CARICOM told to protect tertiary education sector

BASSETERRE, St Kitts, June 30, 2008 – St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas has cautioned the region to protect its tertiary education sector from full-scale liberalisation.

He said providing education for the region’s people should be seen as a public good and not as an economic or commercial enterprise.

His caution came as he pointed out that the United States, the lead competitor in the tertiary education sector, has approached all 145 World Trade Organisation (WTO) member states seeking “full commitments for market access and national treatment in higher education and training services, for adult education, and for ‘other’ education”.

Dr Douglas, who is the region’s lead spokesman on education, said that given that one significant aspect of the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is non-reciprocity, Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states are cynical about and resistant to this attempt by the US.

“This is one area that is worthy of further discussion and cooperation since developed countries such as the USA are much more competitive in this sector and the domestic providers such as those in the Caribbean Community are not ready for an open, market driven environment,” he said.

Dr Douglas noted that with this trend toward the liberalisation of higher education, a debate has emerged about whether Tertiary Level Institutions (TLIs) should be viewed as a public or a private good.

The St Kitts leader noted that many student leaders and academics have criticised the “for profit” TLE agenda, driven by entrepreneurial universities and multinational service providers.

“They suggest that the concept of the student as a consumer, and TLI as a product, fails to acknowledge the importance of education as a social tool and runs counter to the creation of a knowledge driven society, with democratic, tolerant and active citizens,” he said.

“There have been calls for universities to protect the essential role of TLI as a public good, and not to support its subordination to market forces that will undermine accessibility and exacerbate social inequalities.”

Dr Douglas’ comments came on the heels of the Caribbean-New York Conference at which a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Medgar Evers College in New York.