Now at the helm of one of the most powerfully potent countries in the world, Singh is just one example of a UK-educated person of power. Many other political leaders and power brokers have shared libraries and corridors with the UK’s student cohort and as a result retain personal and professional alliances and affiliations.
In fact, of the non-UK born 256 living Nobel Prize winners, 34 received at least a proportion of their education in the UK or currently hold positions in UK universities.
International education is a key component of Britain’s “soft power”, but how can this intangible asset become tangible and better understood? A Lords Select Committee and a group of commercial stakeholders have both taken up this challenge and published reports in recent months measuring how soft power plays out and exploring how this can be better leveraged.
A mind map charting what soft power is was also produced by the Lords committee.
A sophisticated understanding of soft power is crucial, as Lord Howell of Guildford, Chairman of the Lords Select Committee, explains. “In this increasingly connected world, the power of influence is much more significant and has to be deployed much more skilfully,” he said at the launch of the recent publication, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World.
“The power of influence is much more significant and has to be deployed much more skilfully”
This calls for a soft power unit at the heart of government to oversee its range of recommendations that will continue to ensure that the UK can influence via persuasion rather than force.
Exporting Education UK (ExEd UK), a group of largely commercial education operators that are active internationally, has been liaising with the Lords committee and sharing its commissioned research, based on the Who’s Who 2013 guide as a starting point. This uncovered the Nobel Prize connection (and follows on from the UK government’s own assessment of The Wider Benefits of International Education in the UK in 2013).
“From heads of state, government minsters, ambassadors and government officials, those who have been educated at British schools and universities have both guided their own nations and conducted relations with Britain and the rest of the world,” states Education and Soft Power, the Unexplored Connection.
Based on ExEd UK’s limited research, it appears that an undergraduate degree is the most likely connection a global operator will have with the UK. By trawling an almanac of “people of influence and interest”, over 400 names among the 33,000 (deemed important in the eyes of the British) were identified as having studied in the UK.
These included names such as Thabo Mbeki , Manmohan Singh and Roland Dumas that need little explanation, as well as others such as Professor Robert Mundell, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1999 and is known as the “father” of the euro.
Of those 407 identified, 42% worked in academia/research/medicine; 22% in government, politics and international relations (including ambassadors and several prime ministers); and 10% were in banking, business or finance.
“We know intuitively that decision makers’ connections with Britain influence how they interact with us in business and international relations, yet there has been little work done by government to quantify that impact and understand how we can harness it better,” said Graham Able, Chair of ExEd UK and CEO of Alpha Plus Group, explaining the motivations for this research.
The single country that demonstrated the closest ties to the UK based upon this research was Australia – with one quarter of all those eminent persons identified from Australia, 19% from the USA and 13% from Europe.
Able told The PIE News that this research has been shared with the Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence. It draws out other useful observations such as the fact that almost one in five of the governors of Central Banks around the world (18%) had studied at a UK university.
Lord Howell, Chair of the Committee, discusses the recent report
The latest report from the Lords accuses the UK government of moving from a position of absent-mindedness to neglect and Lord Howell highlights the rhetoric around visas as a “minus” that is undermining the UK’s assets as far as soft power is concerned.
Lord Howell highlights the rhetoric around visas as a “minus” that is undermining the UK’s assets
He calls on the government to enhance the cultural organs that are already successful – the BBC World Service, the British Council and “strengthen our embassies around the world”.
Able in fact also highlights a particular issue with visa issuance in Myanmar. “This country is developing fast and has an historic link to the UK,” he said. “Students, many of whom study for iGCSE in private tutorial classes, currently have to apply via our embassy in Thailand.”
The report singles out the adoption of English as a global working language and its worldwide educational links as among the UK’s strong suits.
The Lords committee calls for enhanced promotion of “British English” and for the British Council to be required to provide in its Annual Report a much more detailed appraisal of the work that it has done to support private sector British English education across the world.
It wants UKTI to conduct more follow-up of trade missions, better promotion of the UK’s creative industries, turning embassies into “dynamic centres of commercial, diplomatic, and cultural activities”.
Noting the era-shifting rise of social media, it also suggests, “We recommend that all UK diplomats receive professional training in public diplomacy” and welcomes the re-opening of the FCO Language Centre.
The Commonwealth, a “gateway to many of the great emerging powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America, is not quite understood in Whitehall”
Among a broad range of other recommendations (88), it is emphasised that the UK should build stronger relations with the Commonwealth, a “gateway to many of the great emerging powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America, [that] is not quite understood in Whitehall”.
And, of course, to remove international students from net migration targets – as well as to develop more scholarship schemes for international students and better support study abroad schemes too.
“The UK cannot simply proceed as before… The government must not only defend and preserve the UK’s accumulated estate of soft power… They must build on the UK’s strengths,” states the report summary.
Warning of the false economies of “short-termism in areas where results take time to mature”, the report pours scorn on the net migration issue.
“The government must present and communicate their visa and immigration policies with a level of balance and in a tone that do not discourage those who would add to the UK’s prosperity from coming to the UK and supporting its businesses; we do not believe that this is always the case at present.”
“The UK has to slip its 20th-century moorings and look to Asia, Africa and other regions”
And again, later in the report, “We feel that there is a real risk that anti-immigration rhetoric will lead [to]…. injurious consequences for the unity of the nation. This can only undermine the message of friendliness and diversity that the UK hopes to project.”
And in a nod to a more multi-polar network, the report adds, “The UK has to slip its 20th-century moorings and look to Asia, Africa and other regions, countries and communities. This does not necessarily mean striking out alone: all nations are now intensely interdependent.”