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Responding to globalization of education in the Americas—
Strategies to support public education

Presentation to IDEA conference, Quito, Ecuador
October 1999

Larry Kuehn, Director of Research and Technology
British Columbia Teachers' Federation
Vancouver, B.C. Canada

Public education must play a central role in any society that values democracy and social justice. It follows that supporting public education must be a key part of the program of groups committed to making their society more democratic and equitable. Globalization as it is currently developing is a threat to these values of democracy and social equity and to public education systems that reflect and support those values.

This analysis of the impact of globalization on education has six parts:

  1. The neo-liberal nature of the globalization process;
  2. Education and neo-liberal globalization;
  3. How neo-liberal policies are being carried out in education;
  4. How international trade and investment agreements, treaties and trading blocs are related to education policies;
  5. The Free Trade Area in the Americas (FTAA) process and the Inter-American Education Program; and
  6. Suggestions for trans-national strategies to defend public education.

  1. The neo-liberal nature of the globalization process.

    It is possible to conceive of a globalization that is friendly to democracy, social equity and a healthy environment. Indeed, successes from a "globalization from below" can be identified. Greenpeace, for example, has influenced the policies of corporations through its transnational campaigns around a range of environmental issues. Some segments of the labour movement have provided solidarity support to workers involved in struggles in other countries. At times this has provided the extra impetus needed for a win for workers rights. An international coalition of Non-governmental Organizations—using the Internet to spread information and critique—played a key role in getting negotiation for the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) stopped within the institutions of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

    However, most of what is called globalization is not friendly to the environment, the rights of workers, or to those who support government action on behalf of social justice. As an example of the direction and power of most globalization efforts, one need look no further than the principles behind the MAI. Although negotiations to impose these were blocked in the OECD, the same principles are now being put on the table for the so-called "millennium round" of negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO) set to begin in Seattle in November 1999.

    Neo-liberal policies are characterized by the commodification and marketization of all activity. In the areas that have been considered public services, neo-liberals call for programs previously conducted for the public good to be moved into the market through privatization. Rather than being provided on a free basis to all, whatever their economic position, fees are to be charged to those who use the service.

    Free public education has an equalizing effect in societies. It ensures that children can be educated, regardless of the economic status of their families and thus contributes to social equity. The loss of universal public education consistently produces more inequality in societies.

    Neo-liberal globalization does not just reduce public expenditures and marketize programs that were previously government-run and tax supported. It also requires governments to open their economies to competition from outside, removing tariffs and other barriers to transnational corporations taking over local markets.

    The impact of globalization is not just on trade and production, or on services that have been public, such as education. It also has an impact on culture, often overwhelming local cultures with a commodified and homogenized transnational culture—described by Peter McLaren as the "global amusement culture." The elimination of legal barriers to the entry of transnational commercial culture is one factor in its overpowering of the local. Still another factor, though, is the development of technologies that are in themselves border-crashing.

    The new information technologies can be used to challenge neo-liberalism, as the campaign against the MAI used the Internet to organize internationally. However, as important as information and communications technologies are as tools for those opposing neoliberal globalization, they are only marginal in significance compared to the ability of a handful of transnational media companies to flood the globe with TV, video, film, news services and music. The impact of these global media is described by Waters as placing under multinational corporate control the culture and its social arrangements for the production, exchange, and expression of signs and symbols—meanings, beliefs, and preferences, tastes and values (Waters, 1995).

    All of these neo-liberal and globalizing directions have an important impact on education. They affect who determines the substance of the curriculum, how education is delivered, who has access to education and to how much, and how what happens in schools is relevant to the cultural experiences of those being educated. Some of these are dealt with in a companion paper on the impact of fifteen years of neo-liberalism on education by Carlos Lopez.

  2. Education and neo-liberal globalization.

    Education is a major area of government expenditure and is a significant potential target for privatization. It is important in the neo-liberal project because of the size of the market that it represents, the central importance of education to the economy, and the potential challenge to corporate globalization if education succeeds in producing critical citizens for a democratic society.

