Soft power drain

Confused political rhetoric on student visas threatens one of the UK’s greatest global assets, says Martin Davidson

February 28, 2013

Taking part in higher education here engenders greater trust in the UK than any comparable experience

Readers of Times Higher Education do not need to be told that going to university can be one of the most important formative experiences of someone’s life. How much more so, though, if that experience is overseas - learning a foreign language and a new culture, making lifelong friendships and contacts. Consider the benefits of studying in one of the world’s foremost education systems, whose renowned universities are working closely with those of your home country, supporting joint research and developing joint courses. It is not difficult to see why UK higher education is one of our greatest assets in the game of international influence.

A country’s ability to make friends and influence people, not through military might but through its most attractive assets - notably culture, education, language and values - is known as “soft power”. These assets are what make people notice and trust a country, and they are the products of people, institutions and brands rather than governments.

We know that attracting the world’s future leaders to our institutions produces great diplomatic, business and social benefits; our universities’ role in engaging other societies’ elites makes a vital contribution to ensuring that international decision-makers are comfortable with us and our home culture.

Having tens of thousands of ambitious people graduate from the UK expands the country’s international influence through the trust generated by their time here. International relationships between governments, businesses and institutions can only be enhanced if the people within them have a shared point of reference, educational values and understanding. The British Council’s Trust Pays research shows that taking part in higher education here engenders greater trust in the UK than any comparable experience.

So the UK excels in this area - but we are in danger of losing ground. And the biggest threat comes not from outside but from within.

Historically, the UK, the US, Australia and Canada have monopolised the education of the world’s leaders but, in recent decades, the internationalisation of higher education has gathered pace. While the economic benefits for a country in attracting foreign students are clear, the soft power benefits are also becoming more evident and sought after.

China has opened 300 Confucius Institutes since 2004 and aims to have 1,000 of them in operation by 2020. But soft power influence should not be measured by bricks and mortar - and the number of people wishing to take UK qualifications overseas continues to rapidly increase. Reputation matters far more, so we must resist any threat to our reputation. Reforms to the groups in charge of promoting the UK overseas and changes to our immigration system, plus mixed political rhetoric at home that becomes even more confused when translated overseas, have all conspired to weaken the UK’s higher education offer and, consequently, our soft power influence.

The Education UK brand and the GREAT campaign, which promotes Britain as one of the best places in the world to study, are playing critical roles in maintaining the profile of UK education. If those we are seeking to attract simply see us, as a result of our visa reforms, as unwelcoming and suspicious, this will not only undermine the strength of these campaigns’ messages but also give great comfort to our international rivals. If our rhetoric is mixed and unappealing, too focused on short-term domestic political considerations, then, internationally, our long-term influence will take far longer to recover.

In times of great economic uncertainty, the UK’s universities offer assured global strength. We must be allowed to effectively internationalise our sector by reaching out and creating mutual benefits for institutions and people around the world, otherwise the loss of soft power will result in hard times for Britain.

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