The education sector is deeply divided with the Indian government expected to sign the formal commitments to liberalise education under the World Trade Organisation-General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO-GATS) at the “10th WTO Ministerial Conference” in Nairobi, Kenya next month. “The word liberalisation here is synonymous to commercialisation. We are against higher education becoming part of GATS as a commercial tradable service,” said Nandita Narain, president, Delhi University Teacher’s Association (DUTA).
GATS is a legally binding agreement aimed at deregulating trade in services. Its framework excludes government services. Since education in most developing countries is a government service activity, it lies outside the scope of “free trade”. However, GATS defines government service as those “exercised in the control of governmental authority” and sees government activity as one that is “supplied neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with other suppliers”. Since education systems in most countries include both commercial private universities and government institutions, these have become a part of GATS negotiations. The widespread concern that India is to open its higher education sector for foreign service providers might absolutely do away with public subsidies to make formal commitments under GATS. “Already the budget for education has been reducing drastically over the years. If the subsidies go away too, then Indian higher education will become too expensive for a common man to afford,” said Narain.
Even though India is keeping its final commitment to the GATS on education pending, education in India is already becoming internationalised ,though not necessarily within the GATS framework. But experts believe the agreement would make a considerable difference. “If the agreement is signed, the government will be obligated to allow the foreign stakeholders equal share in the domestic market. Under GATS, equal treatment has to be accorded to both foreign and domestic service providers in a country,” explained Ritika Khurana, assistant professor, Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai. Jandhyala B. G. Tilak, VC, National University of Educational Planning And Administration (NUEPA), said, “Internationalisation of higher education of traditional type – student exchanges, faculty exchanges, research collaboration, etc., is desirable as it brings diversity on the university campuses and also enhances the knowledge production and dissemination environment. But internationalisation under the WTO-GATS framework, i.e., essentially in the framework of international trade, aiming mainly at economic gains, will be harmful for the development of the higher education sector in the developing countries. It is important to note that under the WTO-GATS framework, education is treated as a tradable commodity.” On the other hand, former VC of Jawaharlal Nehru University, B. B. Bhattacharya, supported GATS. He said, “You have to take into account the considerable gap that exists in the education profile of India. There are either PhD scholars or illiterate labours. This gap exists because there are not enough universities and colleges to provide education to a large number of people who are not able to make it to good institutes. We need more courses so that students will have options while choosing their career. Opening our markets can resolve this problem.”
“But improving domestic market and going global can be done simultaneously. We cannot deter growth. We can use a systematic approach to attain balance. GATS is good for India,”said S. P. Sharma, chief economist, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “This good has its drawbacks too. I believe that signing this agreement would be a premature step. It would be advisable to first secure the domestic standards then look outside to liberalise,” said Dr Khurana.