IBCs are now powerful tools of public diplomacy
As of March 2023, the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) records indicate that 333 IBCs exist worldwide, with 39 nations exporting to 83 distinct countries, demonstrating their rising significance in global geopolitics.
Historically, IBCs were mainly exported by Western nations to each other and later to the rest of the world. These endeavours were largely undertaken by the involved institutions, with little government oversight and certainly were not purposefully a part of a larger national strategy on international engagement. However, the past few years have seen IBCs take on broader roles.
They have become potent symbols of international relations, representing commitments between nations. IBCs are no longer just ‘knowledge embassies’, exporting educational experiences. They now serve as a testament to bilateral ties, earning a front-row seat in the arena of international relations.
China offers a fascinating study in this evolution. Once the destination of the first IBC from Johns Hopkins University, focused on teaching international relations, China has since become the country hosting the highest number of IBCs.
Over the past 20 years, China has purposefully welcomed IBCs from the West, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. IBC development was seen as a way to expand capacity for growing domestic demand and to align the Chinese post-secondary system with Western systems.
Operating under Chinese-stated commitments to academic freedom, these institutions formed a bridge between Western education and Chinese academia, although they rarely captured much political attention.
However, over the past five years, China’s approach has undergone a significant shift, seemingly in line with its changing geopolitical interests.
China’s establishment of Fudan University’s IBC in Hungary, following Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s contentious eviction of the US-affiliated Central European University, was seen as a strong symbolic gesture.
This move, hailed as a triumphant stride in Hungary-China relations, essentially paved an educational (and political) foothold for China in Eastern Europe. However, it was not without protests from both EU officials and Hungarian citizens concerned about enlarging the relationship with China.
Similarly, China and Russia’s growing connection was recently illustrated by the joint announcement of a new Russian IBC in China.
This announcement came just two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia to affirm China’s alliance with Russia in the midst of their war with Ukraine. In addition, the IBC will operate separately from any local academic partnership, a relationship granted to only one other IBC in China, the University of Nottingham.
This announcement is viewed as a strong signal of China’s strengthening relationship with Russia and a major shift in the nation’s policy towards educational partnerships, which have primarily focused on the West.
While many were focused on how Xi’s meeting might impact the war, the IBC announcement from one of Russia’s top technological universities in China’s new spaceport signals growing technological cooperation and provides a unique blueprint on how nations use IBCs for strategic political and economic gains.
Malaysia and India
Another country that has followed a similar trajectory with IBCs is Malaysia. Engagement began with initiating the import of Australian and UK universities in the mid-1990s as a form of education cooperation.
After that, a new wave of IBCs appeared, motivated by larger geopolitical engagements. The establishment of a Chinese branch campus in Malaysia, for instance, was promoted as a testament to China’s cultural diplomacy and the strengthening ties between the two nations.
Similarly, the announced arrival of a Japanese branch campus in Malaysia received significant ministerial attention from both nations, signalling its symbolic value in their relationship and serving as an extension of their international strategies.
Not to be left out, India’s recent foray into the IBC sphere is also noteworthy in its use of IBCs to advance national identity and priorities. A shift in India’s National Education Policy finally opened the gates for foreign universities to set up campuses in that country to position it as a global ‘vishwa guru’ or educational leader.
Deakin University of Australia was the first to seize this opportunity, a move celebrated by both nations as a symbol of their alliance and announced during the Australian prime minister’s visit to India.
Simultaneously, the policy has allowed India’s leading educational institutions, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), to establish branch campuses abroad. The establishment of an IIT branch in Zanzibar in Africa, for instance, is seen as indicative of India’s commitment to Eastern Africa, underscoring Africa’s rising geopolitical significance.
IBCs as new embassies
This rise of IBCs is transforming how nations engage with each other. The establishment of these ‘knowledge embassies’ increasingly becomes an event of diplomatic celebration, with high-level officials increasingly involved in their announcements.
However, the cultural and educational exchange these institutions facilitate transcends symbolic gestures. It contributes to building capacity, enhancing trade relations, fostering international understanding, developing human capital and establishing networks of global influencers.
As such, IBCs are becoming powerful tools that political leaders draw upon to enhance international diplomacy, promote values, facilitate knowledge exchange and skills development and contribute to global capacity building.
Universities are traditionally seen as gateways to knowledge, but today, they are emerging as new embassies, centres of cultural and diplomatic exchange between nations. IBCs serve as live testaments to the relationships between nations, turning academic partnerships into strategic alliances.
As nations navigate the complexities of the 21st-century geopolitical arena, the role of these ‘knowledge embassies’ will continue to gain prominence. And so, it is in these corridors of IBCs that some future contours of global diplomacy may well be defined.
Jason E Lane is the dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in the United States, where he is also professor of international education and co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team. Twitter: @ProfJasonLane.