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What does a trade agreement have to do with higher education? Apparently, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – currently under negotiation between the EU and the US, and with the main goal to eliminate non-tariff barriers to the trade of goods and services - could potentially have significant implications for higher education. This is the warning of the European University Association (EUA), that on 30 January issued a statement expressing its concerns over the impact that the TTIP provisions might have for universities as well as for regional and national higher education systems within the EU and the European Economic Area.
In spite of the transparency that the European Commission is trying to ensure – by making the negotiations’ documents public online - many criticisms have raised over the conduct and the content of the agreement. Especially sensitive is the definition of ‘public’ service and the fact that higher education - in virtue of its peculiar systems including both public and private providers, and the fact that many public institutions depend on a mix of public and private funding - is not automatically excluded from trade negotiations. Although in a former EUA paper last year it was suggested to use of a positive list approach in order to specify the sectors that fall within the scope of the agreement, no such explicit list has been adopted at the current stage for higher education, while the audio-visual sector has clearly been excluded from the TTIP scope.
Similar concerns have been expressed also by the European Parliament earlier last year, with the recommendations of Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) to the European Commission on the negotiations for the TTIP. Among other concerning aspects there are also the introduction of the investor state dispute mechanism (ISDS) – that would give private corporations the right to sue public authorities whenever they feel that local legislation impinges on their ability to generate ‘legitimate’ profits - and the implications that the high extent of liberalisation would bring. According to EUA, it would cast into doubt the ability of elected national and regional authorities to determine the nature of their higher education provisions and in particular the right to adopt or maintain measures for educational services receiving public funding or state support. Also, it would create the pressing need to ensure that privately funded foreign providers meet the same quality and accreditation requirements as domestic providers.
The 8th round of the TTIP negotiations concluded on 5 February and two additional rounds are planned before the summer break. As the parties had pledged to come to an agreement by 2015, a conclusion is expected by the end of this year. However, by the time being the status quo of the transatlantic partnership does not seem optimal for European higher education.