Britain, we’re now getting teachers imported from all parts of the world, and obviously that has a depressing effect on the wages of British teachers,” said Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers in England."At the same time, we’re robbing countries that are much poorer than we are of the teachers they desperately need to educate their population so they can compete more effectively in the international marketplace.”

Unions representing college and university educators argue that it is their sector that faces the most immediate challenges stemming from trade in education services. International consortia of higher education institutions and so-called corporate universities are now offering their instruction online to consumers worldwide.

The problem, union leaders contend, isn’t just that traditional colleges and universities face greater competition from less expensive “virtual” schools. They also argue that education provided by the Internet isn’t bound by the same kind of quality- control measures, such as regional accreditation, that apply to regular postsecondary institutions.

“I think our experiences in the university sector are a precursor for possible developments later on in vocational education and in the public school sectors,” said Grahame McCulloch, the general secretary of the Australia National Tertiary Education Union.

Indeed, many here said they see reason to believe that could soon happen, and they pointed to the growing interest in education by the World Trade Organization, through which member countries set the ground rules for trade.

The WTO’s new General Agreement on Trade in Services is set up to allow member countries to pick from among a list of specific education services for which they want to liberalize trade. So far, the United States has agreed to do so in higher education, but not with K-12 education services. Another series of WTO meetings is set to take place in November in Qatar.

Some union officials believe that education policymakers’ ability to maintain standards of quality would be diminished if free trade were expanded to include elementary and secondary education.

Though the prospect is hypothetical at this point, the union representatives suggest that liberalizing international trade could result in the loosening of domestic rules on everything from who can open and operate a school to who can work as a teacher. The fear is that exporting countries could then argue that regulations aimed at ensuring high quality are actually protectionist measures meant to keep out their service providers, and they could then seek to have those regulations lifted.

The GATS pact would allow companies to move easily across borders, and if there were any obstacles, a company would have the opportunity to challenge that as a trade barrier, said Joe Davis, a member of the U.S. delegation here representing the American Federation of Teachers.

“The perception in Washington is that the U.S. has a comparative advantage in education, and if we open up our borders, we will be the beneficiaries of that,” Mr. Davis said. “But if you open up our borders to the export of educational services, it’s a quid pro quo that we also have to open our borders to other countries for trading in those same services.”

Others, however, say that liberalizing trade doesn’t mean a country must lower its own regulatory standards, only that it must apply the same standards to both domestic and foreign providers.

Moreover, some suggest that new trade agreements on K-12 services are much more likely to have a direct impact on the market for such items as textbooks and testing products than on teachers and schools.

Stephen Heyneman, a professor of international education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., predicts that teachers hired from abroad will never account for more than 1 percent or 2 percent of the U.S. teaching force. But at the same time, by lowering costs, it’s possible that increased trade could put some important services, such as tutoring, within the reach of more families, he suggested.

“This won’t be on the scale that it was in manufacturing, where companies downloaded their manufacturing production to places like Mexico and Thailand,” said Mr. Heyneman, also a former official at the World Bank.

Taking Action

Education International doesn’t want to take any chances. Delegates to the World Congress passed a resolution opposing the inclusion of education services in the General Agreement on Trade in Services, and they pledged to raise public awareness on the issue as the WTO’s fall meeting approaches.

“Some argue that the train has already left the station, but we have pulled the emergency brake, and the train seems to be slowing down,” Mr. van Leeuwen, the EI’s general secretary, told the World Congress. “We must continue mobilizing public opinion and prevent governments from opening up education services if they have not already done so.

“Otherwise, we must insist on the involvement of education ministries before any commitment is made.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Unions Decry Global Economy’s Education Impact


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