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UK playing catch up with US for top spot in soft power rankings

The UK is closing its gap with the US in the latest Soft-Power Index, with the latter retaining top spot having educated 65 world leaders.

Switzerland, Australia, Italy and Spain have all educated more than five serving world leaders. Photo: pexels

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak earned an MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar

Since 2017, the last year when the UK boasted having the most serving world leaders as alumni of any country in the world, the US has extended its lead every year after overtaking the UK in 2018.

The latest analysis compiled by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that in 2023, 65 world leaders are graduates of US higher education institutions, a decline of two on last year’s figures. The UK increased its count by two, including 58 leaders among its alumni.

France is in third place, being the study destination for 30 leaders, and Russia fourth, with 10.

“The number of world leaders educated in other countries reflects the standing of different educational systems and is a good proxy for the amount of soft power held by different countries,” HEPI director, Nick Hillman, said.

“It is no accident that the countries that top the global university league tables are the same ones that educate the most people who go on to head up their own countries.”

There is still a difference of seven monarchs, presidents and prime ministers educated in the US, including UK prime minister Rishi Sunak who earned an MBA from Stanford University as a Fulbright Scholar, as well as a degree at Oxford in the UK.

Still, Hillman described the fact that over one-quarter of the world’s countries having a head of state or prime minister educated in the UK as a “phenomenal achievement”.

HEPI noted that a handful of leaders – including Sunak – have been educated in both the UK and the US. A total of 84 countries have a very senior leader who has been educated at a higher level in the US and / or the UK, the think tank added.

“Seven years of data confirms beyond all doubt that the US and the UK have a lead over the rest of the world”

“We now have seven years of data, which confirm beyond all doubt that the US and the UK have a lead over the rest of the world that remains very difficult to beat,” Hillman added.

The two countries lead above competitors due to their strong university systems, their international connections as well as having English as the most common language, the think tank emphasised.

Other countries that have educated more than five serving world leaders are Switzerland (seven), Australia (six), Italy (six) and Spain (six).

Among world leader’s that have studied in Australia are Bhutanese prime minister, Lotay Tshering, who graduated from University of Canberra with a masters in 2014 (in addition holding qualifications earned in the US), as well as president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, who earned a master’s of Economic Studies from The University of Queensland in 2002.

Notable alumni of UK institutions include: Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II; King Harald V of Norway; Japan’s Emperor Naruhito; prime minister of Cameroon Joseph Ngute; president of Ghana Nana Akufo-Addo; and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Syria’s notorious leader Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of war crimes in the country, also studied postgraduate courses in Ophthalmology at Western Eye Hospital in London.

The list of world leaders who studied in the US features: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel; Latvian prime minister Krišjānis Kariņš; president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud; and Ariel Henry, prime minister of Haiti.

Irish president Michael D Higgins, president of the Philippines Bongbong Marcos, Belgium’s King Philippe, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and prime minister of Guyana Mark Phillips are just some of the leaders that have been educated in both the UK and the US.

Many current world leaders have not had international education experiences.

Xi Jinping of China studied at Tsinghua University, Germany’s Olaf Scholz read law at the University of Hamburg, India’s Narendra Modi earned degree in his home country, US president Joe Biden studied at the University of Delaware and Syracuse University and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman studied at King Saud University in Riyadh. Australian leader Anthony Albanese is a graduate of the University of Sydney.

Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and former US president Bill Clinton are both alumni of Oxford University’s Rhodes scholarship, while former Germany chancellor Angela Merkal joined an exchange program to the Soviet Union in 1974.

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