Image of smiling female
Knowledge Diplomacy in action. Photo ©

Matt Wright.

August 2019

The phrase ‘Knowledge Diplomacy’ is increasingly appearing in debates about the role of education internationally. Emma Skelton and Michael Peake consider its role and potential.

How the UK’s universities strengthen our national image

The strength of UK’s Higher Education (‘HE’) and research sector - a diverse group of over 160 autonomous, often world ranking institutions - is a hugely valuable national asset. With a tradition of innovation, and a significant global footprint, it helps to maintain the country’s reputation and position. 

British HE institutions attract more new international students to the UK each year than any other country’s

British HE institutions attract more new international students to the UK each year than any other country’s, and combined with people studying outside the UK (through “international programme and provider mobility” or “transnational education”), over 1 million non-British students study for British HE qualifications each year.

Our universities attract bright young talent and new perspectives to the UK in the form of students, teaching staff, researchers, and leaders. As well as boosting the economy (with a net annual benefit of over £20bn from attracting international students alone), they contribute significantly to the UK’s very powerful academic research base.

The benefits of international engagement in HE for the UK, its institutions, students, and communities are visible immediately, and last for a lifetime through the strong links that international alumni forge with their country of study. The UK’s HE institutions engage with every country in the world – they are a significant source of soft power. 

Over time, the UK’s policy and regulatory environment has supported the internationalisation of the UK’s HE, and through this has supported the strengthening of this national asset, and of the influence and attraction it provides for the country. The latest International Education Strategy published by the Departments for Education and International Trade sets out the Government’s ambition to further increase the value of education exports (to £35 billion / year), and the number of international students studying in the UK (to 600,000) by 2030.

Yet the UK’s is not the only internationally engaged HE sector, and the benefits of international HE are increasingly enjoyed by many countries.

British Council research shows that, across the globe, if countries have the right policies, they attract a higher proportion of international students. A higher rate of international students is correlated to stronger economic growth, and also to greater international collaboration in research, which in turn links to greater impact and quality.

And at a time when many commentators observe that countries are becoming less international and more nationalist, this same research - the Shape of Global Higher Education [LINK] - shows that, since 2016, most countries studied have in fact increased their national support for the internationalisation of higher education, and many countries have recently published or renewed international education strategies.

What does all of this have to do with diplomacy?

Diplomacy is changing. It is becoming fragmented, with a diversity of new actors, including civil society, multinationals and government departments other than foreign offices all playing a significant role. It is no longer always the case that governments and their representatives are the only major agents – a university may have better links with certain countries and officials than their government’s representatives. So do HE institutions have an obligation to make good use of the influence they carry? 

It is true that HE institutions can be valuable tools for increasing national levels of attraction and influence in a global context, but they have the potential to work beyond soft power – not solely pursuing national interests, but working in ways which serve the needs of others too - and address challenges which are not confined by national borders. 

Knowledge diplomacy is based on co-creating and cooperation, collaboration and compromise, bringing together expertise, experience, knowledge, and insight for mutual benefit

HE institutions can be central to a new concept in international relations – ‘Knowledge Diplomacy’ – an idea which was set out in a paper presented by Jane Knight at Going Global in May 2019. Knowledge diplomacy is based on co-creating and cooperation, collaboration and compromise, bringing together expertise, experience, knowledge, and insight for mutual (but often differing) benefit.

The problems that the world faces in the 21st century are increasingly global. Climate change, ageing societies, obesity, and refugees and migration are not confined by national boundaries. Higher Education and Research Institutions conduct research and collaborate across borders to help find solutions to these problems in different contexts. This collaboration is of course not new, but knowledge diplomacy gives credit to a secondary benefit of this work, which in many cases is better relations between countries, as well as the principle aim of increased understanding of global problems.

In her paper, Knight gives examples including the Pan African University, which serves as a hub for research collaboration and has contributed to strengthening African regionalism. Another example is the Japan–UK Research and Education Network for Knowledge Economy Initiatives, which brought together eight universities in the UK and six in Japan with of research partners from industry, business, and civil society to help tackle issues such as sustainable energy, entrepreneurship, and ageing societies.

The HOPES (Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians) project is a good example of multilateral knowledge diplomacy involving Higher Education and Research Institutions and other actors. A collaboration between Campus France, Nuffic, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the British Council, HOPES aims to provide better access to quality further and higher education for Syrian refugees and host communities. The project provides scholarships, academic counselling, and English for access courses for Syrian refugees in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. The project not only serves to strengthen relations between host communities and refugees, but also between the European partners working to deliver the project. 

Knight cites three main ingredients for successful knowledge diplomacy: co-operation, reciprocity, and mutual benefit. As governments become more involved in steering their internationalisation agenda, they must not lose sight of the importance of benefits for the partner country. It could be argued that some of the success of knowledge diplomacy is precisely due to universities’ perceived independence – in terms of their inherent motivation to create and share knowledge - from the government of their country. Government’s role may be to remove barriers and create a fertile environment for knowledge diplomacy, rather than dictate its direction.

These types of activities are not all new, but ‘Knowledge Diplomacy’ gives a term for the complex set of interactions between International Higher Education Research Institutions and bilateral and multilateral relations at state level. It enables understanding of the latent potential that Higher Education and Research Institutions have to tackle global challenges, and, in doing so, subtly shift relationships between countries. 

Emma Skelton, Global Relationship Manager, Education, with thanks to Michael Peake, Senior Advisor, Education Research, British Council

See also