The Changing Soft Power Landscape of International Higher Education

By Dan Kent

With the release of an updated strategy on international education and engagement by the US Department of Education, the US government has acknowledged the importance of education as a vehicle for advancing its international interests. Specifically, the US higher education sector has long been widely acknowledged as a source of soft power for the nation, especially through foreign students coming to the US for their education. But the benefits of increased international enrollment in US higher education go beyond just soft power: international students bring economic impact, diversify their campuses, and potentially enter a direct pipeline for skilled immigrants to stay longer-term in the US after completing their studies, to name a few.

But even as the US government turns its attention to the potential that education holds as a diplomatic and economic tool, other countries are likewise ramping up their efforts to recruit international students to their higher education sectors. As human capital becomes ever more critical in developing, implementing, and managing advanced economies, US leaders would do well to take note of these developments and adjust their approach accordingly.

The United States has long been the most popular higher education destination in the world, with around a million foreign students annually enrolled in recent years up until the COVID-19 pandemic. International students in the United States contribute nearly $34B annually to the economy, diversify its higher education institutions, and serve as a bridge to the world. For many of them, their experiences as students in the US are foundational to their skills as global citizens, advancing their English proficiency and allowing them to gain a valuable credential that often has as much or more reputational currency than their home universities.

Many global leaders and their children have been educated in the United States, from Rishi Sunak (prime minister of the UK) to Lee Hsien Loong (prime minister of Singapore). The soft power generated from these students for the US is tough to measure, but one analysis by the Washington Post noted that in 2013, 300 world leaders had attended higher education institutions in the United States — a number that is likely even higher now. Such ties deepen natural networks between the United States and business and governmental leaders in other countries, and aid in establishing mutual understanding between powers. 

Foreign student enrollment in US institutions has also been a leading indicator of increasingly closer ties between countries. For example, when Vietnam and the United States formalized relations in 1995, there were only several hundred Vietnamese students enrolled in schools across the United States. Today, over 20,000 Vietnamese students attend US colleges and universities, and relations between the two countries are deeper than ever, with security, climate, economic, and health cooperation deepening year over year. When normalization first occurred, fostering higher education exchange was on the top of the list of mutual priorities, even despite a number of initial tensions between the governments. Higher education exchanges can represent an easy, mutual “win-win” during such processes. 

In recent years, the US has been conscious of this effect and has begun to explicitly use its higher education sector for soft power purposes at the highest levels. In 2021, the Quad Security Dialogue (made up of Japan, Australia, India, and the United States) announced the creation of the Quad Fellowship, a program designed to support 75 foreign students from Japan, Australia and India to study STEM fields in the US. The program is designed to train future global scientific leaders who will contribute to international understanding. In his address announcing the program, President Biden stated that it would “help make sure democracies deliver for the people everywhere.” He thus explicitly connected such a higher education effort to the ongoing debate between autocracies and democracies that has dominated recent years.

But foreign student enrollment is also subject to the roils of international politics. Enrollment growth from China began slowing every year of the Trump administration until the pandemic sent it into a tailspin, coming down from a high of 372,532 to 290,086 today–a decrease of nearly a quarter. China’s unique standing as the last bastion of major COVID restrictions for daily activity has made it tremendously more difficult for its citizens to enroll for study in the US, but the decrease also reflects the continuing deterioration of relations over the last several presidential administrations. The formerly high enrollment numbers from China have likewise failed to deliver warmer relations between the two nations. The benefits of international student enrollment as a tool of soft power has its limits.

There are further risks to the US’s higher education-driven soft power plays beyond volatility. Even with programs like the Quad Fellowship, which supports only 75 foreign students with financial aid, the overwhelming majority of programs do not offer financial aid to foreign students. The average tuition, fees, and housing costs for out-of-state undergraduate students  in the US ranged from $26,000 to over $35,000 per year. For most foreign students, unless they can remain in the United States afterwards on elevated salaries, the financial calculus simply does not pay off. The numerous challenges foreign students face in staying in the US — even with the recent expansion of Optional Practical Training (OPT) — make it an even more uncertain future for prospective international students. Although foreign students continue to enroll, there is no guarantee that consistent yearly increases in attendance costs will not reach a tipping point past which the international student market is unwilling to pay. 

And the US is far from alone in pursuing higher education as a tool of soft power. Canada’s international higher education enrollments have skyrocketed in recent years, reaching a high of 621,565 students in 2021. Higher education and immigration will also play a prominent role economically for Canada: to meet a national labor shortage, the country recently announced that it would seek to award 500,000 permanent residencies per year, many of whom will gain “points” in the immigration process through graduation from the higher education system. By contrast, the US has been awarding fewer and fewer green cards in recent years, to just around 800,000 in 2021 — only slightly larger than Canada despite dwarfing it in population size and facing a similar labor market crunch.

Australia, the UK, and New Zealand are leaning on their historical success as popular  destinations for international students to make a greater play for continued foreign attendance, too, with international enrollments in the UK reaching an all-time high of over 600,000 in 2020. Singapore has also long defined itself as a global destination for top students through their “Global Schoolhouse” strategy, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, China was actively courting students from a broad swathe of developing countries with lucrative scholarships. All of these countries, while still relatively expensive higher education tuition and fees on a global scale, often maintain the advantage of being significantly cheaper than studying in the United States. International students have many options for where they may seek to study.

Although the US has historically led in higher education globally, recruiting by far the largest number of international students, this is quickly changing as a combination of home-grown and global challenges could begin to erode that advantage. Institutional and governmental leaders can take note by prioritizing affordability for international students, easing the pathway for longer-term residency for foreign graduates, and leveraging higher education as a soft power tool for improving relationships with other countries. Otherwise, the rest of the world might catch up and even overtake the US in what has, up until recently, been a critical advantage globally.

Dan Kent is a research and evaluation professional currently working in philanthropy in New York and is a staff writer for the Emerging Voices column.

Image note: Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash