Paul Goulter: TPP puts profit ahead of quality education

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Image / iStock
Image / iStock

Imagine an education system where multi-national corporations could set up a school alongside your local public school, and then demand equal access to the taxpayer purse to fund that school.

It's a likely scenario because global businesses are on the hunt for new ways of getting their fingers into nations' multi-billion dollar public education purses. And here in New Zealand, the TPPA could provide that opportunity.

Even Singapore, which our education minister has hailed as one of the high performing education systems that we should look towards, has taken the precaution of carving education out of the TPPA deal.

Our negotiators either didn't manage, or more likely didn't even try, to get a similar "out" clause for education in New Zealand. As a consequence, they have put at risk the rights of future governments to protect our public education system against any "level-playing field" changes that would disadvantage global edu-businesses.

This is because the TPPA aims to further liberalise trade and investment in ways that have very little to do with trade in its original sense of reducing tariffs and limiting the use of import quotas. In reality, the agreement encourages government to adopt education policies that pursue trade and investment "opportunities".

This is likely to be compounded by negotiations over yet another global deal in the form of the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) where New Zealand and other countries are continuing to push for the inclusion of education in the agreement.

That deal, which also stops sovereign nations from enacting laws and regulations hindering foreign corporations from setting up business, would provide a strong backup to the TPPA.

Already, changes in our education system, such as the introduction of charter schools, have laid the groundwork for corporates to move in. The US shows us a glimpse of the future. There, the corporate market its fingers firmly into the multi-billion dollar public education purse through the big business success story - charter schools. Initially charter schools began on the fringes of the education system, just as they are in New Zealand.

Now there are 6000 charter schools and 40 per cent of them are run, not just by business interests, but by big profit-making corporations that enjoy billions of dollars of annual taxpayer funding.

Our concerns for the future are shared by educators in the UK who worry about the secret negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

As with the TPPA, critics are concerned that the TTIP would effectively and irreversibly open up education services to free trade with the US as well as resulting in an inevitable expansion of for-profit education companies in UK schools.

The free school and academy programme - the UK equivalent of charter schools - has already opened the way for private companies to cream millions of pounds off the public sector in the form of consultancy fees and expensive property deals. This is despite a policy ruling out profit-taking.

In New Zealand, our education budget is $12.9 billion dollars a year. In a TPPA deal multi nationals could have as much right as the public sector to run schools or supply textbooks and other learning resources that may or may not be relevant in the New Zealand context. And taxpayers will have to cough up for it while watching our local schools being undermined.

Back in the US where the private sector has been allowed to effectively "compete" with the public sector, public schools have been undermined to the point of collapse.

In Chicago, poverty and massive inequality have resulted in just 69 per cent of students graduating. So-called "failing" schools have been closed down and replaced by charter schools in many cases run by politically connected outside companies.

And of course, many of those charter schools have found a way of ensuring the difficult to educate children don't find a place - things like requiring parents to become "investors" and counselling out and discouraging the enrolment of special needs children. This leaves the struggling public sector, mainly those in poor areas, to pick up the children left behind after the corporate cherry picker has raided their patch.

It's not surprising that even in international education ratings, such as PISA, the US consistently rates well below that of most other developed countries, including New Zealand.

This is the future under a system that supports big global companies gaining a slice of public education funding. Our government needs to be reminded that quality public education is the right of every child and must never become a taxpayer-funded opportunity for global corporate profit.

Paul Goulter is New Zealand Educational Institute national secretary.

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