International education as soft power: Need for integration into nation’s foreign and security policies

A credible, viable, and sustainable foreign and security policy needs to see relationship building, collaboration, and cooperation as part of its education policy and driven by an aspiration for global good and human welfare. 

Amb Amit Dasgupta (retd) Jul 10, 2024
Representational Photo

Universities play a central role in creating human capital, anticipating future skill requirements, raising employability quotients, income generation, increased efficiencies, enhancing social justice, to name a few, and thus, are a net contributor to a nation’s future. They are also the perfect platform through which young minds are opened to global challenges and achievements.

The internationalization of education has allowed for it to emerge as a soft power instrument and to indirectly and positively impact foreign policy. Yet, for multiple reasons, governments and institutions of higher education do not work as collaboratively as one would expect them to. In fact, they are often at loggerheads to the ultimate detriment of both, and especially, those they are meant to serve.

Universities are founded on the strong premise that freedom of thought and expression are central to their personae. In the US, for instance, universities played a key role in protesting against US involvement in the Vietnam war, and multiple other actions by Washington that were deeply questionable, from CIA-led operations to change regimes, including through assassinations, to the Iraq wars, Afghanistan, and most recently, the Israeli military action in Gaza. Understandably, Washington found this subversive.

Universities as business 

At another level, most western governments see universities as business enterprises that thrive through the revenue internationalization of education has opened up. In 2022-23, the US earned $40 billion from international students. Taking a leaf out of the US experience, several western countries saw the potential of tapping into the international student market, such as, the UK, Canada, Australia, to name a few. In 2021-22, the UK is estimated to have earned pounds sterling 41.9 billion, Canada earned CA$22.3 billion in 2023, and Australia A$37.6 billion. 

According to a study, in 2020, there were 6.3 million international students, who together contributed $370 billion to the global economy. Government funding was substantially reduced, even discontinued, forcing universities to reach out to corporates and international students to fund their research and other programmes.

The role of international students has been repeatedly acknowledged by universities for enhancing the quality of education by contributing to a genuinely global learning experience and the introduction of cultural diversity on campus. The revenue from international students has, furthermore, contributed towards the creation of state-of-the-art laboratories and infrastructure, and the substantial investments that are required for high-end research, which is central to a university’s global rankings and brand image.

Furthermore, according to The Conversation, in Australia alone, international education funded the creation of around a quarter of a million jobs in a single year.

Soft power influencers 

In addition, over decades, international education has quietly emerged as a significant soft power influencer – without any governmental effort – and recognized for its ability to win long-term friends among international audiences. In the US, for instance, international education played the role of telling America’s story to the world. US universities regularly tap into alumni for funds, as do universities in other western countries. Given its criticality, quantitative analysis of soft power acknowledges the indisputable contribution of international education.

These are all dividends that strongly suggest strengthening and engaging the international education space more effectively, especially as a foreign policy instrument. This is largely because education influences the way we think. Unfortunately, most western governments have only treated universities as commercial and business enterprises. In the process, tragically, universities have also started to see themselves in a similar manner.

A paradigmatic shift in thinking requires changing how western governments and universities perceive international education. Indeed, international education can strengthen bilateral relations and act as a strong foreign policy instrument. This, however, requires international education and research is reimagined and used as a platform to transform lives in countries from where they source international students. This lies at the heart of relationship building, which is what foreign policy is all about.

The India approach 

By contrast, the approach India took is worth recalling.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was a passionate advocate of South-South cooperation. He realized that freedom from oppressive colonial rule was not simply a challenge for India, but also for the several other newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. Nehru believed that if India and the other former colonies were to achieve true independence, it needed to break away from its colonial oppressors and carve her own future. It was logical, consequently, that this shared aspiration was achieved through collaborative initiatives between these countries. Consequently, even before India attained independence, New Delhi hosted the first Asian Relations Conference (23rd March – 2nd April 1947), where Nehru outlined his vision to the participating developing countries of a cooperation-based approach to development. This was a unique idea that was warmly welcomed and embraced. It offered an alternative to further dependence on colonial powers and western governments.

Nehru believed that it was unproductive for counties to reinvent the wheel and that it would be far more efficient if resources were shared. Over the years, this ‘movement’ was strengthened. At the 1955 Bandung Conference, academic Allesandra Tetsoni writes (in Asia Maior), this was projected as “a political act” because of its strong ideological underpinnings of taking a non-western approach in advocating South-South cooperation. 

Reflecting Nehru’s idealism, India had already opened its education system to aspirants from Asia and Africa thereby, integrating South-South cooperation as an integral part of its foreign policy. In 1964, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi created the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme (ITEC) further consolidating this cooperation.

The bedrock of this cooperation was decreased dependence on western countries and increased sharing of resources among developing countries. The policy resulted in extraordinary foreign policy gains for India. Several beneficiaries of the initiative rose to prominent positions in their country, including as Heads of State or Government. They never forgot their India connection. Indeed, even today ITEC, with its new incarnation, Development Partnership Administration (DPA) continues to respond to contemporary challenges and demands of developing countries. It remains one of the key pillars on which India’s foreign policy is built. The enormous respect that India commands among countries in Africa and in Asia from Somalia, Sudan, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, to name a few in Africa, to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, to name a few in Asia, is a direct consequence of this programme.

Reimagining education 

We live in a deeply divided world, which is rapidly becoming insular and adversarial, and where the basis of bilateral and regional relationships is primarily driven by monetary considerations rather than long-term strategic national interests that can only be pursued through strong collaborative initiatives that address the myriad challenges, which plague the global community. A credible, viable, and sustainable foreign and security policy needs to see relationship building, collaboration, and cooperation as part of its education policy and driven by an aspiration for global good and human welfare. Unless this happens and universities are integrated into a nation’s foreign and security imperatives, neither would governments nor the higher education sector achieve their true potential.

Furthermore, at a time when the global order is being challenged, if we are to prevent the global community from slipping into chaos and disorder, it is imperative that world leaders recognize the importance of complementing South-South cooperation with North-South cooperation.

If we fail to do this, we would only have purselves to blame.

(The author is a former Indian diplomat. Views are personal.)

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