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Canadian Federation of Students puts CETA on the agenda

The Canadian Federation of Students is a long-time ally in the fight against unfair trade deals. From NAFTA through the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and now free trade with the EU, the student movement has recognized and fought the threat to public education from trade and services liberalization. It’s why the CFS is a member of the Trade Justice Network challenging the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, and why they put CETA on their agenda this week during a twice-annual delegates’ meeting.

Since the early days of the GATS, the student movement has contested the corporate idea that education is something to be traded in, bought, sold and offered as a for-profit service. This is the view held by those people who would include education inside trade agreements designed to open up service sectors to private competition, reduce or eliminate the role of the public sector in providing those services, and put limits on how governments can regulate the private companies providing those services.

Speaking about the GATS to the Department of Foreign Affairs in October 2000, the CFS offered a much better definition of education, one I’m sure we can all agree with:

The assumption on which our movement was founded — education is a fundamental right, not a privilege limited to the wealthy — does not make a distinction between primary, secondary or post-secondary education. A free and democratic society, and a vibrant and socially just economy, depend on universal access to public post-secondary education.

The CFS explained that education was much like health care, in which case the system should be based on the five principles of the Canada Health Act: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability and accessibility. “Unfortunately,” they told DFAIT, “the current round of negotiations under GATS, to ‘achieve progressively greater liberalization of global trade in services by expanding the commitments of member countries,’ puts at risk Canada’s public health care and education systems, including post-secondary education.”

The good(ish) news is the GATS expansion which began in February 2000 and directly endangered post-secondary education/training in Canada never reached fruition. Like the WTO Doha Round, it is suffering from stalemate in Geneva. Most countries excluded post-secondary education from their original GATS commitments, but it was a weak exclusion based on the condition services be provided “neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with any one or more service suppliers.” Half the cost of university or college in Canada is now, on average, paid for by students, making it definable as a commercial transaction.

The bad (or worse is a better way of putting it) news is where one trade deal falters (GATS at the WTO) another is flourishing. The Canada-EU free trade negotiations could potentially go much further than the GATS dreamed of in services commitments. This is in the context of increased private involvement in education in Canada. The Canadian Association of University Teachers explained in 2007:

Post-secondary education has of course always been international in scope. Students and teachers have for centuries crossed international borders as part of their academic pursuits. What characterizes the current environment, however, is not so much this mobility of students and teachers, though the sheer volume of this has increased. Rather, it is the increasingly market-oriented delivery of education and the prominent role played by for-profit providers. The aggressive recruitment of full fee-paying international students, the growth in cross-border e-learning, the franchising of offshore campuses, and the sale of curricula and course materials overseas are all features of an emerging multi-billion dollar trade in education.

The situation is much the same in the EU, where the European Commission is actively trying to limit the scope of what counts for public service exemption from trade deals. The Commission says certain protections for services are “indefensible” given the increasing level of private delivery. This is who Canada is bargaining with in CETA, though the Harper government is clearly excited about the chance to break new ground with his EU agreement. Education may join drinking water, health insurance and other publicly delivered social services in Canada’s list of commitments, putting Canada’s public commons at enormous risk.

This is the message I brought to about 150 student representatives from universities across Canada during a panel on trade agreements and post-secondary education this week in Ottawa. I joined Roxanne Dubois and Graham Cox, both active members of the Trade Justice Network. Graham led with a history of trade deals and how they affect education, and I ended the panel with some of the details on CETA, including its impacts on procurement, intellectual property and labour mobility, which all would affect education in Canada.

The CFS has been and will continue to be a powerful voice for public services and against unfair trade deals that put them in danger. I ended my presentation by reminding the student activists that by working together, student, labour, environmental, cultural and Indigenous movements have killed many trade agreements in their time, including the MAI. CETA is just the next in line to go.

For more information on the CFS and its campaigns, click here.

For a CAUT primer on GATS as it affects education, click here.