Higher education as soft power in the age of autonomy

Higher education is often seen as playing a ‘soft power’ role in international relations. But it is not easy for governments to co-opt universities, and soft power can be both positive and negative, an international higher education conference in Dubai heard this week.

Dorothea Rüland, secretary general of Germany’s Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), said at the British Council’s Going Global conference on 5 March that using higher education for soft power had become more difficult, despite the growing importance of the sector.

In a panel on “Soft Power: Higher education and cultural diplomacy”, delegates heard that the emergence on the scene of new players such as China had changed the landscape of soft power using higher education, which had previously been based on the strength of a country’s higher education and research sectors.

A totally different environment

Many more emerging countries “want to be players. They want to be knowledge economies and they want a very strong position. So I am sure governments will try to promote soft power to position themselves for reputation, visibility and influence,” Rüland said.

And the picture has become more complicated. “It’s harder now because former ‘target countries’ such as China or Brazil are now themselves players in this field. It’s becoming far more competitive. Soft power today takes place in a totally different environment.”

Also, not all universities would necessarily do a government’s bidding abroad. “Universities have high autonomy, and they have their own internationalisation strategies. They know what they want and where they want to be active, so it’s much more difficult for governments to use universities as agents in their soft power strategy,” she said.

Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, said: “The paradox of soft power is that the greater the government involvement is, the weaker the soft power is.

“Increasingly, the strongest higher education institutions are autonomous of governments. Governments may talk of where their national interests lie; but the government can’t instruct universities to act in a certain way.”

What governments can do is help “create conditions of exchange”, Davidson said. But even organisations like the British Council, founded to promote British culture and education abroad, must “remain at arm's length from government in order to work effectively”.

Hard versus soft power

Dr Li Minjiang, an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang University of Technology’s S Rajaratnam School of International studies, told the conference: “There’s no such thing as hard and soft power; it depends how you use it.”

Culture can be used to coerce as well as for diplomacy, he said. “There are many, many examples where culture can motivate violence.

“Nation states engage in soft power activity because they want to achieve certain objectives with their national interest. For example, if country A decides to forbid higher education exchanges with country B, then country A is using higher education for hard power,” Li said.

China in particular had been using various policies to improve soft power, including through its Confucius Institutes abroad – they now number 700 – that teach the Chinese language and promote Chinese culture.

“The purpose of China investing so much money is to improve the image of China, globally, to help people understand China. China also provides a lot of scholarships to foreign students – in 2010 almost 23,000 scholarships,” said Li.

“So obviously China has been very serious about using higher education to cultivate soft power.

Some countries would prefer soft power relations to hard power. “We are getting hard power support from different sources, but soft power is not coming,” said Junaid Zaidi, rector of the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology in Pakistan.

“We need higher education for our own development,” he said. “We depend on different countries to get our people trained.”

Panellists agreed that soft power was most effective when the relationship was ‘win-win’. It will only work “if you really have cooperation and not one partner utilising the other”, Rüland said.

’Denationalisation’ of higher education

But in terms of international relations, she said: “In the 20th century, politics was very important, but now education, the power of research in addressing big global issues, has grown in influence. Nations may not play such a big role any more.”

Technology, including information technology and massive open online courses (MOOCs), may well be leading to a ‘denationalisation’ of higher education, Rüland added, which would make its use for soft power purposes even more challenging for governments.

Regarding the MOOCs movement: “We do not know what it will mean in the end and who will join and which countries and universities will feed into it worldwide."

Said Rüland: “We can observe a strong networking going on in the university sector”, and it could significantly change the way governments are involved in promoting higher education collaborations – perhaps excluding them altogether.