International education, 
global understanding

An examination of global higher education relations shows how strongly education partnerships influence relations between states.

There is no question that the forces and opportunities of globalisation have impacted both international relations and higher education. While the inter­nationalisation of higher education has been studied in depth, and the changing world of diplomacy has been critically reviewed, there is much to be learned from looking at the convergence and consequences of these two important but changing phenomena. The purpose of this article is to introduce knowledge diplomacy as an effective alternative to soft power in terms of education’s contribution to the knowledge society and 
international relations.

International higher education has trad­itionally been seen through the lens of 
cultural diplomacy. Student and faculty mobility, language learning, and cultural exchange have been the dominant modes. Yet, in the last two decades international higher education has changed dramat­ically and has introduced important new dimensions. It is not just students and scholars who are moving across borders, so are programmes, providers, projects and policies. The landscape of higher education is characterised by international collaborative research projects, binational universities as developed especially 
by the German partnership model of 
bi­national universities, multinational expert networks, a focus on developing 
intercultural understanding and competencies, global academic mobility programmes such as the Fulbright Program or Erasmus Mundus, regional centres of excellence such as those being developed in Africa, international education hubs like Qatar or Singapore and worldwide circulation of higher education reform policies especially for academic credits, qualification frameworks and quality assurance. Positioning higher education as an instrument of cultural and public diplomacy is important but falls short of a more comprehensive view of higher education’s inter­national engagement through such areas as science, technology and knowledge. These areas have increasing relevance and leverage in a world more oriented to knowledge, social justice, innovation and the economy.

Diplomacy, interpreted to mean the management of international relations, has 
also evolved at a rapid pace. The shift from a state-based approach, typically centred on the role of the Ministry of Foreign 
Affairs and professional diplomats, to a ­multi-actor approach is a hallmark of contemporary diplomacy. Not only have a broader spectrum of government agencies become key players in diplomatic relations, so have civil society organisations, multinational firms, and expert networks become recognised as important agents in the management of international relations. Higher education, in the form of univer­sities and colleges, students and faculty, disciplinary groups, expert networks, foundations and governmental agencies are but a few examples of the diversity of higher education actors actively engaged in international relations.

During the past decade, academic leaders and policy analysts have been increasingly concerned with justifying international higher education’s contribution to the development of a country and the shift to a knowledge-based economy. These debates are now broadening to include higher education as an instrument of soft power. Developed by US political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, the concept of soft power is popularly understood as the ability to influence others and achieve national self-interests through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion, military force or economic sanctions – commonly known as hard power.

Given higher education’s current obsession with branding, rankings and competi­tiveness, it is strongly attracted to the concept of soft power. Many treat soft power like a modern branding campaign using culture and media to win over foreign publics – especially students and scholars. Others interpret soft power as another form of neocolonisation or soft imperialism. In short, the role and use of higher education as a soft power instrument is interpreted in many ways. But, the common motivation behind soft power is self-interest and dominance through attraction – whether the benefits are political, economic or reputational.

The most commonly cited examples of soft power in higher education include the Fulbright Program, British Council activities, German Academic Exchange Service initiatives and Erasmus projects. Clearly, these are respected and long-standing programmes that are well accepted and make enormous contributions. But why do we call them instruments of “soft power” when at their heart they promote exchange of students, faculty, culture, science, knowledge and expertise. Yes, there are self-interests at play but there is a mutuality of interests and benefits involved for all partners. International higher education is not traditionally seen as a game of winners and losers – it is focused on exchange and partnerships and builds on the respective strengths of countries, higher education and research institutions to find solutions and benefits for all players recognising that the benefits will differ among partners.

In the highly interconnected and interdependent world in which we live, higher edu­cation is a channel for the crossborder flow and exchange of people, knowledge, expertise, values, innovation, economy, technology and culture. But why is it framed in a “power paradigm” like soft power? Are the values of self-interest, competition or dominance going to effectively address issues of worldwide epidemics, terrorism, failed states, the bottom billion living in poverty, environmental degradation and climate change? The answer is no, based on the reality and “new normal” that finding solutions to worldwide challenges cannot be achieved by one country alone.

For the past two decades there has been much discussion on the idea of a knowledge-based society. This is a post-indus­trial notion where knowledge is the engine for sociocultural development and economic growth of communities. The focus on knowledge highlights the important role that education – including primary, secondary and higher – plays in today’s world.

In this changing world of contemporary 
diplomacy, higher education has a significant role and contribution to make. Higher education’s long tradition of scholarly collaboration and academic mobility complemented by today’s innovations of research and policy networks, international education hubs, joint programmes, global and binational universities, have a lot to contribute to strengthening international relations among countries and regions through the generation, diffusion, and exchange of knowledge – in short, knowledge diplomacy.

If diplomacy essentially means “building and managing relations between and among countries” then knowledge diplomacy involves the “contribution that education and knowledge creation, sharing and use make to international relations and engagement”. But knowledge diplomacy should be seen as a reciprocal process. Knowledge diplomacy contributes to international relations, and conversely, international engagement brings added value to the development of knowledge and its contribution to society. One serves the other. Mutual benefits and a two-way exchange are therefore essential to the concept of knowledge diplomacy and differentiate it from soft power values of self-interest and dominance. ▪


of the University of Toronto is one of the world’s most sought-after education experts.