WTO and Commodification of Education

Neha Chauhan

Is it tenable to propose and perceive education as a commodity or a good which can be traded? Is education a state responsibility or an “opportunity” which only the select few can avail? When citizens become consumers and corporations’ rights are protected with more vigour than human rights, there seems to be nothing wrong with the scenario wherein education can be treated as a commodity with profit and loss as its guiding factor.

Under the WTO regime education is a tradable service and therefore subject to the same liberalization rationale as other tradable commodities and services. In 1994, with the conclusion of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) national laws and regulations of many countries governing education became the object of an international trade regime. At the time, few members of the education community noticed.[1] The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) also contains the cross border provisions of education. Currently negotiations are underway to expand the scope of the liberalization commitments in GATS.

After extended talks in Nairobi in December 2015, India and other member countries of the World Trade Organization (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. 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.[2]

A country's education sector most aptly reflects the social and economic inequalities inherent in that society. These inequalities, in terms of cost, quality and availability of education, are glaring especially in the higher education sector in India, and are very much prevalent in the primary and secondary education sectors as well.

In India, over the last two decades, the demand for higher education has been on the rise at a phenomenal scale [UGC 1996, 1998].[3] India has the youngest population in the world. With half its people below the age of 25, it is presented with the challenge of providing education to its youth so as to enable them for employment opportunities both within the country and outside. It is in this context that 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.[4]

It is argued that the GATS would bring in the level playing field, but the field would be level only for the education service providers as traders of education and not for the citizenry. In a country like India where a large segment of population still constitutes first generation learners, ensuring equitable development is not only important but is also a requirement of justice. But, when education is reduced as a tradable commodity, there can be no concessions in the name of social justice. Policies of equity and constitutional guarantees would be reduced to mere empty rhetoric. Any disputes that will arise in this regime would have to be referred not to the judiciary of the country but to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body.

Further in a GATS regime, there would be no means of ensuring that only high quality universities enter the education sector, and how the delimitation of universities’ tuition would be done. These are the ingredients of the recipe of disaster in a country where education loans haunt the students and their families, student suicides are rampant and worst of all when education still remains a distant dream for many. However, these issues have not been able to come to forefront and have been slowly been relegated to the back seat of public discourse.

The recent government induced reforms in the education sector shows that ground is being prepared for the movement towards GATS regime. 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.[5]

It needs to be noted that the text of GATS is formulated to fit all services. The text does not adequately take into account the special role of education in developing countries. A trade agreement such as the GATS must be based on an accurate and complete database. During the Uruguay Round when the text of GATS was being formulated, the third world countries had hardly formed any pressure lobbies and had to reconcile to the basic methodology of 'progressive liberalization' inherent in the then GATT agenda.[7] In November 2001, the representative from Pakistan[6] made a very poignant observation in one of the special sessions of GATS. He said, "Many developing countries, at the time of the Uruguay Round, were hesitant to negotiate the GATS given the non-existence of trade data in services from the third world. However, they were reassured that the problem would be addressed with urgency and ways would be found to gather meaningful data, to match the directions of trade data in goods. On the basis of these reassurances, GATS negotiations went ahead and developing countries made concessions.”

The very notion of “trade in education services” strikes the eye as a kind of an aberration, a kind of an oxymoron which places two dialectical words “trade” and “education” in a single and related context because it is inconceivable to view education as a tradable service with an underlying profit as its primary motive. Therefore the issue must have to be brought into the public domain before any binding policy decision is initiated.

The author is a researcher associated with Indian Law Institute (ILI), New Delhi


1. Christoph Scherrer, “GATS: Long Term Strategy for the Commodification of Education”, 484, Review of International and Political Economy, (August, 2005).

2. Shubhashree Deshikan, “Will the GATS close on Higher Education?”, The Hindu, December 30, 2015.

3. Rohini Sahni and Sumita Kahle, “GATS and Higher Education: Some Reflections”, 2174, Economic and Political Weekly, (May, 2004)

4. Supra at 2.

5. Supra at 2.

6. Supra note at 3.

7. The representative was speaking on behalf of the joint submission by Cuba, Haiti, India, Kenya Pakistan, Uganda, Venezuela and Zimbabwe [WTO 2000a].

Nov 23, 2017

Neha Chauhan

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