Canadian University Press — Toronto: A prominent international trade law firm says multilateral trade agreements pose a threat to public education.

Lawyers from Gottlieb and Pearson say private companies looking to invest in private, for-profit education in Canada could use provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to demand governments cut funding to state-run education or provide private companies with financial subsidies previously reserved only for public institutions.

“Right now, the education system is not under much of a threat but it may soon become because there are a lot of universities and education service providers who would like to expand outside of Canada and go elsewhere,” said Bernard Colas, one of two lawyers commissioned by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to analyze the impact of global trade treaties on education.

“If a foreign government agrees to giving market access to providers, in exchange it could ask Canada to do the same and then the public education services would be in danger,” Colas said.

CFS chair Ian Boyko said the lawyers’ conclusions confirm his organization’s suspicions that Canada’s participation in WTO negotiations could prove hazardous for post-secondary education.

“[The legal opinion] is a tool to demonstrate that our concerns are valid and are not just figments of our imagination,” Boyko said.

The lawyers conclude there were not only insufficient protections for public education in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) — a services agreement signed six years ago by members of the WTO — but also that the agreement endangers hiring preference given to Canadian teachers and the restriction of degree-granting authority to Canadian institutions.

“I would like to believe the Canadian negotiators have the right position,” said David Robinson, associate executive director of the CAUT. “Unfortunately, the track record for this negotiating team is not very good.”

The Canadian government has lost most of the WTO tribunals launched against it by foreign companies seeking greater access to Canadian markets.

Under the GATS, companies offering services in foreign countries can sue governments for providing unfair subsidies to local companies. The legal opinion, however, found these subsidies could be interpreted to include government funding of not-for-profit education.

The Canadian government claims services that are fully under public control, such as education and health care, are exempt from the agreement.

Critics of multilateral trade deals, however, say it is becoming increasing unclear if education is completely publicly administered in wake of recent developments that include degree-granting universities being allowed in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, and tax-credits for parents who send their children to private school in Ontario.

Such a mixture of public and private funding amounts to “creeping privatization,” according to the CFS, and might jeopardize a university’s status as a public institution protected under the GATS.

“The Department of International Trade is overzealous in its efforts to guarantee that our private service providers will be given equal treatment to public institutions in other countries,” said Boyko. “They’re not being diligent enough in understanding what that’s going to do to Canada.”

Not so, said Department of International Trade spokesperson Oussamah Tamim.

“The government has always had the power to regulate our public education, even when there is some collaboration with the private sector,” he said.

“There are some fears that our government might yield in exchange for other things, and that’s a legitimate concern&but to us, public education is not a bargaining chip that we’re willing to abandon a little bit in favour of other things,” said Tamim.

In tandem with activists who staged anti-WTO demonstrations last week, organizations like the CAUT and the CFS have been lobbying the federal government to keep public education off the negotiating table.

Robinson said the CAUT and CFS presented International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew with the legal opinion two weeks ago, but there has been no response so far from his office.