    While basic education is currently funded primarily by the state in most countries, the significant costs to government make it an inviting target for cuts to expenditures. In less developed countries, cuts have been driven by imposed structural adjustments (International Monetary Fund SAPs). Cuts to expenditures have meant limiting teacher salaries, creating worse teaching conditions and, in some cases, imposing user fees. In developed countries similar reductions have often been justified by the requirements of "global competitiveness" to reduce taxes and thus revenues available for public services. Thus, while the mechanisms differ in more and less developed countries, they produce a similar result of reductions to public education. This is often accompanied by a growth in private education for those who can afford it, and thus two-tiered provision of education.

    The huge size of the education enterprise is pointed out by Education International, the international trade secretariat for education unions. It says "global public spending on education tops one trillion dollars. This figure represents the costs of over 50 million teachers, one billion pupils and students, and hundreds of thousands of educational establishments throughout the world." This is the last great frontier to be tapped for profit-making ventures, if the public sector can be even partially replaced by privatized education.

    In looking at the potential for trade in education services, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Background Note on Education Services points out that much of basic education is not currently within the trade regime because it is "supplied neither on a commercial basis nor in competition." It further notes, however, that a growing number of countries allow for private participation that would fall under international trade rules.

    The WTO identifies significant growth international trade in education at the tertiary or post-secondary level. The forms of trade include students studying abroad, international marketing of curricula and academic programs, the establishment of "branch campuses" and franchises, along with distance education.

    The development of distance education offers the easiest entry into transnational education projects. Carried across borders by new technologies, it can be offered more cheaply on a transnational basis than any other form of education. The advantages for profit in this area are similar to those in film and television. Courses can be developed for one market and the most of the development costs recooped. With very little additional investment, these courses can then be offered in other countries, with a low price still providing additional profits. Local course developers are then at a very real disadvantage because they cannot produce courses for the low prices offered by the transnationals. It is not surprising that distance education is being pushed as a form of education in this global context.

    The United States is by far the largest exporter of education in an international trade context, so it should not be a surprise that it has put on the agenda of the WTO reduction of impediments to the growth of education exports to other countries, both in the more and less developed countries.

    In addition to being a market to be exploited, education is also central to economic production. The spread of technology is reducing on a global basis the amount of production that requires unskilled labour. This is the case even in economies that are based primarily on the export of resources. As well, local goods traditionally produced on a low-skilled, high labour intensive basis are often driven out of the market by goods that are imported, with governments no longer able to use laws to protect this local production.

    Business is increasingly interested in defining the nature of education so that it produces workers who fit the needs of business. When education is seen as largely in the public rather than private interest, it is more likely to have a range of social and cultural objectives, along with the economic. When it becomes privatized and part of the market, social and cultural concerns become much less important, unless they can also be seen as part of the market system.

    Of most threat to neo-liberal policies, however, is a populace that is educated to expect a democratic society that serves the interests of that society, rather than the interests of global capital. By eliminating public education and the set of social expectations that it produces when it is working at its best, the likelihood is reduced that a populace will demand that its government place the highest priority on protecting the social and cultural interests of its people.

  3. How are neo-liberal policies being carried out in education?

    Three major vehicles are being used to spread the neo-liberal policies in education: ideology, international trade and investment treaties and agreements, and international agencies, particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank institutions.

    Dominance of neo-liberal ideology.

    Ideology plays an important role in creating the openings for institutional change. Neo-liberal ideological dominance of was built over several decades. It began with intellectuals committed to individualism over all manifestations of collective interests and actions. It spread through institutions such as the University of Chicago and other university economics departments. It was brought into government policy in Chile after the coup in 1973, and dominated British and U.S. governments in the 1980s. Concurrently, alternatives from the left lost their dominance in most countries.

    The now pervasive ideology of the market has created what some have described as an ideological "monoculture." When neo-liberal policies are criticized, a common response is that "there is no alternative."

