Schools Training

The limits of soft power in higher education

3 FEB 2014

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Soft power is on the lips of scholars, policy makers and education leaders alike. Developed by political scientist Joseph Nye about a decade ago, the concept is popularly understood as the ability to influence others and achieve national self-interest(s) through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion, military force or economic sanctions – commonly known as hard power.

International higher education has been drawn to this new concept of soft power like bees to honey. Witness the number of references to it in conferences, academic journals, blogs and media articles in the last five years.

Many hail it as a fundamental premise of today’s international education engagement. Some treat it like a modern branding campaign, using culture and media to win over foreign publics – especially students. Others interpret it as a form of neo-colonisation.

And there are those who see attraction and persuasion as a way to build trust because trust can pay dividends in terms of economic and geo-political benefits. In short, the role and use of soft power is interpreted in a myriad of ways. But a common motivation is to achieve self-interests, whether the benefits be political, economic, reputation or overall competitiveness.

After all, the basic notion of power is about gaining some kind of dominance, whether it be by soft, hard or smart means. This reality raises hard questions. Are the primary goals of international higher education to serve self-interests and gain dominance? Is the term soft power really hegemony dressed in attractive new clothes?

Self-interest or mutual interest?

The most commonly referred to examples of soft power in higher education include the Fulbright Programme, the British Council, the German Academic Exchange Service, the Confucius institutes, Erasmus Mundus and Development Cooperation projects.

Clearly, these are respected and long-standing programmes that have been well accepted and made enormous contributions. But why do we call them instruments of ‘soft power’ when at their heart they promote the exchange of students, faculty, culture, science, knowledge and expertise? Yes, there are self-interests at play, but a mutuality of interests and benefits is also involved.

There is no doubt that international higher education has changed dramatically in the last two decades. 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, bi-national universities, multi-national policy networks, global mobility programmes, regional centres of excellence and international education hubs.

It is recognised that, in the highly interconnected and interdependent world in which we live, higher education is a channel for the cross-border 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? Is self-interest, competition or dominance effectively going to address issues of worldwide epidemics, terrorism, failed states, bottom billion in poverty, environmental change? The answer is no.

But it is not a simple answer as the world of international relations is complex and beset with histories, challenges and inequalities that it would be naïve to ignore.


Read full article: University World News