Conference on Higher Education as Commerce: Cross Border Education and the Service Directive

A3ES and Cipes Conference

Porto, 9-11 October 2014

Cross border education is a multi-billion Euro activity. Over the years attempts have been made to transform education into a tradable service that could be provided across borders without the imposition of barriers by national authorities. Early in the present century, a bid to include higher education in the General Agreement on Trade in Services saw negotiations launched within the framework of the World Trade Organization. This initiative was withdrawn following a joint declaration, signed by the presidents of organizations representing higher education institutions in U.S., Canada and Europe.
Cross border education activities raise fundamental issues about the quality of the services provided. In 2005, both UNESCO and the OECD recognised that university degrees supplied by foreign providers were attracting a rapidly increasing clientele. To safeguard against low-quality services, both organisations jointly drew up Guidelines on Quality Provision in Cross-border Higher Education, inviting “governments to establish comprehensive systems of quality assurance and accreditation for cross-border higher education, recognising that this involves both sending and receiving countries”. 
More recently, the European Union issued a Service Directive (Directive 2006/123/EC) of the European Parliament and of the Council. The European Commission (EC), drawing on decisions of the European Court of Justice, has pressed member states to implement this directive, including those “services of higher education” provided by private institutions. 
The view taken by the EC holds that programmes and their diplomas awarded by a private institution of one Member State (MS) which are on offer in another MS, for example through franchise agreements, are the responsibility of the MS where the awarding authority is located. The Commission’s interpretation is that responsibility for ensuring the quality of the training and education thus provided is not incumbent on the receiving Host Member State. Rather, responsibility for verification and approval for the programmes and diplomas awarded lies with the MS from which the private provider hails. Under this interpretation, verification, quality and accreditation fall to the exporting MS, not the importing MS. Clearly it is more blessed to give than to receive!
Nevertheless, to ensure that private education service providers from other MS in fact and in law form part of the home MS system of higher education, a MS may carry out certain checks. However, the requirements and conditions for the prior checks are subject, in the view of the Commission, to the tests of justification and proportionality and should thus be clear, known in advance, not excessively burdensome (e.g. no certified translations), contain clear criteria, entail reasonable costs, etc.
In effect, the EU would appear to have ignored completely the measured and considered opinion of both UNESCO and OECD. As currently interpreted, the Service Directive would seem to leave aside the option of receiving MS putting measures in hand to ensure their citizens are alerted and made aware of low quality services supplied by private providers from another MS.
A new and further dimension in Cross Border (Higher) Education currently adding impetus – and, in the views of some, considerable potential – to this general theme is the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This variation on e-learning has recently emerged in both the U.S. and in Europe where a number of universities are actively engaged in this venture. At present, it is by no means clear whether this development entails a more complex role to internet education, may act as a potential accelerant to Cross Border (Higher) Education or is simply another educational fad.
The conference will address the topic of Cross Border Higher Education, its dimensions, the issues it poses for nation-state systems of higher education, its associated potential, including the new phenomenon of MOOCS. What are the consequences that follow from the EU Service Directive? What measures may national quality assurance agencies envisage to ensure an acceptable balance between the interpretation of higher education as a tradable service against its abiding mission to advance knowledge, to raise the educational level of the Nation’s citizens, to sustain its innovative capacity and to uphold its social cohesion?


VENUE: Anfiteatro Ferreira da Silva
Faculdade de Ciências
Rua do Campo Alegre, 1021