From education to employment

European Legislation for Integrated Marketplace Could Lead to Education Test Case

For several years now, writes Michelle Price from FE News, the bureaucrats residing in Brussels have forged ahead with their ambitious, and arguably positive, vision of an integrated European marketplace.

With a raft of legislation, including numerous services directives issued by the European Commission, looming on the horizon, it seems this vision is rapidly becoming a reality. In theory, this wide-ranging legislation aims to establish a free market in services between European Union member states, which should boost Europe’s general economy by making inter-state trading, and inter-state transactions in general, freer and easier to execute.

If Europe is to prove a plausible global-economic competitor to the US and China, the wrinkles of intra-European inconsistencies will require a good ironing-out, or so the argument goes. Therefore, the European Commission has been tasked with legislating for this purpose.

The Reflex; Jumping the Gun?

As with all European directives (which, it is probably fair to say, are often opposed as a matter of reflex), concerns have been voiced, especially among the unions, (which, it is probably fair to say, oppose most things as a matter of reflex). In particular, union critics have highlighted Article 2, arguing it implies education will be decided by European Court of Justice case law.

Their concern is that this will ultimately lead to a test case, which, they argue, will almost inevitably result in education being deemed a commercial concern. Consequently, education services will suffer “liberalisation”, being forced to compete within an open market, in which national regulations have been removed as an apparent barrier to free trade. Naturally, further and higher education services will be impacted ““ if this occurs.

There are, despite the inexorable tone of the above chain of seeming logic, no guarantees that any one of these things will occur, however, and even less so that they will all occur, one necessarily precipitating the other. By their nature Unions are self-preservationists, and they naturally oppose directives that appear to threaten their autonomy and power-base.

However, there is a lot to suggest that they may well be jumping the gun on this issue: the final legislation has not been drafted or confirmed yet, and the history of European legislation suggests that there might well be several drafts to go. In addition, the Commission has already made adjustments to the original draft, which should restore member states” power to regulate foreign providers, if they can justify it.

Logic, Disparity and the Real World

Furthermore, conceiving education services as commercial and therefore opening up the market may not necessarily prove an inherently bad thing. In recent weeks there have been several announcements (see, for instance, the British Learning Association’s (BLA’s) recent collaboration with UK Trade and Investment) demonstrating the aspirations of UK educational service providers to operate more commercially, within the pan-European environment.

If open competitive trading is proven to encourage the quality of customer services among the financial services industry, in particular investment banking, and indeed, within the larger corporate world, why should educational services be exempt from this commercial logic? If an integrated competitive marketplace is a better and more prosperous marketplace for one type of service provider, why should it not be for another?

The commercial reality, to which we are going to have to become accustomed, is that all services become commodities very rapidly, and all services ultimately should be customer oriented. This is equally true whether it is a matter of offering a corporate customer the capacity to transfer money in real time, or a human customer the capacity to learn a second language. If the unions wish to deploy domestic regulatory standards as a thin veil for protectionism, they will ultimately fleece the end customer by suppressing competition, and retarding the development of improved products and services.

If we want our education services to flourish in the global village, we have to embrace the integrated European marketplace: or, if this is too great a request, at least approach it with an open mind.

Michelle Price

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