GATS is a set of regulations operated by the World Trade Organization (WTO), aimed at liberalising international trade.
GATS comprises a framework agreement and a set of overviews, in which each country specifies the sectors to which it grants access, as well as the degree of access. The agreement covers almost all classes of services, including higher education.
One of the most important principles of GATS is that of equal treatment of suppliers, both domestic and foreign, in addition to the simplification of national regulations, with the aim of meeting the objective of increased liberalisation.
GATS and higher education
GATS can have many implications for the internationalisation of higher education. The agreement could potentially contribute to the growth of various forms of supply and use of cross-border educational services, e.g. e-learning, distance learning and virtual institutions, student and teacher mobility, not to mention the physical establishment by instititutions of teaching departments in other countries. Such services will be supplied by both public and private institutions of higher education, and to a greater extent by private institutions.
Many people will argue that GATS will lead to stronger market orientation among suppliers of higher education services, since economics is an ever more powerful catalyst for the development of educational services offered across borders. However, such trends often have other origins, such as the growth in the global knowledge economy, an increasing demand for higher education and for the development of new ways of delivering higher education, increased pressure on public-sector budgets and a generally increased focus on privatisation and the market economy. Many people believe that GATS will help to reinforce these trends.
GATS and higher education in Norway
As a point of departure, Norway has a relatively open policy as regards trade in services, placing fewer obstacles in its way than most countries do. Through GATS Norway has committed itself to open up all levels of its education sector, including higher education. There are a few general limitations on this policy: subsidies and other forms of state support are restricted to institutions or companies registered in Norway, while personal support measures such as student grants are as a general rule awarded only to Norwegian citizens.
In the Norwegian debate it has been pointed out that the Norwegian higher education sector is already in the process of undergoing significant changes, particularly as a result of the Quality Reform. Many would argue that certain aspects of the Quality Reform are in themselves leading to a more market-orientated way of operating and managing the higher education sector, for example in that a high proportion of institutional financing is related to the number of students taught, a situation that is leading to a certain degree of competition among institutions.
GATS is a complex concept. The Agreement was launched in 1995, which means that it has been in operation for a relatively short period of time. Several technical and legal aspects of the agreement are still unclear, and some are still being negotiated. Norway has been a member of GATS since 1995 and, with a few exceptions, has agreed to observe the GATS regulations in matters concerning higher education.