    Trade and investment treaties.

    This ideological climate creates fertile ground for the interests of global capital to be translated into government policies everywhere. In the case of international trade and investment treaties, governments voluntarily enter into agreements that will limit their capacity to act on behalf of their citizens—and this is promoted as positive. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being debated in Canada, one of the neo-liberal think tanks said one of its advantages is that it would prohibit governments from giving into democratic demands from the voters.

    Two international agreements are in the formation stages at this time, and should be of particular concern for us to understand and to act to oppose: One is the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which will be under negotiation in the "millennium round" being initiated at the November meeting of the World Trade Organization. The other is the Free Trade Area in the Americas (FTAA), which has been pursued through a series of Summits of the Americas. The next of these Summits is scheduled to be held in Quebec City in Canada during 2001.

    While most people think of goods when they hear the word trade, the agreements currently under consideration actually focus to a much larger degree on investments and trade in services than in goods. The world economy is increasingly a service economy, and services have traditionally been delivered by local workers in a local economy. That situation in rapidly changing, particularly as technology allows for services to be provided anywhere in the world, such as call centres in the Caribbean to serve Canadian customers or data processing provided to a U.S. company from the Philippines and transmitted by satellite. Similarly, distance education can be provided from Canada to Mexico, as is the case for

    David Korten has pointed out that "the real agenda of those promoting these trade agreements is not to eliminate borders, but rather to redraw them so as to establish what once belonged to the community, to be shared among its members, now belongs to private corporations for the benefit of their managers and shareholders."

    General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the World Trade Organization.

    The World Trade Organization web site ( gives this description of GATS:

    "The GATS is the first multilateral agreement to provide legally enforceable rights to trade in all services. It has a built-in commitment to continuous liberalization through periodic negotiations. And it is the world's first multilateral agreement on investment, since it covers not just cross-border trade but every possible means of supplying a service, including the right to set up a commercial presence in the export market."

    The U.S. Trade Representative has indicated that the U.S. wants all services—explicitly including health and education—in the upcoming negotiations on GATS. This increases the stakes for those who believe that public education must be protected from being totally commodified and moved outside any chance of democratic control.

    Canadians have already seen the impact of placing services in the NAFTA, effects that would be replicated in an expanded GATS that includes education. One aspect has been called the "ratchet effect" because it allows changes to go only in one direction—towards removing more from the public sector, never allowing the return of any privatized service into the public sector.

    The proposed approach to GATS would automatically make all services subject to the trade rules, such as "national treatment." "National treatment" means that any foreign investor must be treated at least as favorably as any national service provider. If, for example, students are eligible for a subsidy at a Canadian university, then students at a U.S. university that offered programs in Canada would also have to eligible for the subsidy. You can see that these provisions substantially reduce the capacity of government to have control over its social policy to serve the interests of its own citizens.

    Even if a service—such as education—were declared as exempted from the provisions of GATS, there would be continuing pressure to give up that exemption. And once the reservation on the service is given up, it is for all practical purposes impossible to bring it back—the ratchet only allows movement into, but never out of the coverage under the trade terms.

    Those who believe that education must be preserved as a public system must join with others and express their opposition to their governments' agreeing to this approach to bringing the defeated provisions of the MAI in through the WTO GATS negotiations.

  4. The Free Trade Area in the Americas (FTAA).

    A series of summits of leaders of the countries in the Americas (with the exclusion of Cuba) have been aimed at creating a free trade area in the Americas. The process began in 1994 with the objective of completion of negotiations by 2005. The governments of the countries covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement have been pursuing a policy of having provisions such those in NAFTA being extended throughout the hemisphere. The Canadian government describes this as creating "common rules across the Hemisphere, making it easier and less bureaucratic to do business and discouraging corruption."

