Will the GATS close on higher education?

After extended talks in Nairobi, India and other member countries of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) signed the ministerial agreement on December 19. At the forefront of the talks was India’s struggle to get developed countries to agree to reduce their food subsidies, which are perceived to be adversely affecting farmers from developing nations. India and the U.S. resolved differences over public stockholding of foodgrains, with the U.S. agreeing to an indefinite “peace clause” which protects member countries from being challenged under other WTO agreements. The document released by the WTO also states that developed countries will remove export subsidies immediately, while developing nations will do so by 2018. Almost everything that has been agreed upon has qualifiers and is time-bound, and all this will be discussed by experts. But what has been stunning in the agreement is the lack of dialogue and social concern about the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) agenda — of offering for global trade, as commodities, services such as higher education; health; life insurance; research and development in the physical sciences, social sciences, humanities; and so on.

The WTO document refers to a waiver, according to which the non-least developed country (LDC) members can give preference to services and service providers from LDCs. This will be in place for another 15 years. India is categorised as a developing country, a non-LDC. As of now, 35 countries which have been classified as LDCs by the United Nations have become members of the WTO, with Afghanistan being the latest to join as a member during the Nairobi conference. Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said that India has negotiated hard to ensure that the interests of the LDCs and the developing countries are kept at the centre of the WTO agenda. With India looking to play a greater role in the South Asian region, this might be a persuasive argument. But while this is laudable, there are other pieces to the puzzle that do not add up.

India has the youngest population in the world. With half its people below the age of 25, it faces the challenge of educating its youth and preparing them for taking up employment both within the country and outside. In this context, it has been mooted that the entry of foreign education providers would help in a big way. Also, while such educational exchanges have already been happening, they have largely been unregulated. The usual argument favouring entry into the GATS rests on the need for foreign support in educating Indian youth and for regulating this as a trade. But much lies beneath these simple arguments. Talk of increasing the Gross Enrolment Ratio in Higher Education from the present 13 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020 may, for instance, remain a pipe dream.

A level playing field is what the GATS would enforce, but the field would be level only for the traders, not for society at large. In a country like India where a large fraction of people are still first-generation learners, ensuring equitable development is paramount. Yet, when education is treated as a tradable commodity, there can be no concessions on social justice mores. The government cannot even continue to subsidise its own institutions or support needy students through scholarships or reservation policies, as those would be interpreted as unfair trade practices. Hard-won policies of equity and constitutional guarantees would be reduced to mere rhetoric. Any disputes that arise in this regime would have to be referred not to the judiciary but to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body.

A horror story

The middle class cannot be too overjoyed either that the flouting of reservation norms would mean greater opportunities for them. In a GATS regime, there would be no means of ensuring that only high-quality universities enter the fray to set up shop, nor would there be any means of controlling the cost of education they provide. This has all the makings of a horror story in a country where education loans have become morale-sapping burdens in the process of acquiring the advantage of higher education, and student suicides happen frequently.

Developed countries with ageing populations, and which thus have a growing skill crunch, may try to succeed in siphoning away students from the affluent section, who manage to acquire skills, for employment. This will come at a cost, as it would also exacerbate the brain drain issue.

These offers are not new; they were made in 2005. However, these issues have not been taken up for re-examination, and, as a result, they have slowly been relegated to the back seat of public discourse. To be sure, the GATS works on the principle of progressive liberalisation. It is unlikely that once an offer is made, it can be withdrawn in the next round of negotiations. Any withdrawal of, say, a sector or sub-sector, can only be compensated by making a comparable offer involving another sector.

The government has already been trying to introduce education reforms that indicate its own willingness to adopt the GATS agenda in education. These include the four-year undergraduate programme, the choice-based credit system, cutting down on the non-National Eligibility Test fellowships, and research funding. All of this has been met with opposition from the student community and educationists. But that was at a time when there was no international agreement binding the government from acting, or even rolling back decisions not popular with the stakeholders. All this leaves us with the big question: how can a democracy protest for its rights when its government has relinquished its power to concede?


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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 3:49:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/will-the-gats-close-on-higher-education/article8042337.ece

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