EI-ETUCE-AEU-IEU-NTEU Joint Statement on the ongoing trade negotiations between EU and Australia

29 July 2019

The trade negotiations between Australia and the European Union (EU) were launched on 18 June 2018. So far, four rounds of negotiations have taken place and the last round of negotiations took place in Brussels on 1-5 July 2019. Despite that the negotiations have now been ongoing for a year the level of transparency and consultations with unions are so far too limited. Teachers and other education employees from Australia and the member states of the European Union are highly concerned about the implications for maintaining and further developing high-quality public education in both jurisdictions and are calling for education to be explicitly carved out of the deal.

Education International and its member organisations in Australia and Europe have followed with concern the negotiations between Australia and EU since the talks were proposed. The information about the timing of the rounds of negotiation as well as the content of the negotiations are strongly limited. There is no structure, such as a stakeholder forum, put in place for unions and civil society organisations to exchange views with the trade negotiators in connection to the rounds of negotiations.

Education International and its member organisations in Australia and Europe request to be consulted on a pro-active and continuous basis by the Australian government and the European Commission respectively regarding education related issues, including the EU-Australia trade agreement. While DG Trade is negotiating on behalf of the European Union it is important that other relevant DGs are involved and consulted by DG Trade, in this case in particular DG EAC and DG EMPL.

Education International and its member organisations in Australia and Europe are calling for education to be explicitly carved out of the deal. Commercial trade rules must never restrict the ability of governments and designated public authorities to provide high-quality public services like education.

Indeed, the information published by DG Trade of the European Commission (EC) is also limited. While a few textual proposals are available on the DG Trade website, crucial documents are absent. In particular it is revealing that the EC has not published the EU’s market access offers. In the EC document published on services and investment public education is mentioned in article 1.1.2:

“The Parties reaffirm the right to regulate within their territories to achieve legitimate policy objectives, such as the protection of public health, social services, public education, safety, the environment including climate change, public morals, social or consumer protection, privacy and data protection, or the promotion and protection of cultural diversity.”

This article gives rise to concerns for education unions in Australia and member states of the European Union. In particular, it is worrying that there is no definition of “legitimate” policy objectives and “public education”. The education systems in Australia and EU member states are characterised by the presence of a mix of public and private providers. What constitutes “public education” is therefore subject to differing legal interpretations. We believe the most effective way to protect high-quality education in Australia and the EU is to include a general exclusion or carve-out for education as a whole.Current language, such as that in the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) that provides an exemption for “services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority” has been shown to be unclear and open to conflicting interpretations. A more definitive and broad exclusion is needed.

In terms of trade in services, initial implications became visible in a joint press release by former Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, who stated that this Free Trade Agreement (FTA) “will look to lock in access and create new commercially meaningful opportunities for Australian services exporters with a focus on education, financial and professional services”.

Explicitly including the education sector as a targeted area of the trade agreement underlines an important concern in terms of potential consequences of privatisation and commercialisation of education. Both the EU and Australia have exchanged similar views and confirmed their strong mutual interest in a highly ambitious result for market access liberalisation.

Australia is well-known as an important exporter of higher education. Internationalisation of higher education has become a lucrative and important export market. Education unions in Australia and member states of the European Union stress the negative consequences of privatisation and commercialisation in education which enhances employment precariousness in the teaching profession, leads to inequalities regarding access, completion and quality of education and jeopardises academic freedom, especially in the case of higher education.

Similarly, on digital trade/e-commerce, the EU and Australia explained their respective approaches, both confirming the objective of being “highly ambitious and forward-looking” on this topic. Given the negotiations on digital trade/e-commerce and domestic regulations and the lack of clarity on the repercussions on the education sector, including the potential forms that digital trade/e-commerce would merge in the provision of education services, such as different forms of online education. These services offer new opportunities but also raise potential concerns regarding personal information and data collection from students, restricted access to materials and research, and homogenization of educational materials that may result in lost local content. These rules also raise potential employment issues since the e-commerce may entice some government to shift away from local education delivery to lower cost online alternatives.

In addition, intellectual property provisions could have a crucial impact on education systems. Intellectual property, and in particular copyright, has assumed an increasing prominence in recent trade agreements, where there has been a steady effort to adopt stricter copyright rules that may have an adverse effect on education. These provisions include copyright term extension, anti-circumvention rules, and restrictions on limitations and exceptions. The cumulative effect is that teachers and students face more restrictive rules in the use of materials, higher costs, and less flexibility in the classroom.

26 July 2019

Education International (EI) is the Global Union Federation of teachers and education support personnel. It represents 32 million workers through 391 national organisations in 176 countries and territories. The European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) is EI’s European region. The Australian Education Union (AEU), the Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU) and the National Tertiary Education Union of Australia (NTEU) are affiliated to Education International.