#ResNet: Wheeling and Dealing in Education and Global Trade Agreements

By Susan Robertson 

As the minutes ticked down toward the final boarding call for my late evening train from London to Brussels, I was furiously typing up notes from a research report I had just read on the Trade in Services Agreement, otherwise known as TISA. The young man sitting next to me leaned over and asked if he could compliment me. He was particularly impressed at how rapidly I was writing. The conversation quickly turned to what I did, and what was I researching. I pointed out I was a sociologist of education located in a UK university, and that one of the things I was currently researching were global trade deals. I could hear more than a hint of incredulity in his voice. His face clouded over, and brow furrowed. ‘You work on global trade negotiations? But you are a sociologist of education?’ he remarked. ‘Quite!’ I replied. ‘But if education is included in trade deals, and seen as trade, what does this do to education as a public service?’ he remarked. ‘Quite!’ I replied again. ‘It changes it dramatically!’

I went on to explain that since the launch of the World Trade Organization in 1995, major efforts have been under way by interested countries and peak interest groups to include all levels of education in the agreements between Member States, with education seen as a services sector, along with finance, health, transport, and so on.  It also means education is talked about using a similar language to the describe used to describe global trade in goods: exporting and importing nations, national treatment, most-favoured nation, consumption abroad, and so on.

This is not the first time a casual conversation like this on education and global trade deals has ended with a sense of incredulity.  And for sure it will not be the last, as the full force of the global trade deals swing into action. Here I am referring to the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Europe and Canada (CETA), the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between a number of the Pacific Rim Countries recently renamed as “the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and Europe, and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) between the so-called ‘friends of services’ involving mostly Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, plus a few more.  For the moment, too, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is also being renegotiated.

What do all of these Agreements have in common? The first is that education is included as a tradeable services sector – in large part as it cannot be excluded – given the criteria for exclusion being it is supplied “…in the exercise of governmental authority”…and it is “…supplied neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with one or more service providers” (WTO, GATS Article 1.3). Think of any country where the state is the only provider of education, and where the service is provided without any hint of competition in the sector. Three decades of neoliberal policies in education has created the conditions for including education in trade.

The status of education as a genuine ‘public service’ in many countries has been precisely what the struggle over the privatisation of education is about. Countries and corporations have eyed up the profits to be made if education were to be constructed as a private good, bought and sold in the market place according to market rules, in turn protected by trade rules. To do this, public education sectors have been pushed to ‘unbundle’, and to think of their activities as ‘bundles of services’ – the lucrative ones being hived off to profit seeking firms.

Families, concerned publics, and educators, have rightly pointed out that education is not a bundle of services to be regulated by trade rules. Education – despite all of its weaknesses in making more equal societies, is nevertheless a key institution in creating societies and political citizens. Education – as a key sector within the social contract – must not service narrow economic interests.  The responsibility of all national governments, enshrined in international declarations, is that they must ensure good quality free public education is available as a human right, a societal good, and the basis on which to participate as an informed citizen, with political entitlements.

The second element many of these agreements have in common is that they represent efforts to limit the possibility of governments moving in the direction of more national ownership into the future. Causes like ‘standstill’, ‘ratchet’ and ‘negative list’ mean that a country cannot reverse away from where they currently are in the direction of less market. Add to this the ‘ratchet effect’ and this essentially means the only direction of travel for future policy is to become progressively organised through the market and open to investors, and not by the state. The ‘negative list’ is also particularly pernicious. It means negotiators have to list activities to be exempted now. Yet if we don’t know the future, because we can’t, then by definition, future developments are included. Heads the investors win, tails the investors win too.

A third element in common is lack of transparency. Most of the negotiations have been carried out in secret.  Yet despite the centrality of education to people’s lives – and that governments campaign on education as a big ticket item they hope politicians will honour – in effect global trade deals that include education make hollow any promise of democracy.

What in reality will this current round of global trade agreements include and promote?  It is clear such deals aim to hasten the liberalisation of education, loosening the protections around who can invest in what.  This means powerful countries and their corporations opening up new and emerging markets in education, with regulations by a country challenged if they are seen to be too burdensome.

It means transnational firms, as well as professionals (like teachers and academics) and other experts, being able to move over national borders more easily – under mutual recognition clauses. This will profoundly challenge the nature of professional knowledge and who gets to regulate it.

Governmental procurement contracts are to be open to all of the members of the agreement for tendering, unless specific annexes have been inserted which exempt which parts. Efforts will be made to regulate intellectual property and cross border information flows in ways that suit the large tech corporations rather than the knowledge producers and users.

Labour chapters in the agreements – whilst promising protections for workers – are largely hollow. In other words, current poor conditions for teachers are not seen as a breach of labour rights and only an erosion of already poor conditions will be considered. Further, cases of breaches can only be taken by governments, and not worker unions.  Not all governments take the side of workers, and indeed the opposite is mostly the case.

In 1999, the now infamous Battle in Seattle badly bruised the multilateral institutions involved in brokering the global trade agreements. By 2005, the World Trade Organization was limping along as the main negotiation forum for global trade deals. Yet as we have come to learn, the game is never over, and that indeed a new game of cat and mouse was launched.

And this brings us to where we are now; agreements that are in a state of either having been ratified, or in the wings, that promise to further transform education into a tradeable good, and in doing so, alter the conditions for democratic deliberation over one of the key rights we have as political citizens.

