Free trade agreements and tertiary education

Posted By TEU on Oct 29, 2011 |


The TEU recognises the importance of trade to New Zealand’s economic well-being and does not oppose trade agreements in principle. We are concerned, however, with the neo-liberal ideology that underpins much international trade policy and free trade agreements. This ideology emphasises a market-driven approach to economic and social policy, which, when applied to trade, prioritises the free movement of goods, services and investment between international markets. However, this freedom is often at the expense of local development, environmental protections and human rights – in particular, the rights of indigenous peoples.

The TEU is concerned that many international trade and investment agreements also actively promote further deregulation, privatisation and commercialisation in New Zealand. When such agreements include commitments on education, the result has often been negative, with cuts in public funding, increased casualisation, limitations placed on professional autonomy, academic freedom and intellectual property rights, and restrictions on student access. Education is not a commercial product to be bought and sold. It is a fundamental human right that should be available to all citizens, no matter their how old they are, where they live or what they earn. All international trade agreements that include education commitments need to focus on improving educational quality and access, rather than on allowing private companies to make profits from students or governments.

In addition, free trade agreements often threaten national sovereignty because governments risk costly litigation by multinational companies where domestic policy is regarded as impeding the free movement of goods, services and investment. In New Zealand, such agreements also undermine the rights and responsibilities of the Crown and tangata whenua under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Protecting society and the environment

The objective of trade policy should not be simply to increase the volume of trade and rate of economic growth but to improve living standards and quality of life in the form of human rights, labour rights and protection of the environment.

Until now, the limited market focus of most trade agreements has failed to address the local social, cultural and natural impacts of “freeing up” trade in goods, services and investment. Governments need to take action to correct these market failures and to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are fairly distributed and any negative impacts addressed.

TEU commitments under this policy

  1. The TEU opposes New Zealand’s accession to or continued membership of any international agreement that does, or is likely to,
    • lessen New Zealand control of its own education system;
    • increase pressures for privatisation of all or part of that system; or
    • reduce funding for, or otherwise damage, New Zealand’s public education system.
  1. The TEU also opposes any tertiary educational institutional alliance, merger or other arrangement which does, or is likely to:
    • lessen the New Zealand control of the institution; privatise or increase pressure for privatisation of the institution; or
    • otherwise damage the public and academic nature of that institution or New Zealand’s public education system.
  1. The TEU reaffirms its belief in a high quality, publicly-owned and funded tertiary education system that gives everyone a chance to learn and helps make our communities and economy strong.

  2. Further, the TEU opposes commitments in trade and investment agreements that constrain the rights of international students in their host country. These rights should be regulated nationally by the host government. Currently, the needs of international students and the educational system that hosts them are framed almost exclusively in economic terms. National regulation and international agreements should instead focus on the educational, social and cultural aspects of their participation in our education system.
  3. The TEU will actively promote informed discussion and debate with government, within the education sector and with unions in New Zealand and internationally about the nature and implications of free trade agreements.

  4. The TEU will work with other organisations with similar concerns to replace free trade agreements based on a neo-liberal ideology with ones that regulate international commerce and promote economic cooperation without compromising the right of New Zealanders to adopt education, labour and environment policies of their choice.

Passed by Council, Aug 2011

Policy review date: August 2013

Acknowledgement to Dr Patricia Ranald for her analysis of free trade policy in the article“The government’s trade policy statement: a mixed bag, with some victories for AFTINET campaigns on the PBS and investor rights”12th February 2011 and which has been incorporated into this policy.


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