Universities in Europe are worried about the international trade agreements being negotiated between Europe, Canada and the US. The resulting treaties may pose a threat to higher education.

Negotiators are presently working on two international agreements intended to boost the free trade in services: TTIP and TiSA. The universities fear that higher education will also be included in this range of services – and come under the sway of free market forces as a result. This becomes clear from a statement issued by the European university association EUA. Its signatories include various Dutch universities.

Illegitimate state support

If the international free trade in services becomes a fact, will public funding start to be considered illegitimate state support? In other words: will commercial foreign providers of education services soon become eligible for the same funding as public institutions? Things won’t go as fast as all that, in the view of the negotiators: countries are allowed to determine for themselves what they consider public or private. They can continue to work with their own policies for public higher education.

In that case, the universities want to see this exception explicitly included in the treaty text. Because the institutions fear that the document will not be clear enough on this matter. At present, higher education does not unambiguously fall within the category of ‘public services’.

Grey area

Indeed, there is already something of a grey area between private and public. State-funded universities do a lot of commissioned research – not just in the Netherlands, incidentally – and occasionally also offer courses that receive no public funding whatsoever. Furthermore, we can already find a wide range of private service providers active in the market – in the Netherlands, LOI and NCOI for example. HOP