The young man at the train station was right to be confused and troubled, as this skewing of power in the direction of powerful investors sounds like fiction. But fiction it is not. We need a new Battle of Seattle that fires a broad warning shot over the bows of the greedy investors whose hopes are that education is the new gold. In their rush, we need to remind them that we are in a battle to secure education as a societal good and public service.  In acting, we need to make visible and contest the wheeling and dealing over including education in global trade agreements for what it is; a toxic mix of crude capitalism in profiteering from education.

This was originally published on Worlds of Education  

Is there such a thing as ‘centrist’ higher education policy?

By Jana Bacevic

This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may  become Conservatives’ future  policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.

The book

Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who know or have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.

The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).

Competition, competition, competition

Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.

Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.

Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case) control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.

Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves  – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.

What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.

There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore

Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest private expenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.

Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.

This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.


Recovering the political in the idea of education as a public good – and why this matters

By Susan Robertson

Between legitimation and imagination: epistemic attachment, ontological bias, and thinking about the future

By Jana Bacevic

A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.

Ontological security or epistemic positioning?

It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.

But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production(universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.

Screen shot 2017-12-18 at 3.58.23 PM
From: Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde: Unknowns, Black Swans and the risk/uncertainty distinction, Cambridge Journal of Economics 41 (5), August 2017, 1279-1302

Unknown unknowns

In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.

The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.

The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledgethat can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.

Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.

A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?

Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.

Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslavia came out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).

Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably,  would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.

For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.

This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.

Onwards to the…future?

What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.


(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.

(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.

(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.

(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.

Acts of Im(p)unity: A Tale About Education, Commercialisation and Current Trade Deals

By Susan L. Robertson

Imagine you were located in a community, and used the human and natural resources of that community to run your business. Somehow you had managed to convince the local political elites that you be accorded special status; one which meant you and your business activities were immune to the ongoing democratic decision-making processes and outcomes in the community. Your immunity from the community’s regulations was guaranteed with impunity, now and into the future. Only one condition, and one condition alone, would alter this. You would accept a change in the community’s rules if you were compensated for the earnings you might have made into the future from your business.

Heads you win. Tails you win. You had convinced the local political elite to play by a set of rules from which you could never lose. Immunity from community rules, and you can manage the business how you like, with few cares for about the outcomes for the community. Giving in to decisions made by the community, with such extraordinary compensation, and you also win. It is like winning the lottery every day. The rules always worked in your favour.

Most of us would shake our head and say; surely this is simply the stuff of a bad fairy tale. For one thing, the local political elite can’t be that stupid; a fractious community facing worsening work conditions and experiencing a yawning democratic deficit would demand this political elite be shown the door – of account of being either stupid, complicit, or corrupt, or all three. What’s in it for the local political elites, I hear you say. Surely this is not just a story about being duped, and the politicians can see some value of this kind of arrangement for them.  There are two kinds of possible responses we might countenance here. Either an unswerving commitment to free-market ideology trumps good sense. Or, could it be that corporate power and money has, as we know when we look at the rapid commercialisation of education in countries like the USA and UK, been ploughed into influential think tanks who in turn advise government, boosted the lobbying machine, shaped election campaigns, and used the media to sell a monologue that; that unfettered capitalism is freedom.

But what if this fairy tale were not a fairy tale? What if it was actually true? What if the political elites (aka two or more countries who were also trade partners) had agreed with each other that the economic elites (large transnational corporations) will be allowed to buy, sell, capture rents and tender for government procurement contracts in the education services sector under a set of conditions which, over time, were no conditions at all because the political elites of the two countries had agreed to progressively relax and liberalise their trade rules? A noisy public, demanding their education services sectors back, are now confronted with the fact that if they want to rid their education systems of this kind of corrupt commercialism, they would have to pay the education corporation lost earnings well into the future easily adding to hundreds of millions of dollars. Heads the corporation win. Tales the corporation wins. For the corporation the stakes are high. Being a major player in turning education into a commercial business – there are big dollars to be made with no questions asked if nosy and messy politics are kept out of the marketplace.

This is a true story about the ways in which powerful countries and their political elites are agreeing to place economic activity beyond politics. In other words, the rights of the big corporations, to trade in services like education with fewer and fewer regulations in place, are to be placed beyond democratic politics, and thus the deliberations of their communities.

This story is about real trade deals that include education, such as the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement. It also includes the ongoing Trade in Services Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. All of these deals have been negotiated in secret, though not without protests from concerned citizens.  All of these trade deals have a common aim and thread; to limit state regulation over the terms and conditions of international trade, including employment standards and other social protection measures. Immunity to state’s rights to regulate means bigger bottom-line profits. Immunity to unhappy communities with other hopes for education – such as a societal good – means ignoring democratic processes. Immunity with impunity, with education fated to be a commercial good in perpetuity, throws our collective futures to the indifference of the corporate winds.

We can, and must, demand a different story we can tell the future generation about education. We can point out how the moral compass, social insight and political grit were garnered from our own education experiences can be used challenge the opportunism, short-termism of the political elites, and the profit -motives of the corporations. We can tell a future generation how we said no to the immunity and impunity of commercialisation, corporations and corrupted governments. As educators, we owe this to the future generations.

This was originally published on Unite For Education