Higher Education, the GATS and the Convention on the High Seas

In recent years there has been a lot of debate on how higher education world-wide will be affected by the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS; a treaty within the WTO framework). The GATS makes a distinction between four different modes of supply of services:

  1. Cross-border supply is defined to cover services flows from the territory of one Member into the territory of another Member (e.g. distance education programmes offered abroad);
  2. Consumption abroad refers to situations where a service consumer (e.g. students go to another country to complete a programme);
  3. Commercial presence implies that a service supplier of one Member establishes a territorial presence, including through ownership or lease of premises, in another Member’s territory to provide a service (e.g. a university established a branch campus abroad);
  4. Presence of natural persons consists of persons of one Member entering the territory of another Member to supply a service (e.g. academics teaching a course in another country).

It is not entirely clear how the GATS will restrict governments in making policies for their national higher education systems and in giving preferential treatment for their citizens. In the liberalization of services in the EU common market, this has also led to discussions. Among other things, this has led to a uniform tuition rate for students from EU countries The fees may be different in different countries, but within countries they have to be the same for domestic students and other EU students).

The GATS raises a lot of questions. To what extent is national funding of higher education a government subsidy, and should suppliers from other countries (i.c. foreign universities) then receive the same support (a commitment to national treatment implies that the Member concerned does not operate discriminatory measures benefiting domestic services or service suppliers). Under Article II of the GATS, Members are held to extend immediately and unconditionally to services or services suppliers of all other Members treatment no less favourable than that accorded to like services and services suppliers of any other country (the so-called MFN or Most Favored Nation principle).

But have universities found a way around the GATS? Inside Higher-Ed (Sailing Around the Flat World) has a report on a new mode of supply: the Scholar Ship, a collaboration between Royal Caribbean Cruises and six foreign universities.

The program is a corporate subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, and the academic programs will be led by Macquarie University in Australia. The maiden voyage of the ship — which will have libraries and lecture halls where the casinos and ballrooms were — will be in January 2007.
Students, who will be taught primarily in English, will pay $19,500 for the classes and cruise, and will have eight port stops as they circumnavigate the globe, beginning and ending in Athens.

I guess most of the time will be spent in the (non-territorial) high seas. As far as I can see (although I am all but an expert on legal issues) this mode of supply of educational services does not fall under any of the 4 categories. Truly de-nationalised, global education        

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