Lifelong learning and the global market – will Europe benefit from American competition?

Should lifelong learning be opened up to competition? In particular, wwould the world be better if American providers were allowed to enter the European market – and, presumably, vice versa?

This idea is being discussed as part of the free trade treaty that the European Union is currently negotiating with the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it is fair to say, isn’t at the tip of most people’s tongues in Britain. Essentially, it is a set of negotiations over free trade between the EU and US. In so far as people have heard of it, it is probably in connection with the health service, where the proposed treaty will make it much easier for private health providers to compete across the Atlantic.ttip

But the treaty will cover many areas, including at least some education services. Precisely how these are being handled in the negotiations is something we will probably never know. The whole process takes place behind closed doors, in secret and without democratic oversight, and thse responsible issue only a minimum of officially-sanctioned ‘news’.

Higher education is an obvious target for private firms, particularly in the UK where the universities are legally private (charitable) corporations, albeit that many of their activities are publicly funded. The Universities and Colleges Union has expressed grave misgivings over the likely consequences for higher education in Britain.

But the treaty could also cover other areas of post-school education, especially if they operate in any kind of ‘mixed economy’. This covers further education and skills training, which may involve a mixture of public funding and both private (including voluntary sector) and public provision, as well as adult learning. The American negotiators have explicitly expressed interest in ‘privately-operated adult and other education services’ – including vocational training, and covering services provided digitally along with those delivered face-to-face.

You may well think that the benefits of American corporations providing numeracy skills, second language teaching or local history classes probably aren’t immediately apparent. Past experience, though, shows that where the US has introduced particular services into free trade treaties, it is because someone has lobbied for them to be included. The bubbling world of MOOCs is another likely target for commercial competitors. And their track record suggests that the larger corporations will use the force of the law to protext their rights, challenging regulation and inspection regimes, and blocking the publication of unfavourable comment.

At this point, I should declare an interest: since the mid-80s I have been a card-carrying member of the only political party in Britain to campaign against TTIP, the Greens. So you may decide that I am an untrustworthy witness, or you may share my unease over what I see as a threat to standards and – given the lack of transparency over this process – to democracy. If so, you should at least be writing to share your views with your regional MEP.

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2 thoughts on “Lifelong learning and the global market – will Europe benefit from American competition?

  1. You express just what I feel . I am a new convert to the Greens being afraid that they tended too much to New Age but now I think they are getting down to offering  a real challenge to the other parties. In fact the only real challenge which tries to look ahead to stop our continueing loss of habitat and animal life and the prospect of continually more chaotic weather.    I think Britain is rather inclined to follow the USA rather slavishly and continental Europe is more questioning.    There is the other strand in the USA which sees intellectual property as something to be shared and advanced by all i.e  Mozilla Firefox, the unix movement and lots of initiatives of a more local nature into co-operatives and community ownership.I think also of the forums often attached to specialist magazines where advice is offered free by very expert people They are a minority but we mustn’t write off the USA with the greedy major companies who stop at nothing to increase their wealth.     With a free internet there could be great opportunities for an education which does not put people off by its expense. Learning in a solitary way by internet would possibly lack the shared experience of the real professor and interaction with fellow students.       Best wishes Mike

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