No moral dilemma about soft diplomacy

Maybe I am getting old and careless – but sometimes I think that we in higher education worry just a bit too much. This thought struck me again last week, when I read a thoughtful article by Jane Knight in University World News titled “The limits of soft power in higher education”.

Although soft diplomacy is a relatively new term, the author fears that “international higher education has been drawn to [it] like bees to honey”. In fact, “many hail it as a fundamental premise of today’s international education engagement”.

All very dangerous, since “the basic notion of power is about gaining some kind of dominance”. Higher education should instead be driven by notions of mutual power, which “need not be a zero sum game” but based on “the respective strengths of countries’ higher education and research institutions” and yielding “solutions and benefits for all players”.

I couldn’t agree more – with the last bit, at least. But are these two concepts really so incompatible?

There is nothing new in countries using education to boost their own interests – and many of the historical motives have been a great deal more sinister than anything we see in modern notions of soft power.

Witness the fact that one of the first tasks that the newly formed Universities Bureau of the British Empire – now the much more democratic Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU – was asked to do by the British government a century ago was to drum up support for the Great War among ‘university men’.

Or the hundreds of thousands of students recruited from throughout the developing world over decades to study carefully staged curricula in Eastern Europe.

Today’s desire to use soft diplomacy is not in the same league.

Driven more by governments than universities, it certainly seeks to use the power of higher education to increase national benefit – but no more than work funded by business or other interests, whose support is generally welcomed by the sector, seeks to derive financial benefits for those organisations.

A common language

Moreover, the two main reasons why higher education seems such a good focus for soft power (or public diplomacy) purposes represent quite a good fit with concepts that we value.

First, because higher education promotes a common language and understanding that other forms of diplomacy cannot. Engineers, chemists and sociologists have a commonality across national borders that diplomats can only dream about.

Second, because higher education typically influences people at a critical time of their life – intellectually and socially. Or at least I hope it does.

That’s all to the good. What would be worrying is if – like the British government of 1914 or the Soviet one of the 1960s – governments were asking universities to, say, teach or research things that they would not otherwise do, in the name of public diplomacy or soft power.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but I don’t see much evidence of that in the UK. We at the ACU are involved in managing two longstanding public diplomacy scholarship schemes, as well as an international development scheme that doubtless brings public diplomacy benefits of its own (so yes, I have an interest).

Yet recipients receive exactly the same training in their host universities as any world-class student would. Indeed, the integrity of the system is one of the things that we are promoting.

Of course, we seek to add some extra aspects to promote British culture at the level of the scheme. Who wouldn’t? The idea that an international student facing 12 months of life in wind- and rain-swept Britain will, unaided, become a friend for life is a bit tenuous, to say the least.

In fact, I would say that any government not wanting to boost its reputation in the world through the networks of its university alumni would be neglecting its obligations.

But to suggest that this creates some form of moral dilemma for host universities, or higher education as a whole? I think that’s taking things a bit far.

* John Kirkland is deputy secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. Read the ACU’s evidence to the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power: Universities, scholarships and soft power. The article above was first published on the ACU’s website as “Soft power in higher education: Friend or foe?"