Tides shifting in global soft power influence

The US is unquestionably the global leader when it comes to international higher education. The Institute of International Education recently reported another growth year for international students in US colleges and universities, leading the world in attracting cross-border students.

The latest Times’ World Reputation Rankings, Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Academic Ranking of World Universities and the recent US News and World Report’s first Best Global Universities ranking also demonstrated US dominance, with US institutions occupying the top places with no close national competitor.

For those seeking an American-based education closer to home, the US also operates the highest number of branch campuses in the world. It leads in other higher education comparative scales as well, including the highest share of publications according to the Web of Science and other peer review publication indexes.

Such indicators demonstrate the powerful influence of the US in higher education globally. The concept of soft power, developed by political scientist Joseph Nye, can be defined as a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.

Education has long been a tool to transmit a culture’s values to its own citizenry as well as conquered territories. Former colonies experienced the most dramatic shifts when native languages were supplanted and foreign histories were imposed. Today, educational values are less forcibly coerced and more often voluntarily adopted.

The US’s soft power in higher education is perhaps most evidenced by its lion’s share of the world’s top international students, many entering with a desire to stay.

In addition to its relatively high international student enrolment, its classrooms transmit US-based knowledge, theories and approaches, including in the science and technology fields. In fact, the US prepares and graduates more international doctoral students in the physics and engineering fields than its own US students.

The benefits of educating international students reach beyond added tuition dollars and training cross-border students. Those who stay add to the workforce and those who return home provide professional and political networks in building positive goodwill and diplomacy.

A joint statement by the Association of International Educators, or NAFSA, and the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, or AIECE, recently described returning international students as “our most underrated foreign policy asset”.

The US Department of Education also proposed its first internationalisation strategy in which strengthening American education and advancing US international priorities are twin goals.

US decline?

Yet despite such overwhelming evidence of America’s soft power in higher education globally, the tides might be shifting. The dominance and possible decline of US influence on higher education raises questions, not just about the country’s place in the global competition game but also about its possible decreasing soft power in the world.

While the numbers of students seeking to study in the US are increasing, so are those seeking to study in other countries. There are also new national players in the higher education global market and, consequently, the US’s proportion of the world’s students has decreased. In other words, the international student market pie is larger, but the US’s slice is smaller.

Meanwhile, there is an upswing in regional agreements, giving rise to regional higher education hubs in different parts of the world. While the Erasmus+ Programme is the most recognised example, there are also cooperation efforts within East Asia, Southern Africa, the Arab States and elsewhere.

Unlike such regional efforts, the US attracts the vast majority of its students from Asia as a global destination rather than as a regional one. The latest OECD annual report suggested that regional mobility is of growing importance over global mobility, raising questions about the extent to which students will be looking to travel across the globe for international study in the future.

Another shift that parallels the country’s decreased proportion of international students is the country’s slippage in the world rankings. The same Times ranking that reported the large representation of US institutions also indicated that about 60% of these US universities fell an average of five places in the past year. Shanghai Jiao Tong also noted US declines over the past 10 years and both sources reported a rise among Asian universities.

Outward bound

In the meantime, the US is at risk of not only slipping in its lead in higher education internationalisation but also falling behind in the future. The Institute of International Education says that while the number of US students studying abroad has increased to an all-time high, the percentage of those students who do so constitutes less than 10% of the total.

Among those who do study elsewhere, the range of destinations is limited, with more than half going to Europe for eight weeks or less. If there were global rankings based on which region sends out the most students for an international education, Asia would be on top, with over half of all international students, followed by Europe, Africa and Latin America. The US's share is only 3%.

Another form of soft power is in knowledge production and dissemination. Although producing the most papers in the Web of Science, America’s percentage of articles and citations has also been steadily declining in the past decade. While the US percentage has declined by 5%, South Korea has increased by more than 100%.

In addition, the US has experienced a 7% decline in innovation originating domestically yet China has experienced a 900% increase in domestic patent applications. Meanwhile, there has also been an increase of articles cited in non-elite journals, according to Google Scholar, and references to grey literature – writings not associated with a commercial publisher, which are also dominated by the US.

In closing, the future remains unseen. New players and regional pacts have emerged and knowledge sources are less controlled. The world is not flat, but it is flattening. Whether the US will remain at the top is not guaranteed and how the country and others respond to the new global economy, with its rapidly changing modes of discovery, innovation and communication, is yet to be determined.

* Jenny J Lee is a Fulbright scholar and associate professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona, USA.