Higher education is of great interest to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in its negotiations under the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS). Adopted by the member nations of the World Trade Organization in 1994, GATS establishes a process that encourages the removal of barriers to trade in services. As the United States positions itself as a prime exporter of "information services," higher education is becoming a hot property in GATS negotiations.

Under GATS, member nations make specific "requests" of other nations; then, by an agreed deadline, each nation responds with an "offer" describing the trade barriers it is willing to remove or reduce. If negotiations between two nations succeed, they result in a commitment to trade certain services under certain circumstances. Under GATS rules, the terms of the commitment would also apply to all other member nations. The United States's most recent offer, issued in March, includes higher education. Negotiations are under way until January .

When a nation makes a commitment with regard to a service, GATS applies some general rules unless a nation lists a specific exception to them. Market access rules require each nation to remove regulatory or other barriers that might keep foreign providers out of their domestic markets. National treatment rules require member nations to treat foreign suppliers as favorably as domestic suppliers. Two other rules apply, even to sectors for which a country has not made a specific commitment: transparency and most-favored-nation status. Transparency requires member nations to publicize any government measure that affects trade in services. Under the most-favored-nation rule, member nations must give all other nations the same advantages that they extend to their "most favored" trading partner.

The offer recently tendered by the U.S. Trade Representative expresses "no intention to promote the privatization of public educational institutions." But the effect of including higher education in GATS commitments may prove otherwise. As negotiations on GATS continue, the AAUP is raising concerns in the areas of accreditation, distance education, and publicly funded research, among others.

In the United States, a voluntary system of accreditation ensures the quality of higher education. Professionals on the faculty and the administrations of accredited institutions in six regions nationwide write and enforce quality standards. Although accreditation is a nongovernmental activity, both governmental and nongovernmental entities rely on the process for many purposes, including determination of institutional eligibility for student aid programs and state and local certification of the academic degrees of regulated professionals.

As a practical matter, accreditation excludes some providers from offering higher education services, and it involves a somewhat subjective application of a constantly evolving set of regional standards. The GATS transparency rule requires a clear statement of any regulations that might prevent a provider from offering services in a particular country, and the market access rule requires the removal of such barriers. Therefore, by its nature, accreditation could run afoul of these rules, and any GATS commitments the United States makes on higher education will need to include a specific exception addressing accreditation.

Distance education media-everything from books to online programs-are a prime higher education export. Ensuring the quality and credibility of courses obtained from distance education companies is, however, already a serious challenge for U.S. accreditors and colleges. The United States should therefore agree not to export distance education products marketed as higher education courses unless those courses would be accepted for transfer credits in the United States. Without such an assurance, our trading partners risk receiving low-quality commercial products that bear no relationship to the U.S. higher education system.

Under the national treatment rule, government subsidies must be made available to foreign providers on an equal basis with domestic providers, unless a nation lists an exception to this rule. The number of government grants for research free of commercial participation is already shrinking. Although international academic collaboration is essential for scientific progress, international commercial competition for limited U.S. government funds will likely choke out important research pursuits.

Based on these and other concerns, the AAUP believes that including higher education in GATS may pose a threat to the vitality of public and private nonprofit institutions while favoring the commercial success of private companies proposing to offer higher education in domestic and international markets. Careful and sensitive negotiations will be required to ensure the survival of the motley conglomeration of accredited public and private nonprofit colleges and universities that together have nurtured and enriched this country for generations.

Ruth Flower is AAUP director of public policy and communications.

Copyright American Association of University Professors Jul/Aug
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All Rights Reserved

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