Trade in education

By Wilhelm Neurohr, January 2015

The controversial TTIP and TISA free trade agreements threaten sell off culture and education.

Photo: © pontchen/

The endeavour by educational institutions to make financial profits on the stock exchange, such as the Anglo-American “Phorms AG” tried to do in its time, is now to be continued on a grand scale – with the help of a highly controversial transatlantic free trade agreement between the EU and the USA, TTIP for short, as well as an even further-reaching global agreement, abbreviated to TISA, which is currently being negotiated in parallel. The Waldorf schools with their non-profit character will not remain unaffected either.

Economists consider the education sector to be one of the biggest growth markets. The international financial markets are hoping for profits of 2.5 trillion dollars through the international “trade in education” on the booming “education market”. That is why at the instigation of influential lobbying networks transnational free trade now has its sights on culture and education after the already profitable privatisation of public energy and water supplies, and further trillions of profits are expected with the start of the complete privatisation of health systems.

Profit through “trade in education”

Private commercial education groups, further education providers and commercial kindergarten and crèche operators have long been pushing to enter the booming education market while at the same time talking down the public education system (including not-for-profit private schools). It has been possible to observe a great leap in the number of commercial higher education institutions and their external branches funded by large corporations: the 298 public higher education institutions in Germany are opposed by 129 commercial institutions. And even in the public higher education institutions funding from business means that the latter meanwhile has a say in research and teaching so that the freedom and independence of academia are at risk.

The more than 34,000 schools in Germany alone are deemed to posses great market potential; together with the vocational schools (2.5 million pupils) they teach more than eleven million pupils; well over 5,000 schools are privately funded with 726,000 pupils. Then there are almost 1,000 adult education institutions with nine million attendees per year and other further education institutions. There is justified concern that the interests of the current education and school providers will be neglected when the largest free trade zone in the world – with more than 800 million inhabitants and almost 60 percent of the global gross domestic product as well as 40 percent of world trade – will dictate the rules in a couple of years at the latest and initiate the commercialisation of the education market as well.

The aim of the free trade agreement is that public institutions, including the privately sponsored state-accredited alternative schools, can no longer be funded or that commercial education providers have to be funded in the same way. In addition, educational provision is to be put out to tender transnationally in which case commercial providers can act as competitors. The lobby of private providers will be involved in drawing up the tender criteria. This could well mean the beginning of the end of the establishment of free and independent schools, or at best the end of state support for and recognition of them in the event that a competing school is established on a commercial basis in the same location.

Education must not be taken over by commerce

If until now it was a matter of doing away with the outdated view that our schooling had to be built on a state basis alone instead of on the independent initiative and organisational freedom of those actually involved in school life, it is now a matter of defending against education and culture being taken over by economic actors with a profit interest for their own benefit instead of the common good, primarily large transnational service and education groups. Their interests are being placed above the democratically legitimised state provision in the secretly negotiated free trade agreements. What citizens and their parliaments think about it is only of secondary importance.

Business becomes dominant over the rights and cultural spheres and suffocates individual freedom and social impulses. And it wants to make incisive inroads into the educational landscape. But culture and education as elementary civil rights represent non-economic societal tasks and services of human beings for one another and the commonality, not for the markets; they have their own non-economic value. That is why they are out of place as “commodities” or “products” with commodity status in pseudo markets for “consumers of culture and education” because the profit-oriented commercial markets cannot produce any cultural goods or achievements but prevent the latter if they are not remunerative.

Greatest resistance movement in the existence of the EU

Never in the history of the European Union have so many people and civil society initiatives therefore been up in arms against an EU project such as currently against the secretive TTIP agreement and the even more secretive global TISA agreement. Hundreds of civil society NGOs have come together to resist TTIP and TISA and have already collected more than 700,000 signatures. An “alternative trade mandate” was developed and a stop to the negotiations demanded; all the negotiation texts should be published.

Throughout the country local and regional alliances against TTIP and TISA as well as CETA (free trade agreement with Canada as a “blueprint” for TTIP) are being established which undertake campaigns and events all over the place and bring about decisions and resolutions in local councils since local public services will also be affected. In contrast, the EU Commission and German government as well as the US administration and influential lobby associations are pushing for a rapid conclusion to the secret negotiations by 2015 at the latest before resistance in civil society causes the agreement to collapse.

European citizens’ initiative collects one million signatures

A European citizens’ initiative (ECI) was also set in train and is worth supporting which with the collection of one million signatures in at least seven EU countries is making use of the opportunity provided by the Lisbon Treaty (since 1 April 2012) to challenge the EU Commission about the agreements. Everyone can add their signature.

This time the controversial free trade agreements also pose a threat above all to environmental standards, consumer protection and social standards in addition to the cultural and education sphere discussed above. The jurisdiction of the state would be replaced in trade disputes by private arbitration courts which could lever out democratic laws and sentence states and tax payers to pay compensation for lost profits. TTIP goes far beyond any current bilateral and multilateral agreements in the service sector. The procedure with its lack of openness and transparency and the questionable involvement of the German government additionally highlights a gaping chasm in the way that the EU understands democracy: officials negotiating with companies about concerns of the population while the latter is to be left out in the cold? Functionaries elected by no one negotiate “in the name of the people” with the corporate sector in private about the basic values of the rule of law and the involvement of citizens in Europe as well as about cultural and educational issues.

General attack on democracy and culture

Cultural creatives and education providers identified the problem early on and are resisting the free trade agreement. Teaching trade unions in Europe and the USA are mobilising. They consider TTIP to represent a general attack on democratic decision-making in the education sector. At a European level the European Trade Union Committee for Education is also putting pressure on the negotiators. Various German teaching trade unions, the German trade union federation DGB and the service sector trade union Verdi have massively criticised the agreement. And booksellers are concerned about the fixed book price agreement.

Various German cultural bodies, the broadcasters and the German UNESCO Commission see TTIP as a breach of the UNESCO Cultural Conventions in force. The TTIP agreement contradicted our idea of culture to the core. Even the German government minister of state for culture Monika Grütters demanded that culture and education be taken out of the agreement. The Goethe Institute, Germany’s cultural institute whose bodies include well-known personalities from culture and science, including writers, musicians and art collectors, is also very critical of TTIP: culture and education should be specially protected and artistic productions could not be judged by the laws of the free market.

Liberating education from state and business

The debate about the problematic free trade agreements should be of concern also to parents, teachers and pupils at Waldorf schools and in their associations since they will also be affected by the consequences of the agreements. What is at stake is to prevent the takeover of culture and education by business and politics and their commercialisation. Schools need freedom; that is why nothing less is at stake than the liberation of intellectual and school life from the embrace of the state and business. Because state and business together want to achieve a dubious paradigm change with the free trade agreement which must be prevented.

About the author: Wilhelm Neurohr, town and country planner, chair of the staff council and Agenda 21 representative of Recklinghausen district council, active in various social and civil society initiatives as well as in an anthroposophical context (Netzwerk soziale Dreigliederung – Social Threefolding Network).


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