Higher education – a soft power weapon of excellence

Around the world, international education has become a policy priority for almost every developed and developing country.  But just how significant is higher education to a country’s reputation and what exactly is soft power? 

In this post, Barry Tomalin,  visiting lecturer  at the University of East Anglia and author of “Cross-Cultural Communication – Theory and Practice” offers his perspective.

The University of East Anglia, Newcastle University and the University of Exeter, along with 22 other British universities, features in the 200 top world institutes of higher education in the 2012-2013 Times Higher Education Supplement world ranking list.

Higher education is one of Britain’s trump cards. Alongside the Olympic games in 2012, William and Kate’s wedding and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee higher education helped place Britain in the lead in Monocle magazine’s list of the world’s leading soft power influencers in 2012.

What is this soft power? It is the opposite of hard power, military force. Soft power is a theory advanced by political theorist, Professor Joseph Nye, Head of the Kennedy Institute of Harvard University in the US (number 1 in the TES rankings, by the way).

In 1990 Professor Nye first proposed there were three ways that a country could exert influence. The first was hard power – military force and coercion, the second was payment – paying a country to do what you wanted. And the third was soft power – persuading the people and government of a country to share the same values as you, and to want what you want.

In the last 20 years, the theory of soft power has become one of the key influences in public policy-making and a key instrument of soft power is higher education. Nye identified five key soft power components; Business innovation, Culture, Government, Diplomacy and Education.
Simon Anholt is a leading authority in national identity and reputation management. For him, education is a means of enabling a country to punch above its military and political weight, as it is one of the factors that encourages interest, immigration and investment. In relation to higher education, Britain and the United States have two major advantages: the English language and the quality of their higher education systems and scholarship.

One in 10 students in British higher education comes from another country. This creates an unparalleled international atmosphere. Students on undergraduate, diploma and post-graduate courses can benefit from high levels of scholarship and derive a sense of participating in a global environment by living and working with people from other countries.

Crucial to the success of higher education is high academic standards of research and tuition, but also of academic and professional conduct. It is important to demonstrate a high level of entrance qualification, a good level of English (usually around 6.0 – 6.5 scores in the IELTS test) and, above all, probity in investigating accusations of plagiarism, collusion or lowering of standards wherever they occur.

It’s also interesting that the much more relaxed social environment that has developed in UK academia since the 1960s means that foreign students find staff much more accessible than in many other countries when they need tutorials and personal advice.

The British Council is Britain’s leading international cultural relations agency. In its booklet, The English Effect, it quotes Dr Loren Griffith of Oxford University, who says that the top 10 universities are in English speaking countries. More international students study in the UK than in any other country except the USA. What draws them? According to Dr Griffiths: “Three central reasons are our tradition of rigorous training in how to think well, the chance to participate in world-leading research, and the fact that this teaching and research happens in English.”

The outcome? The quality of Britain’s higher education has affected all overseas students who have come into contact with it and now wield political and economic power around the world, with the consequent benefits to Britain of economic, social and political influence. That’s what soft power can achieve.

Barry Tomalin

Author: Barry Tomalin

Barry Tomalin MA is visiting lecturer in ‘International Communication’ and ’Cultural Awareness’ at the University of East Anglia, London Academy of Diplomacy and author with Brian Hurn of ‘Cross-Cultural Communication, Theory and Practice,' Palgrave Macmillan 2013.

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