Greedy investors eye education as “the new gold”

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23 October 2018

Education’s fate as a service commodity, to be traded in the interests of profit-making, is sealed in major international agreements on the brink of being signed, writes Susan Robertson, professor of education at Cambridge University.

By Susan Robertson


As the minutes ticked down to the final boarding call for my train from London to Brussels, I was furiously typing up notes from a research report I had just read on the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). The young man sitting next to me said he was impressed by how rapidly I was typing. The conversation turned to what I did and what I was researching. I said I was a sociologist of education at a United Kingdom university, and one of the things I was researching was global trade deals.

“You work on global trade negotiations, but you’re a sociologist of education?” he said, with more than a hint of incredulity in his voice.

“Quite,” I replied.

“But if education is included in trade deals, and seen as trade, what does this do to education as a public service?” he asked.

“Quite,” I replied again. “It changes it dramatically.”

I went on to explain that, since the launch of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, major efforts have been underway by interested countries and peak interest groups to include all levels of education in the agreements between member states, with education seen as a services sector, along with finance, health, transport, etc.

This was not the first time a casual conversation on education and global trade deals had ended with a sense of incredulity. And for sure it will not be the last as the deals swing into action.

I am referring to the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Europe and Canada; EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement; Trans-Pacific Partnership between a number of the Pacific Rim countries, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and Europe, and TiSA, between the so-called ‘friends of services’ involving mostly Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development countries, plus a few more.

Eyeing profits

What do all of these agreements have in common?

The first is that education is included as a tradeable services sector – in large part because it can’t be excluded, given the criteria for exclusion being that it is supplied “in the exercise of governmental authority” and “neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with one or more service providers” (WTO, GATS Article 1.3). Try to think of any country where the state is the only provider of education, and where the service is provided without any hint of competition in the sector. Three decades of neoliberal policies in education has created the conditions for including education in trade.

The status of education as a genuine ‘public service’ in many countries has been precisely what the struggle over the privatisation of education is about. Countries and corporations have eyed up the profits to be made if education were to be constructed as a private good, bought and sold in the marketplace according to market rules and, in turn, protected by trade rules. To do this, public education sectors have been pushed to ‘unbundle’ and to think of their activities as ‘bundles of services’ – the lucrative ones being hived off to profit-seeking firms.

Families, concerned publics and educators have rightly pointed out that education is not a bundle of services to be regulated by trade rules. Education, despite all of its weaknesses in making more equal societies, is nevertheless a key institution in creating societies and political citizens. Education, as a key sector in the social contract, must not service narrow economic interests.

The responsibility of all national governments, enshrined in international declarations, is that they must ensure that good-quality, free public education is available as a human right and societal good, and the basis on which to participate as an informed citizen with political entitlements.

The future trap

The second element that many of these agreements have in common is that they represent efforts to limit the possibility of governments moving in the direction of more national ownership into the future. Causes such as ‘standstill’, ‘ratchet’ and ‘negative list’ mean a country can’t reverse away from where it currently is, in the direction of less market. Add to this the ‘ratchet effect’ and this essentially means that the only direction of travel for future policy is to become progressively organised through the market and open to investors.

A third element in common is lack of transparency. Most of the negotiations have been carried out in secret. Yet despite the centrality of education to people’s lives, in effect, global trade deals that include education make hollow any promise
of democracy.

It is clear that the current round of global trade deals aims to hasten the liberalisation of education, loosening the protections around who can invest in what. This means transnational firms, as well as professionals (such as teachers and academics) and other experts, being able to move over national borders more easily, under mutual recognition clauses. This will profoundly challenge the nature of professional knowledge and who gets to regulate it. Efforts will be made to regulate intellectual property and cross-border information flows in ways that suit the large tech corporations rather than the knowledge producers
and users.

Labour chapters in the agreements – while promising protections for workers – are largely hollow. Current poor conditions for teachers are not seen as a breach of labour rights, and only an erosion of already poor conditions will be considered. Further, cases of breaches can only be taken by governments, and not worker unions. Not all governments take the side of workers, and indeed
the opposite is mostly the case.

We need to remind greedy investors whose hopes are that education is the new gold that we are in a battle to secure education as a societal good and public service. In acting, we need to make visible and contest the wheeling and dealing over including education in global trade agreements for what it is: a toxic mix of crude capitalism in profiteering from education.

This is an edited extract from an article first published by Education International and appeared in the Australian Educator Spring 2018.