#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  

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

By Susan Robertson

Theorising Race and Racism in Education: Easter Term 2018

Alternate Fridays 14:00-16:00
Easter term 2018: ‘Theorists from across the globe’

Donald McIntyre Building, Room 2S3, Faculty of Education

Convened by: Arathi Sriprakash, Amina Shareef, Sharon Walker, Amberley Middleton, Christy Kultz

Session 1: April 27, 2018

Using humour and critique, Fanon considers racial constructions, in this case, ‘black’, and how these shape the ways in which those racialized as black understand being human.

Fanon, F (2008 [1962 – English version]). Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press

Suggested Chapters: If you are short of time and unable to read the whole book, give particular attention to Chapter 4 The So-Called Dependency Complex of Colonized Peoples, and Chapter 5 The Fact of Blackness

Session 2: May 11 2018

This paper explores both the personal narratives of a group of black and white undergraduate students and the institutional discourse at one historically white and Afrikaans medium university in post-apartheid South Africa.

Walker, M. (2005) ‘Rainbow nation or new racism? Theorizing race and identity formation in South African higher education,’ Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(2): 129-146

This article explores the production of post-apartheid Afrikaner identity in South Africa.

Verway, C. & Quayle, M. (2012) ‘Whiteness, racism and Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid South Africa,’ African Affairs, 111(445): 551-575

Session 3: May 25 2018

This paper begins a dialogue on the particular vulnerability of women and girls to anti-Muslim hate crime, predicated on the long-lived vilification of Muslims by the media and the state.

Perry, B. (2014) ‘Gendered Islamophobia: hate crime against Muslim women, Social Identities,’ Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 20(1): 74-89

This article examines the public debate leading to the 2004 French law banning conspicuous religious signs in schools and French colonial attitudes to veiling in Algeria, in conjunction with discourses on the veil that have arisen in other western contexts.

Al-Saji, A. (2010) ‘The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A philosophical analysis,’ Philosophy and Social Criticism, 36(8): 875-902

Session 4: June 8 2018

In this article, Du Bois explains how he sees the carving up of Africa by many European nations, that is the scrabble for colonies, as an underlying cause of World War I.  

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1915) ‘The African Roots of War,’ The Atlantic Monthly, pp.707-714

Worlds of Color explores the problem of the color line and how it relates to the catastrophe of World War I.  

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1925) ‘Worlds of Color,’ Foreign Affairs, 3(3): 423-444

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

Let’s talk about racism in education and international development

By Arathi Sriprakash

Issues of racism within the field of education and international development are rarely addressed directly, despite profoundly shaping our research, policy and practice. This ‘area of silence’ means that we haven’t adequately developed the concepts or approaches to understand the operations of racism in our work. There is an urgent imperative to do so if we are to take social justice concerns seriously, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitment to ‘leave no one behind’.

Indeed, an analysis of racism should be integral to understanding educational inequalities.  Global Islamophobia, Indigenous dispossession, forced displacement and migration, racial segregation, casteism, communal violence, and ethnonationalism so clearly affect educational processes, distributions, and exclusions.

Starting a conversation

In February 2018 we held a seminar at the University of Cambridge, attended by scholars, policy-actors, and activists, which aimed to get us talking directly about the challenges of racism in our field.

The event posed four key questions for debate:

  1. To what extent does our research, policy, and practice attend to the historically specific ways that racism shapes the educational contexts in which we work?
  2. In what ways do the theories, measures, tools, and approaches we use to understand educational inequality enable us to see or not see racism?
  3. How can we address the racialised politics of knowledge production in our field? That is, who does what work, where, and under what conditions, to produce knowledge about development?
  4. What would an anti-racist agenda look like for research, policy and practice in education and international development?

In order to unpack some of these questions, Sharon Walker presented her findings from a systematic literature review of key journals in our field. Her analysis showed that issues of racism are overwhelmingly left unaddressed in research on education and international development.

Considering the policy implications of this, Leon Tikly argued that a failure to address racism would only produce unsustainable development.  However, he suggested the SDGs offer an opportunity: they compel us to consider inequalities across the global north and south – between and within nations. Tackling these inequalities arguably requires us to develop a strong race justice agenda.

Fazal Rizvi’s presentation on the contested, racialised, foundations of humanism within UNESCO’s global development agenda since its inception encouraged us to historically situate the notion of ‘sustainability’ – a term that remains ill-defined in the field. Kalpana Wilson’s paper then challenged us to think about the articulation of racism within educational programmes that position girls as resources for development, specifically as entrepreneurs in the service of global capitalism.

Policy dilemmas

A lively policy forum with Pauline Rose (REAL Centre, Cambridge),  Amanda Lenhardt (Save the Children) and Jordan Naidoo (Education 2030, UNESCO) raised a challenging question: what should be the policy priorities for tackling issues of racism?

Participants debated whether issues of racism could be measured and monitored, and whether it was possible, or even desirable, to formulate ‘global’ indicators for race justice given the different and contextually specific formations of racism. Racism impacts so many domains in education, such as: access and outcomes of schooling; language in education policy; curriculum and pedagogy; global governance; and monitoring and evaluation.

Our understanding of racism, it was argued, cannot rely on fixed categories of ‘race’, given that ‘race’ is socially constructed. Instead, we need to draw analytic and political attention to the processes through which racial inequalities are formed. Yet the dominant model of producing data for evidence-based policy leads to ‘race’ being the object of analysis (often via the formulation of ‘ethnicity’), rather than the contingent formations of racism.  This risks a reductive approach to race justice that may reinscribe false biological distinctions between groups.

Can racism only be addressed if it gets measured?

Is it only possible for our field to recognise and address the dynamics and effects of racism through the paradigm of measurement, indicators, and monitoring? This remained an unresolved issue. One delegate reflected that it was not in the interest of the global development architecture to develop an anti-racist agenda, suggesting this agenda needed to come from below, through social movements. Discussions also touched on the possible lessons that could be learnt from the advocacy of disability and gender issues within the field.  

Poignantly, the seminar ended with an emotive reflection by a number of people of colour in attendance about the burden of carrying these tasks, despite issues of racism needing to be owned collectively. This was seen as particularly problematic in a field which is dominated by what one participant called ‘Eurocentric prisms’.

Indeed, addressing racism is challenging and unsettling. It is the responsibility of us all. So please share your thoughts and actions. How should an agenda to tackle racism be developed in our field?


This blog post was written by Arathi Sriprakash, Sociologist of Education at the University of Cambridge. It is a reflection on discussions that took place at a seminar on “Questions of Race in Education and International Development” which she convened with Leon Tikly (University of Bristol) and Sharon Walker (University of Cambridge). The event was funded by the British Association of International and Comparative Education and the British Academy. Thanks to Aliandra Lazzari Barlete for the photo from the event.