Public Diplomacy and the Internationalisation of Higher Education


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by Fazal Rizvi

In its traditional registers, the idea of diplomacy has mostly been associated with relations between nations through their appointed representatives. In recent decades, however it has increasingly become evident that the relationships that ordinary citizens are able to forge across national borders are equally important in the exercise of diplomacy. In the context of globalisation, as more people become globally mobile, they are able to develop and sustain close links transnationally. Through these links, positive international relations can now be advanced by a wide array of actors and activities and not only by government representatives. Not surprisingly, nations have begun to consider how people-to-people relations can be used to influence others and promote national interests. The idea of public diplomacy captures this possibility.

Of the many institutions through which public diplomacy can be enacted, higher education has the potential to play a pivotal role. It is a site where academic exchange can promote intercultural dialogue about complex ideas and contrasting interests and build effective international relations through the exercise of what is referred to as “soft power”. Soft power involves the use of non-coercive means through which to influence the thinking and disposition of others. Its purpose is to steer people — and through them their communities and nations — towards a preferred set of cultural values and political ideologies.

“Of the many institutions through which public diplomacy can be enacted, higher education has the potential to play a pivotal role. It is a site where academic exchange can promote intercultural dialogue over complex ideas and contrasting interests and build effective international relations through the exercise of what is referred to as ‘soft power’.”

The idea that higher education can be a vehicle for public diplomacy is however not entirely new. Universities and centres of learning have always attracted globally-mobile scholars and students in search of new knowledge. Over centuries, European scholars, for example, travelled far and wide, bringing back with them an understanding of other cultures and the ways in which the world worked. Buddhist and Islamic scholars took their knowledge to various parts of the world, modifying their religious beliefs in line with local conditions and traditions. The notion of intercultural communication and understanding has thus always been a goal of the academies of advanced learning.

In recent decades, however, this view of public diplomacy has been institutionalised, made into an object of governmental policy, coordinated through programmes, and managed by organisations especially set up to promote national interests. The United States has, for example, long promoted its interests through the Fulbright Program, the principal aim of which is to foster mutual understanding between people and nations, though the programme barely hides America’s hegemonic interests in its efforts to develop people-to-people relations. Similarly, the British Council describes itself as an international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations, but seldom masks its view that through academic exchange between universities it wishes to exercise soft power, especially over countries that Britain once colonised.

The German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, plays a similar, but less targeted, role. Other European countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have followed the British and German examples and have set up their own agencies to promote public diplomacy through education. The Australian government admits readily that it has benefitted greatly from its programmes of overseas aid for education, such as the Colombo Plan, and more recently, initiatives such as the Australia Awards. Before its collapse, the Soviet Union too offered a large number of scholarships to students from the developing countries in an effort to garner their support within the context of the Cold War.

More recently, countries from the Global South have also established their own programmes to exercise soft power. Most notably, in 2004, China emerged with an idea for its own brand of public diplomacy through education. Its Confucius Institutes are designed to promote Chinese language and culture abroad. There are now almost 350 Confucius Institutes in over 100 countries and regions. China also offers a large number of scholarships for international students to study at its universities and colleges, in an attempt to extend its geopolitical influence. Though still at an early stage, India too is in the process of developing its public diplomacy efforts, most notably through the work of its very large and influential diaspora.

What these examples show is that when nations sponsor the mobility of students and scholars across the world in support of initiatives in public diplomacy, their own national interests are invariably involved. Not surprisingly, as geopolitical conditions change, so do the nature of their interests and the forms of their support for international education. For example, as countries in Asia and Africa became independent, colonial powers needed a new rationale for supporting international scholars and students at their universities. This came in the form of the ideology of “developmentalism”, couched in a language that suggested that colonial powers had a responsibility to develop the knowledge and skills newly independent countries needed to realise their national goals of social and economic development.

However, this act of public diplomacy was seldom based in altruism, but in the interest that economically advanced countries had in finding new markets for their goods and services and in promoting their own geopolitical interests. During the Cold War, these interests took centre stage, as the politics of educational aid became inextricably tied to the competing programmes and practices in public diplomacy. Both the Soviet Union and the United States viewed their investment in international education through the prism of their attempts to generate ideological support from the international students they sponsored, students whom they expected to become future political leaders.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new understanding of international higher education has emerged. This understanding is located within the assumptions of a market rationality through which the mobility of students across national borders is increasingly viewed in commercial terms. Encouraged by their governments, universities around the world are increasingly looking to the emerging transnational elites as a source of much needed revenue. Transformed also is the way that many students now regard international higher education — as an economic investment in their futures, especially in a fast globalising economy and the emergent global labour market. In this way, the relationship between higher education and its ends has become tied to logic of the market.

Within the context of this historical shift, the nature of the relationship between international education and public diplomacy is also changing. While international students are still assumed to be the agents of international understanding and cooperation, their relationship to the institutions of higher education abroad are no longer disconnected from their own personal interests. They can now be expected to make decisions that are strategic and instrumental, and regard themselves as global consumers of education, rather than representatives of their communities or nations with a responsibility to promote national interests abroad. For them, the calculations of what counts as relevant educational experiences are often linked to the values of economic exchange and to their job prospects within the globalising labour market.

“While international students are still assumed to be the agents of international understanding and cooperation, their relationship to the institutions of higher education abroad are no longer disconnected from their own personal interests.”

Nation states and universities have also begun to think differently about the relationship between internationalisation and public diplomacy. While countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia continue to offer scholarships to international students, the number and duration of such scholarships have declined markedly. Furthermore, many scholarship programmes are now linked to the possibilities of trade or the instrumental concerns of security. Australia, for example, has developed a New Colombo Plan that offers its students a scholarship to spend a period of time at a university or a corporation in Asia, in order to develop a better understanding of the rapidly growing Asian markets.

Universities have similarly linked their efforts to what they perceive to be the requirements of the global markets. While they have entirely abandoned some of their more traditional goals, such as learning for its own sake and learning as a means to make a broader contribution to society, they cannot be surprised that many international students view this rhetoric with a great deal of cynicism. When they couch ideas such as global citizenship education in the narrower logic of the markets, the high ideals that these ideas often represent are invariably diminished, becoming secondary to instrumental objectives.

So, the older understanding of how international education might contribute to public diplomacy — the role of higher education in working towards modernisation, the social and cultural development of poorer countries, and building their capacity and promoting international understanding and intercultural relations — has not entirely disappeared; it is now incorporated within a broader market rationality. This has resulted in precedence being given to such policy imperatives as generating revenue and building an international profile and reputation. In relation to curriculum, precedence is being given to developing human resources for a globalising economy; and in the area of research, to transnational collaborations for sharing resources to create commercially useful knowledge. These developments have clearly weakened the potential that international education might have once had as an effective tool of public diplomacy.

Fazal Rizvi is Professor of Global Studies in Education, University of Melbourne, Australia.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #06. Click here to read the full issue.

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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.