The limits of soft power in higher education

Soft power is on the lips of scholars, policy makers and education leaders alike. Developed by political scientist Joseph Nye about a decade ago, the concept is popularly understood as the ability to influence others and achieve national self-interest(s) through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion, military force or economic sanctions – commonly known as hard power.

International higher education has been drawn to this new concept of soft power like bees to honey. Witness the number of references to it in conferences, academic journals, blogs and media articles in the last five years.

Many hail it as a fundamental premise of today’s international education engagement. Some treat it like a modern branding campaign, using culture and media to win over foreign publics – especially students. Others interpret it as a form of neo-colonisation.

And there are those who see attraction and persuasion as a way to build trust because trust can pay dividends in terms of economic and geo-political benefits. In short, the role and use of soft power is interpreted in a myriad of ways. But a common motivation is to achieve self-interests, whether the benefits be political, economic, reputation or overall competitiveness.

After all, the basic notion of power is about gaining some kind of dominance, whether it be by soft, hard or smart means. This reality raises hard questions. Are the primary goals of international higher education to serve self-interests and gain dominance? Is the term soft power really hegemony dressed in attractive new clothes?

Self-interest or mutual interest?

The most commonly referred to examples of soft power in higher education include the Fulbright Programme, the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service, the Confucius institutes, Erasmus Mundus and Development Cooperation projects.

Clearly, these are respected and long-standing programmes that have been well accepted and made enormous contributions. But why do we call them instruments of ‘soft power’ when at their heart they promote the exchange of students, faculty, culture, science, knowledge and expertise? Yes, there are self-interests at play, but a mutuality of interests and benefits is also involved.

There is no doubt that international higher education has changed dramatically in the last two decades. It is not just students and scholars who are moving across borders – so are programmes, providers, projects and policies.

The landscape of higher education is characterised by international collaborative research projects, bi-national universities, multi-national policy networks, global mobility programmes, regional centres of excellence and international education hubs.

It is recognised that, in the highly interconnected and interdependent world in which we live, higher education is a channel for the cross-border flow and exchange of people, knowledge, expertise, values, innovation, economy, technology and culture.

But why is it framed in a ‘power paradigm’ like soft power? Is self-interest, competition or dominance effectively going to address issues of worldwide epidemics, terrorism, failed states, bottom billion in poverty, environmental change? The answer is no.

But it is not a simple answer as the world of international relations is complex and beset with histories, challenges and inequalities that it would be naïve to ignore.

Mutual power

A challenge that we in higher education face is whether we buy into the idea of soft power or introduce an alternative approach – the notion of ‘mutual power’. This concept recognises that power need not be a zero-sum game.

A ‘mutual power’ approach builds on the respective strengths of countries' higher education and research institutions and yields solutions and benefits for all players.

A key point is that the benefits will differ among the actors. This is based on the reality and ‘new normal’ that finding solutions to worldwide challenges cannot be achieved by one country alone.

An alternative to the power paradigm, whether it be soft or mutual power, is the concept of diplomacy which regards negotiation as one of its core pillars.

Diplomacy has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last two decades. Contemporary diplomacy recognises that a state-centric process which focuses primarily on ministries of foreign affairs and professional diplomats is no longer adequate.

A multitude of new actors are involved, including non-governmental organisations, transnational corporations, professional associations and Track II diplomacy experts. Higher education is one of these key actors and instruments of contemporary diplomacy.

Public and cultural diplomacy includes social media, modern and traditional art forms, architecture, language and intercultural training, academic exchange, sport, internet etc. as important means to interact with foreign publics, not just the government.

There is little doubt that international relations are becoming more layered, introducing new actors and new issues such as health, climate, environment, technology, in addition to security and peace. Policy networks, public fora, non-governmental gatherings, media and Track II meetings are diplomatic forms of interaction in addition to governmental summits and treaties.

In this changing world of contemporary diplomacy, higher education has a significant role and contribution to make.

Higher education’s long tradition of scholarly collaboration and academic mobility complemented by today’s innovations of research and policy networks, international education hubs, joint programmes/institutions, global and bi-national universities, have a lot to contribute to building and strengthening international relations among countries and regions.

Does it make more sense to situate higher education as a means for international engagement within the notion and process of an expanded concept of diplomacy, such as knowledge diplomacy, rather than in the soft power paradigm?

It can be argued that these are not mutually exclusive, but, given the difference in fundamental values shaping these processes, which one is most effective and appropriate for the more mutually dependent world in which we live today? Are the notions of ‘mutual power’ or ‘knowledge diplomacy’ worthy of further exploration and debate?

Over to you – what are your thoughts?

* Jane Knight is Adjunct Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto in Canada. Email: