GATS, TRIPS and higher education: projects, politics and prospects

The World Trade Organization (WTO) and two of its agreements, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the Trade Related Intellectual Property Services (TRIPS), have emerged as important features of the global higher education landscape.

However, despite the importance of the WTO and its Agreements, many of us working in the sector have either very little, or at best very sketchy, knowledge about GATS and TRIPS as projects, their politics and what might be the likely prospects for the future. Even our sketchy knowledge tends to be shaped by media images largely around the biennial Ministerial Meetings for the WTO; from clashes with riot police in Seattle in 1999 (see below) to more recent arrests in Hong Kong in 2005.

GlobalHigherEd will carry a series of feature pieces on the WTO’s GATS and TRIPS Agreements, beginning here with a brief outline of the World Trade Organization and the emergence of the GATS and TRIPS Agreements in 1995.

Although the WTO is a new international organization, its origins are rooted in the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs (GATT) of 1947. In the Uruguay Round of the GATT (1986-1994), it was decided that the international trade rules should pay more attention to the trade of “invisibles”, such as intellectual property, services and knowledge. These elements were more and more important for the world economy and were not covered by the GATT’47. To manage these new complexities, a single trade agreement was not enough. So, it was necessary to create an international organization, the WTO, which contemplated new trade agreements to fill the GATT gap: the TRIPS and the GATS. Currently, the WTO has 151 member countries. These countries have committed themselves to respect the norms and disciplines of the WTO agreements, as well as to promote progressive trade liberalization in the areas covered by the agreements. wto-logo.jpg

In addition to the scope, another important difference between the GATT and the WTO is related to the dispute settlement procedure. The dispute settlement system of the WTO is regarded as much more efficient than the old system because of new procedural innovations. This also makes the WTO more powerful in enforcing trade agreements and consequently obliges member countries to be careful about respecting the content of the trade agreements.

Finally, another important difference between the GATT and the WTO can be found in its political character. In the framework of the WTO, the liberalization principle is stronger than in the original GATT. This Agreement, created in the post-WWII context, instituted a commercial regime of Keynesian embedded liberalism. But the WTO, created in a moment of neoliberal climax, clearly breaks the balance between the global liberalization objective and the capacity of states to deliver their legitimate social purpose. The fact that the WTO covers public services, such as health and education, as well as other public goods such as knowledge, significantly increases the social implications of this political shift in the international trade regime and one that GlobalHigherEd will be exploring in detail.

Both the presence and the politics of the WTO and its embrace of education–including higher education–as a new tradeable services sector is not only far reaching, but has important implications for academics’ everyday work and for how the sector is constructed and regulated. For these reasons, those working in the sector should have at least a working knowledge of the GATS and TRIPS processes so that they can either mediate or intervene in debates. We hope this series  will help you contribute to this debate.

Susan Robertson and Antoni Verger