    One element is different in the FTAA process from those of the other trade pacts. In NAFTA, the WTO GATS and in APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), education is placed completely within an economic context. Education is seen as contributing to economic development, or as a service that should be seen as a commodity subject to trade and trade rules. This comes through particularly in the case of APEC, which has two committees that focus on education—a Human Resources Working Group and an Education Forum. The agenda for both of these is education as producing human capital for the economic purposes of the economy.

    In contrast, the Summit of the Americas process has a process to consider education policy separate from the tables at which trade issues are negotiated. The scope of the education program differs as well, in being concerned about social objectives of education, not just economic aims.

    It is a section of the Organization of American States (OAS), not trade negotiators who have been given the secretariat responsibility for the education initiatives. The agenda of education activities for the hemispheric process is called the "Inter-American Program of Education." [The text of the program can be found on the OAS web site:

  5. The Inter-American Program of Education.

    The Inter-American Program of Education is diverse and complex. Some elements—at least in their rhetoric—are potentially progressive, providing openings for empowerment and participation, with a focus on human rights and democratic development. Other parts are probably regressive, weakening the base of public influence and promoting corporate friendly, neo-liberal approaches. The program is also silent about the major influence on directions that are played by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and its regional companion, the Inter-American Development Bank.

    Several potentially progressive objectives are set out in the Inter-American Education Program:

    • Support for policies to "universalize access to a quality education to all sectors of the population, with special concern for at-risk groups."
    • Promote programs that support "socio-economically at-risk boys, girls, youth and adults."
    • Promote an educational policy that considers human rights, education for peace and democratic values, equality of opportunity and rights between men and women, and gender equity.
    • Promote the collaboration of institutions dedicated to educational development as related to citizenship, multicultural societies and sustainable development.
    • Promote the consolidation and collaboration of institutions dedicated to indigenous education.
    • Provide support for the development of the educational systems of countries with especially difficult economic circumstances.

    All of these objectives, obviously, are open to interpretation. What resources are provided and who carries out the activities and how they understand the purposes will affect greatly whether any of the progressive potential is delivered. Any or all could be carried out in ways that, despite appearances, reinforce unequal power structures. However, the rhetoric in the statements at least leave room for proposing positive programs from the perspective of social justice and democratic development.

    Other objectives are more problematic. For example, "Stimulate the increasing application of reliable measures of educational efficiency" probably means more standardized testing programs aimed at providing cost/benefit analysis that only an accountant could believe actually represents what happens in the educational situation. Similarly, "diffusion of successful innovations in education for work" could be code for preparing young people to be docile workers. Calling for the use of information technology to improve teachers' training could be just a way of abandoning the state's responsibility for providing sound training of teachers, leaving them to be trained only by the use of video and computer-based communication.

    Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the OAS Inter-American Program of Education is it's failure to even mention the IMF, the World Band and the Inter-American Development Bank. Some of the problems identified for addressing are the direct result of IMF structural adjustment policies. Cuts to government expenditures often means reductions in the resources that go to public education and the introduction of user fees. These have the effect of making universality of education impossible, and leave few resources to promote indigenous education, gender equity and education for peace and democratic values.

    The demands placed on countries of the South by the World Bank and the IDB to meet the conditions for loans are also often at odds with the positive objectives expressed in the Inter-American Education Program. They often call for decentralization of school management, for example. This is framed as promoting efficiencies and empowering communities. In fact, a common effect, and possibly the intent, is to reduce the capacity of either teachers or communities to have real impact on education policy. Instead of gaining the leverage from large groups of teachers and parents working together, they are broken into small units that are virtually powerless in having political influence on getting the resources and conditions that would achieve goals of universality, equity and quality.

  6. Trans-national strategies to defend public education in the Americas.

    Groups of committed people working persistently on common concerns for social justice can have an impact. This work needs organization and coordination, and requires coalitions among unions, NGOs, and other organizations with a social base. These are some strategies for consideration of those who are committed to defending public education in the Americas.

    1. Defend public education at the local and national levels with a strategic consciousness of the global context. Inform and mobilize teachers to take part in this defense.

