GLOBAL: Push for higher education services at WTO

The long-sidelined services portion of the World Trade Organisation's Doha development round is to get a push, reawakening hopes among some countries that access to foreign higher education markets could improve in a global trade deal that may be coming this year. WTO Director General Pascal Lamy has launched "horizontal talks" at the trade body which will allow negotiators to discuss the liberalisation of global services markets such as food, industrial goods and other issues simultaneously.

The aim is to create opportunities for trade-offs between these topics. Since the Doha round was launched in 2001, talks have mainly focused on individual subject areas, such as services, with diplomats and officials being restricted in offering market openings in services for concessions in other services. At stake is the extent to which universities and research organisations can operate in foreign countries that are fellow members of the WTO: whether they can set up premises and offices, operate distance learning courses, recruit students, commercialise research and undertake other key work.

Speaking at a meeting of the WTO trade negotiations committee in Geneva, Switzerland, Lamy said: "The time is coming soon to take our work to a higher level and to begin drawing together the threads to give sufficient reassurance that all the other negotiating issues are advancing as they should."

He directed senior officials concerned with all trade negotiating topics to meet and start the ball rolling. Initially, impetus to start these general talks will come from the recent progress made in the food, drink and industrial goods portions of the WTO round. But Lamy said he wanted some of the goodwill generated in these negotiations to kick-start the services talks.

Noting that at a meeting in Geneva in January several WTO members had expressed concern about how the services market access negotiations were proceeding with no formal offers of improving market access being made since 2006, Lamy stressed that to conclude agreements in principle on the goods talks negotiators "would need a certain level of comfort regarding the market access negotiations on services".

He continued: "In the absence of revised final offers - which are the ideal barometer of progress but which everyone agrees is for a later stage - an alternative means for providing such comfort could be devised." This would be informally "exchanging signals among participants" in a conference, where WTO members would say what services concessions they were prepared to make.

Its objective would be "to give a credible signal that the services negotiations are moving forward", said Lamy, adding: "The conference should be a two-way street and those involved must avoid it turning into a finger-pointing exercise."

If his plan is successful, agreements in principle on the goods talks would be secured by July, alongside informal commitments on liberalising services market access, including for higher education markets. These deals would then be written into a formal agreement by the end of the year.