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Trade in Higher Education and GATS

How is education defined in the GATS?
Why trade in education?
Which countries are opening their education sectors for trade?
When are the next phases of the GATS negotiations?
What is the role of the UNESCO Conventions?


How is education defined in the GATS?
Trade in educational services is based on 5 sub-sectors of education as categorized by the United Nations Provisional Central Product Classification (CPC). These sub-sectors are: primary education , secondary education, higher education, adult education and other.

The 3 categories most relevant to tertiary education are: higher education; post secondary technical and vocational education services; and other education services.

Higher education covers post secondary technical and vocational education services as well as other higher education programmes leading to a university degree or equivalent.

Adult education covers education for adults outside the regular education system.

Other education covers all education services not classified elsewhere and excludes education services related to recreation matters.

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Why trade in education?
Trade in higher education is a million dollar business. The demand for higher education, on the one side, is growing, while on the other side, trans-border education (e.g. private or for-profit higher foreign university campuses, IT Academies, twinning arrangements with other universities, corporate universities, virtual universities, open universities, e-universities etc.) is increasing. The capacity of the public sector has not kept up with this demand. This coupled with the recent developments of ICTs and the ensuing growth in online learning has resulted in the creation of this very lucrative market.

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Which countries are opening their education sectors for trade?
Education, overall, is one of the least committed sectors. Only 44 of the 144 WTO Members have made commitments in education, and only 21 of these have included commitments to higher education: Australia, Czech Republic, Jamaica, Liechtenstein, Norway, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Congo RP, European Community, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Slovak Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Hungary, Lesotho, New Zealand, Poland, Slovenia, Turkey.

Only 4 countries have to date submitted a negotiating proposal outlining their interest and issues in the education sector. These countries, in order of presentation of negotiating proposals are: United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.

Negotiating proposals outline the role of government, rationale/purpose of trade liberalization; benefits of trade liberalizaton; public private mix.

More information on the specific national GATS commitments in education.

More information on negotiating proposals to date.

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When are the next phases of the GATS negotiations?
Key dates for the next phases of GATS negotiations are:
30 June 2002 - Countries will file initial requests asking trading partners to open their markets in services areas.

31 March 2003 - Countries that were the subjects of requests will present offers to open their markets in service areas. Trading partners will hold meetings and discussions. Overall, if insufficient agreement is reached regarding higher education, the sector could be part of a new round of global negotiations after the conclusion of talks in January 2005.

January 2005 - GATS negotiations conclude.

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What is the role of the UNESCO Conventions?
The UNESCO Conventions on the recognition of qualifications represent the only existing regulatory frameworks fro transborder mutual recognition of qualifications. These Conventions have been ratified by over 100 Member States in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Arab States, Europe and Latin America.

Similar to the GATS, the UNESCO Conventions aim to promote international cooperation in higher education and to reduce obstacles to the mobility of teachers and students by a mutual recognition of degrees and qualifications between the countries that have ratified them.

Both the Conventions and the GATS are administered by the Intergovernmental organizations of world-wide coverage. UNESCO is the specialized agency of the United Nations system for education, science, culture and communication with 188 Member States. The WTO is the more recently established world trade organization with 144 Member States.

The basic difference, however lies in the purpose of concluding these international agreements. While the UNESCO Conventions are concluded for the purpose of advancing what Jane Knight (2002) calls 'non-profit internationalization', the GATS promotes trade in higher education services for the purposes of market liberalization.

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References :
European Commission's Info-Point on World Trade in Services GATS Commitments by Sector. Prepared by the European Commission, Directorate General for Trade in Education. Available from Legal Texts and Commitments 'GATS Commitments by Sector'.

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (2002) Trade in Higher Education Services: The Implications of GATS, prepared by Jane Knight. This report is provided here, courtesy of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Further resources and information relating to developments in borderless higher education are available on the Observatory's website.

UNESCO Conventions on the Recognition of Studies. Available from the UNESCO Studying Abroad 'Conventions on the Recognition of Studies'.

WTO The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS): Objectives, coverage and disciplines. Prepared by the WTO Secretariat. Available from the World Trade Organization 'Services:GATS'.

WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services. Prepared from the WTO Secretariat. Available from the World Trade Organization 'Services: Agreement'.

WTO Services: rules for growth and investment. Prepared by the WTO Secretariat. Available from the World Trade Organization 'Trading into the future: The introduction to the WTO.


This section is prepared in the framework of the Global Forum on the International Dimensions of Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Diplomas. It will be regularly updated. Please send us your suggestions.

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