      Although much of the action to defend public education will take place at the local level, it is important to understand the global context that is shaping national and local policies. We can also all learn from one another about approaches that have worked effectively, sharing our strategies and linking our actions.

      World Teachers' Day each October 5 is an example of a global activity, which consists of national and local actions. In 1999 the Education International (EI) has identified the theme as "Teachers, a force for social change."

    2. Counter neo-liberal ideology with an alternative program for public education nationally and internationally.

      Part of the strategic strength of neo-liberalism is that there is no alternative. A key element of the strategy of IDEA—Initiatives for Democratic Education in the Americas—is to propose and debate alternatives that support public education as a right for all.

    3. Conduct research and analysis and share it with other organizations throughout the Americas.

      Many thinkers and writers are producing materials in support of the neo-liberal positions, financed by corporations and international bodies. It is essential that unions and other groups who have an alternative agenda produce the intellectual work to support alternatives to neo-liberalism.

    4. Build communication links among organizations with conferences and communication using the Internet.

      The successful campaign by NGOs to block the negotiation of the MAI at the OECD is a demonstration of how essential it is to use the global communication networks to maintain links among groups to share information, strategies and successes.

    5. Work in international and regional teacher and labour organizations (e.g., Education International, CEA, FOMCA, CUT, ORIT) to develop common understanding and strategies.

      International organizations of trade unions have a key role to play. They have existing networks and more resources than most civil society groups that can be devoted to building links across borders. They can reflect the public interest, including workers' interests to international bodies where governments are creating and extending the neo-liberal global structures.

    6. Participate in building a global civil society that works toward a healthy environment and social justice, including public education. Utilize these groups to influence decisions of international organizations such as the WTO, the Summit of the Americas, and the Organization of American States.

      Global and regional civil society organizations are bringing together many non-governmental organizations to research the issues, promote progressive positions and develop common campaigns. These groups are intervening to make their voices heard with demonstrations, by holding alternative summits, and meeting with government officials to put forward an agenda that reflects environmental health and social, economic and labour rights.

      The Canadian government says that there is a commitment to having civil society views heard as part of the negotiation process related to the meeting of the Summit of the Americas in Canada. The OAS Inter-American Education Plan includes mention of consultation with groups representing academics and teacher organizations. Education ministers from the Americas meet twice yearly to discuss the developments in the Inter-American Education Plan.

      Activities like the IDEA (Initiatives for Democratic Education in the Americas) conference in September/October 1999 in Quito, Educador, are aimed at ensuring that there is a well thought out and widely supported program to put forward to these international bodies on the issues important to public education in the Americas.

      The Continental Social Alliance is another civil society organization aimed at bringing together labour, environmental, and social action groups to the agenda neo-liberal globalization in the Americas.

      For these international efforts to have an effect they must have a social base of activists who have an understanding of the nature of the neo-liberal project and who support an alternative global civil society described by some as "globalization from below."

    7. Take part in international campaigns aimed at achieving social rights, including the right to an education and the right for workers to form organizations that provide protection.

      The success of the "Jubilee 2000" campaign for debt-relief for the most indebted nations of the South shows that it is possible for an international campaign to put an issue on the global agenda. The model of this campaign should be studied in developing campaigns for social, economic and labour rights as part of the response to global and regional trade negotiations. A campaign for "social clauses" in trade agreements is an approach being pursued by the ICFTU (Intenational Confederation of Free Trade Unions) and by the Education International.

    8. Constantly challenge the "cult of the inevitable"—the claim that there is no alternative to neo-liberal policies.

      Those who are pushing the neo-liberal agenda aim to deflate opposition with constant claims that there is no alternative to making economies more "flexible" by eliminating social, economic and labour rights. They contend that transferring more and more power to the corporations and producing increasing inequality in all societies are just inevitable side effects.

      Presenting sound alternatives, along with examples of successful campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 and the opposition to the MAI, is essential if we are to motivate ongoing resistance to the damage created by trade and investment agreements and neo-liberal globalization.

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