A lively discussion on the role of higher education and cultural diplomacy concluded the first day of the British Council’s Going Global conference at the Dubai World Trade Centre.
Over a hundred delegates filled Hall C to hear the debate featuring the British Council’s Chief Executive Martin Davidson, Dr Li Mingjiang from Nanyang Technological University, Dr Dorothea Rüland, Secretary General, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and Dr Junaid Zaidi, Rector of COMSATS Institute of Information Technology in Pakistan.
The debate, chaired by Kim Catcheside, began with the panellists giving their views on what is ‘soft power’, to what extent is it implicit in all international collaborations, and why is higher education a focus for the 'soft power' ambitions of governments?
Davidson began by introducing the positive side of soft power: 'You have to ask what is attractive in a country? Certainly for the British Council we see three of the UK’s most attractive assets as firstly our language – we all know and recognise the power of English as a tool for people to develop their economic and social opportunities. Our second great asset is our creativity and the arts. Our third, and perhaps most powerful of all is education, and higher education in particular.'
Davidson explained 'We all recognise how formative our university experience is, but it may be even more transformative if that takes place in another country.'
Dr Li Minjiang challenged Martin Davidson, asserting “There’s no such thing as hard and soft power, it depends how you use it…The essential question is what produces attraction – you can use military or economic power to attract. On the other hand you can use culture to coerce. For example, if country A decides to forbid higher education exchanges with country B, then country A is using higher education for hard power.”
'China has been using a lot of policy instruments to improve its soft power' Dr Li Minjiang continued. 'In higher education, for example, through Confucius institutes. The purpose of China investing so much money is to improve the image of China, globally, to help people understand China. China also provides a lot of scholarships to foreign students – in 2010 almost 23,000 scholarships.'
Dr Zaidi described how in Pakistan, the development of the university sector was a relatively recent phenomenon. 'Only in the last two decades the focus has shifted from teaching to also creating knowledge and research and innovation. We are using universities for our own development. But not many people have access to this, one million out of 180m. [In Pakistan] There are 100m people aged between 17-24 but we don’t have the capacity to take them – so the power we could have from our higher education, we’re not able to take advantage of it.'
Dr Rüland explained that in Germany, 'there’s a high awareness of the importance of higher education. Countries are writing their strategies. But it’s harder because former ‘target countries’ such as China or Brazil are now themselves players in this field, it’s becoming far more competitive. Soft power today takes place in totally different environment. Universities have autonomy, and they have their own internationalisation strategies. So it’s much more difficult for governments to use universities as agents in their soft power strategy.'
This point provoked disagreement on the panel on whether soft power could be successful if a consequence of direct government intervention, or rather the most successful soft power influence was made by organisations operating independently of governments.
Dr Li Minjiang argued that nation states engage in soft power activity because they want to achieve certain objectives with their national interest. However, Martin Davidson said that 'the paradox of soft power is that the greater the government involvement is, the weaker the soft power is. Increasingly the strongest higher education institutions are autonomous of governments. Governments may talk of where their national interests lie; but the government can’t instruct universities to act in a certain way. Governments can create conditions of exchange and set up organisations like the British Council, but even the British Council has to remain at arms-length from government in order to work effectively.'
All panellists agreed however, that soft power was most effective when the relationship was ‘win-win’. Dr Zaidi told the audience that 'higher education will be a great ambassador to Pakistan, and the underprivileged people in Pakistan are most looking forward to access to higher education in our society.”
Dr Rüland concluded the session by saying that in terms of international relations 'in the 20th century, politics was very important, but now education, the power of research in addressing big global issues has grown in influence. Nations may not play such a big role any more. For example with the EU, some of the power of our governments we’re already giving to the EU. The EU 2020 strategy is about higher education and research, it’s our future.'