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The Council of the University of the West Indies has decided to establish a Task Force to determine the status and nature of commitments made by Caribbean Governments under the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO/GATS). The Task Force, which will seek collaboration from the Regional Negotiating Machinery, will research and provide relevant information as a matter of urgency to guide governments through the complexities of the Agreement, particularly as it relates to the regional higher education sector, and analyse the impact on the UWI with respect to its legal identity under WTO regulations.

The Task Force will also examine the establishment in the Caribbean of a regional accreditation authority for tertiary level education

The decision to establish the Task Force was taken after discussions at meetings of both the University Strategy Committee and the governing Council, held on April 22 and 23 respectively, at the Mona Campus. Members analysed the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and the impact on the University of the West Indies of the ‘commodification’ of higher education and put forward responsive strategies.

It became evident during the discussions that many Caribbean governments lack the capacity to carry out the research that is necessary for formulating effective policy responses to the GATS and that commitments might be made without fully appreciating the far-reaching implications for their national education policies. It was also noted that the UWI might be put at a disadvantage in relation to overseas-based institutions, since it was a regional body operating within the context of binding commitments being made by its individual ‘shareholders’ to international agreements which do not recognise such regional entities. Questions were raised about the constitutional problems posed for the UWI from the commitments made under the GATS and it was agreed that the gravity of the situation for the UWI, as well as for governments, required immediate strategic action.

A related issue considered by the Council, was that of international recognition of the UWI’s academic programmes. With the increased competitive environment arising from the treatment of higher education under GATS as a tradeable commodity, accreditation has become a pressing concern. Council noted that since the UWI functioned as a regional institution its academic programmes are not formally recognised by such national accrediting bodies as might exist in the region, even though it has legal standing in each of the contributing countries.

Council further noted that the UWI had existed for years under the British tradition where accreditation is not an issue, but now finds itself at a disadvantage vis-a`-vis US-based institutions which claim comparative advantage in this area. A response being considered is the establishment in the Caribbean of a regional accreditation authority for tertiary level education. This authority would forge international links and alliances with similar bodies in countries such as Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand in order to ensure comparability of standards. It was agreed that the Task Force would also examine this matter and make recommendations for action.

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