Knowledge diplomacy is key to surviving geopolitics

Universities are playing a critical role in keeping lines of communication open in a world of growing political disagreements between governments, the director of education at the British Council, Maddalaine Ansell, told this year’s Going Global conference.

The virtual conference brought together leaders of international education from 15-17 June to reimagine global tertiary education for a post-pandemic world, and heard from Ansell that “knowledge diplomacy” was not simply “soft power”, which she described as a neo-colonial approach to getting what you want.

“Instead, you might end up with something different, but better, and have more success and influence through generous and disinterested behaviour,” she suggested.

Examples given to the conference session on “Can knowledge diplomacy survive geopolitics?”, chaired by Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education, UK, included pressing ahead with a British Council delegation of vice-chancellors to Russia following the Salisbury poisonings, to efforts by German and British research leaders to build and deepen cooperation following the souring of political relations between the United Kingdom and European Union after Brexit.

Dr Kai Sicks, secretary general of DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, said: “While things are not easy at a political level between the UK and EU, universities want to keep on with the trusting relationships that they have built over the past decades.

“What I see at the moment is a very intense communication process between British and German universities to try to find some ways to maintain good relations using new funds to establish exchange programmes for students and resources to support education and research mobility.”

Ansell told the conference that in all the discussions she had about what the British Council education team wanted to keep after Brexit, they urged participation in the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme.

“That was not just for the research funding, but we wanted to be part of these European, and increasingly global, networks and we are still part of that programme while we are also looking at how we can be in some similar networks, particularly with the ASEAN group of 10 countries [Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam].”

Co-existence vs building walls

Diplomat turned academic Tom Fletcher, who served as British ambassador to Lebanon from 2011-15 and is currently principal of Hertford College at the University of Oxford, told the conference session: “Great diplomacy is always on the side of coexistence and against those who feel the answer to the 21st century is to build a bigger wall.”

But he warned that diplomacy was being buffeted by three big trends – the rise of distrust, perceptions of inequality and the challenges of technological change.

Fletcher said knowledge diplomacy can exist “very independently from classic statecraft” and should be seen as a new way of doing diplomacy away from the image of the Ferrero Rocher chocolates at the ambassador’s black-tie ball, and it becomes more important when countries become “less magnetic and attractive”, such as the period from which the United States is just emerging.

Fletcher suggested education and knowledge diplomacy should be about creating citizens of the future and developing young people who can co-exist amid all the challenges facing the world and warned that the US and UK were far too complacent about their current monopoly over education accreditation. “This is an area that is under threat,” he said.

Empathy lacking in political leaders

Referring to recent work by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on global competence, Fletcher said the world was crying out for “the sort of empathy that is lacking in many of today’s generation of political leaders” – with skills such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence becoming much more important than before the pandemic.

He recommended returning to the old ways of teaching and becoming “good ancestors” by passing on wisdom to our young people, and not behaving like the United States and England, which he distinguished from the UK as a whole, and teaching subjects such as history “as a list of battles that we happened to win”.

Fletcher said education should be teaching young people to be “kind, curious and brave” and helping create the engineers of the future able to deal with things like climate change and tackling inequality – “Things that set us apart from the skills of the robots.”

Universities not a sabbatical from life

“Higher education systems and countries that will thrive in the future will be those that move towards lifelong learning and where universities are not some sabbatical from life, but are more inclusive and more open and bring people in rather than push them away,” said Fletcher.

He cited Finland and Singapore as being among the most creative, innovative and thoughtful in adopting this approach and starting with schools rather than leaving change to higher education.

Professor Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, told the conference session that it was wrong to think knowledge diplomacy exists separate from global politics and accepted that education, science and research had been used by governments to build alliances and sometimes to exert power.

But she didn’t think knowledge diplomacy was under threat and said universities would try to ameliorate current tensions even if what universities and academics want may differ from “relationships and advantages that governments are seeking to achieve”.

Before attending the conference, Beer said she helped launch a two-week virtual symposium between researchers and educators at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, set up in 2006 in partnership between the two British and Chinese universities “to bring together the best in UK and Chinese higher education”.

The partnership now has 20,000 students and half the undergraduates in China spend two years studying in China before transferring to Liverpool.

“Would we have founded that university today?” asked Beer. “It is hard to say, but the young people being educated between the two systems make it worthwhile.”

Dr Esther Brimmer, chief executive of NAFSA, the association of international educators in the United States, said the way global research cooperation had been used to tackle the public health emergency of the pandemic reminded everyone that “there are fundamental issues we can work together on”, and that the digital transformation “allows us to have great global learning in our classrooms” and overcome the issue of lack of access to the internet.

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at