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Just Another Tradeable Service

Ohanian Comment: I often ask what it will take for colleges of education faculty to organize against the outrage federal and state governments commit against them and their intellectual integrity. Now, it's not just colleges of education under attack. With the World Trade Organization defining education as a tradeable commodity, subject to the same rules as other commercial services, will professors speak up? And act out?

Ken Kehl returned to university at 35 years of age after a somewhat aimless career in insurance and car repairs. He planned to get a master's degree in education, researching a nice light topic such as the importance of mentorship in students' lives.

Instead, the Hamilton native became ensnarled in one of the most urgent and controversial debates in the academic community. He has just submitted a weighty thesis warning that higher education could be a casualty of the current round of global trade talks.

He fears that universities such as Brock, which he attends, will be transformed into profit-making diploma mills, competing fiercely with foreign-controlled institutions.

Kehl has grounds for concern. On Jan. 1, 2005, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), one of the deals worked out by the World Trade Organization, takes effect. It defines education as a tradeable commodity, subject to the same rules as other commercial services.

That means Canada must allow foreign providers the same access to its education market as domestic universities. It means governments cannot use subsidies or tax breaks to put Canadian universities at an advantage. It means education will become a deregulated global business.

"What frightens me is the possibility that learning will become just another marketable skill," Kehl said in an interview. "The pursuit of knowledge, academic curiosity and the human element of teaching and learning will all be compromised.

"It's already happening," he conceded, "but this would legislate it and make it irreversible."

It was his professor, Michael Kompf, who got him interested in the topic. Kehl is both grateful and sorry. His mind is more engaged than ever before, but his research is consuming him. "It's like a train wreck I can't get away from," he said. "It affects me personally. It's emotionally draining."

Originally, he had hoped to graduate this year. Now he intends to stay and monitor the implementation of GATS as a Ph.D. student.

One of the aims of Kehl's research was to find out how much awareness there was on campus of the link between trade liberalization and the future of Canada's universities. The answer: almost none.

He sent out 35 e-mail messages to fellow students in the faculty of education at Brock, asking them to fill out a questionnaire. Not one replied. He approached professors, researchers, deans, senior university executives and trustees. Only five one professor and four university officials agreed to participate. They were split between those who could see economic benefits in borderless education and those who foresaw a decline in scholarship, a standardization of courses and an aggressive drive to cut costs.

But it was the silence from the non-participants that spoke loudest.

Kehl contacted Sergio Marchi, Canada's ambassador to the World Trade Organization, who declined to speak to him. Nor could he arrange an interview with provincial education minister Gerard Kennedy.

"This guy's done a good job of ringing the alarm bell, but nobody's listening," said Kompf, who supervised his research. "There should be hundreds of people writing about this and holding conferences, but there's not much out there. To me it's just mind-boggling."

A few organizations have spoken out. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers and various anti-free trade groups have warned of the dangers of letting global trade negotiators set the terms of higher education. But their message has attracted little attention.

It's probably because the threat is hard to see and harder to explain.

No one can say with certainty what will happen when the education sector is opened to global competition. It is only a guess that big countries such as the United States will flood other markets with private education services. It is only speculation that online teaching will replace face-to-face lectures and seminars. It is only conjecture that small universities such as Brock will have to link up with larger institutions or drop non-lucrative fields of study.

"If everyone is happy seeing a degree become a token of currency, I guess it's a non-issue," Kehl said. "But it changes the nature of teaching and learning."

It is still possible to avert the scenario laid out in his thesis.

Countries have the right to spell out which services they want excluded from GATS. But so far, Canada has not done that in the education sector.

The agreement itself exempts "services supplied in the exercise of government authority." But Canada has not made the case that its post-secondary education system is funded and administered chiefly by government.

A concerted public effort to get education off the bargaining table in Geneva might make a difference. But there's no sign of that happening.

Two years ago when he started his MA degree, Kehl never imagined himself becoming an advocate for public education in a mercantile world. But now that the role has found him, he feels compelled to play it passionately.

Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

— Carol Goar
The Toronto Sun





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