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.