The power politics of English in global higher education

Reports over the summer of universities in the United Kingdom withdrawing their offers after Pearson revoked some of its online English-language results due to alleged suspicion of cheating have raised some questions within international education.

During the COVID period, everyone accepted online English-language tests delivered by private organisations; as we move into the post-COVID phase, online English tests have become less reliable. Have the tests changed, or have the universities – or the wider international education landscape – changed?

When we look back at the history of English-language proficiency in the UK, we find that the Secure English Language Test was introduced in 2010 by UK Border Agency (later called UK Visas and Immigration) as a means to control and curtail net incoming immigration.

But at the same time, the tests have given UK higher education the power to determine its practices around student admissions, using universities’ own English tests or accepting English tests delivered by private profit-making providers as the government reduced its funding of UK higher education and the less regulated world of international education became the alternative solution to the financial stability of UK universities.

The developed English-speaking countries have been the major players in attracting international education from the rest of the world as a result of their educational offering as well as their cultural capital, including the use of the English language.

Undoubtedly, the decision to impose English-language requirements by UK universities has further extended the spread of English-learning zeal and aspiration globally from primary education to universities.

The language of employment and academia

During an interview in Morocco, Tony Reilly, a seasoned former country director with the British Council, commented that there are around 1.8 billion people worldwide who speak English either as a native speaker or as a second language.

English is accepted as the universal language of the internet, 85% of global organisations operate in English, and 70% of employers in non-English speaking countries require English as one of their recruitment criteria.

It could be said that it has become a key language of employment. A Moroccan graduate from a top French university who hopes to find employment at a large French multinational is likely to need to be fluent in English as well as French. Globally, English is also the language of academia, research and science.

In the context of Morocco, despite the growing popularity of the English language, particularly among young people, Reilly pointed out the importance of Morocco’s rich multilingual, pluralist tradition – which is something to be proud of and is a huge asset in the 21st century. Reilly highlighted the fact that fluency in four of the six official United Nations languages – English, French, Spanish and Arabic – is very common in Morocco.

Around the world: English and higher education

Recently the Greek government initiated several projects to attract international students to study in Greece, and one of its main strategies is to develop programmes delivered in English. In 2021, there were about 140 masters programmes delivered in the English language in order to appeal to the international market.

In July 2022, the government changed the constitution, allowing universities to offer bachelor degrees in Greece in English. Another initiative is to deliver medicine programmes in English for international students through charging a reasonable fee of €12,000 (US$12,700) a year, which makes them attractive to international students compared to equivalent programmes delivered in the UK or the United States.

The South Korean government recently announced its plan to increase the number of English as a Medium of Instruction courses or programmes as one part of its effort to attract more international students, dubbed the ‘Study Korea 300K’ plan. According to the government’s report, IEQAS-accredited higher education institutions in South Korea offer 13% of their total courses in English, which they perceive as too low.

The Ministry of Education seeks to increase English-track programmes to take in more students from English-speaking countries. However, Korea is attracting students from Asia over students from Anglophone countries. For most of these students, English is not their first language.

In South Korea, the politics of English language is not merely an educational debate; it is emblematic of the broader global dynamics of power, influence and prestige. Over the past two decades, the political power wielded by English as a lingua franca in education has become increasingly evident, especially in the South Korean higher education sector.

A pivotal moment occurred in the mid-2000s when many of South Korea’s universities, particularly those striving for global recognition, mandated English-medium instruction.

When it comes to China, English was listed as one of the key subjects, along with Chinese and mathematics, that all Chinese students needed to undertake as part of the national college examination in 1983. Since then, we have seen a boom in the learning and acquisition of English as a second language in China.

This, in many ways, has facilitated international collaboration between China and the rest of the world and has played a role in China’s rapidly growing economy. However, the Chinese government recently decided to reduce the importance of English as part of the core curriculum at the compulsory education level because its ideological influence is seen by many as a reflection of current geopolitics between China and the West and wider power dynamics.

In Indonesia, the most visible difference between the more expensive private Western curriculum and the national curriculum in schools is children’s ability to speak fluent English or not.

This phenomenon is not unique to South Korea, Indonesia or China, but spans many non-English-speaking countries. The use of the English language in studies often serves as both a tool and symbol of modernisation, globalisation and, often, Westernisation.

This move in non-English speaking countries to adopt the use of the English language in education is more than pedagogical; it is deeply political. Universities began favouring faculty who are fluent in English.

In China, to be eligible for a professorship, academics need to demonstrate global education experience, through studying abroad or through being a scholar overseas, preferably in Western countries.

There is an implicit assumption: to be fluent in English is to be connected to global centres of power and knowledge, enabling access to international opportunities and networks. English is more than a language; it is a potent status symbol, a passport to elite cosmopolitan circles and job opportunities.

A threat to other languages

Some national governments’ decisions to drive the internationalisation of higher education through the use of English implicitly encourages more people to take up English as a global language. This could threaten the existence of other languages taught as second languages.

In the 19th century, historically, there was a strong argument that the English and the English language were superior and thus intrinsically worthy of their growing prominence.

Despite some now promoting the idea that the use of the English language globally is a neutral policy, or at least more neutral than promoting any other language, cultural critic Henry Giroux suggests that the predominant ‘culture of positivism’ around English allows for analysis only of questions of efficiency in learning and teaching and not of questions such as the extent to which schools have acted as agents of social and cultural reproduction in a society marked by significant inequality in wealth, power and privilege.

From a linguistic perspective, the adaptation of a global English also poses a serious threat to other languages, which could even be called ‘linguistic genocide’.

More generally, however, when English becomes the first choice as a second language, it poses the less dramatic but far more widespread danger of what we might call linguistic curtailment, both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

Language politics

The position of English in the world is not an accidental or natural result of global forces, as Robert Phillipson argues. The British Council and other organisations promote the worldwide use of English for economic and political purposes.

Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas argue that it has been British and American government policy since the mid-1950s to establish English as a universal ‘second language’, so as to protect and promote capitalist interests.

Sharon Stein in her 2016 article, “Rethinking the ethics of internationalisation”, argues that the idea of higher education as a global public good exists in an uneasy tension with the notion that higher education is a legitimate export product for purchase on a new global market.

The concept of ‘export education’ gained prominence in the early 2000s in Australia. The dominance of Western developed Anglophone countries in the international higher education arena endorses the study and use of English in non-English-speaking countries.

The decision of other countries to design courses using the medium of English as instruction to attract international students further perpetuates the dominance of the English language as a global language.

The rise of English in non-English-speaking countries is not just about language acquisition; it is deeply rooted in the global politics of power, influence and aspirational status.

This politicisation underscores the broader challenges and complexities faced by non-English-speaking countries as they navigate their positions within the global educational and political hierarchies. In a world in which ‘becoming’ seems to take precedence over ‘being’, every action today causes another reaction and outcome tomorrow.

Global education is a complex terrain. While English proficiency is vital, it is not the sole indicator of a comprehensive global education. Attributes like a global mindset, intercultural understanding, kindness and empathy are equally, if not more, significant.

Yet, many higher education institutions in non-English-speaking countries adopt English as a simple metric of their ‘international’ calibre, highlighting the deeply entrenched politics of English on a global scale.

Cheryl Yu is an international higher education practitioner, researcher and consultant. Kyuseok Kim (Mick) is a PhD student at Korea University, specialising in higher education administration. He has more than 13 years of experience in international higher education, having held positions at both a research university and a US branch campus in South Korea. LinkedIn:; Blog: