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Higher education and science: geopolitical tools or actors in their own right?

Siobhan O'Brien

Research Engagement & Support Officer, School of Education, Communication & Society

15 December 2022

Higher education and science have more to offer the international community than as the geopolitical tools governments often use them as. On a backdrop of tensions between China and the USA, and while the war in Ukraine is still going strong nine months after the Russian invasion, the School of Education, Communication & Society at King’s gathered experts to discuss the role of higher education and science in the development of international cooperation and diplomacy in such a turbulent world.

The panellists all agreed that universities, along with other educational institutions, play an important role in the development of mutual trust between nations. They provide a space for cross-cultural cooperation through education and research, and often reach young people at a formative stage of life. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has, in recent years, limited face-to-face interactions, and therefore opportunities for in-depth educational and cultural exchange, these institutions remain vitally important to developing trusting, positive relations between nations.

There is a fine line between soft power and propaganda, and legitimacy and credibility often depend on government not being involved.– Madeleine Ansell, Director Education, British Council

When governments use higher education institutions as geopolitical tools, academic freedom is curtailed and science cooperation threatened.

Despite the shared understanding that giving higher education institutions the freedom to cultivate science diplomacy through research and education is key to building more general cooperation among nations, government officials have continued to use higher education institutions as tools to fulfil self-centred geopolitical aims.

The current relationship between China and countries such as the UK and the US is one example of this. Panellist Dr Jane Hayward spoke to how the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes have been referred to as a ‘threat to civil liberties’ in recent parliamentary debates in the UK. Concerns about staff at these Institutes and their intent or ability to influence politics via their university connections have been raised, and whether these Institutes should be allowed to stay open despite these concerns remains a contentious issue.

Regardless of their actual level of threat, however, such comments illustrate the politically aggressive stance taken by the UK government towards the Confucius Institutes, and the educational implications of this are still unclear. Should the Institutes disappear from UK university campuses, what access would students have to Chinese language and cultural education? And if this access is not replaced, how can we be sure that mutual cultural understanding between British and Chinese citizens would not deteriorate?

The UK is not alone in this type of political action against higher education institutions. Under the Trump presidency, the US administration reused some of the Red-Scare tactics of the 1950s investigating students and researchers of Chinese heritage at American universities on suspicion of connections with the Chinese government – investigations which, Dr Hayward stated, have destroyed the academic careers of some.

The US government has also recently launched a strategy to ‘compete’ with both allies and enemies, in the form of recruiting and retaining specific categories of students and researchers in the country, to fulfil long-term foreign policy goals – ie, to retain its soft power. This includes the development of specialised visa programmes, not unlike the Global Talent Visa, recently established in the UK, as panellist Prof Ben O’Loughlin pointed out. This strategy seems to demonstrate a general ‘weaponisation’ (to borrow a term from Prof O’Loughlin) of students and researchers, where the accumulation of intelligence and academic talent is done for national security reasons, rather than for the development of cross-cultural interaction or collaboration.

The practical consequences of such trends might include restrictions around funding, where funds would only be directed towards research that directly contributes to national economic and political goals. Moreover, if other countries start developing their own, similar programmes to compete on the world stage, this may forcefully steer the focus of higher education and research away from international collaboration and towards nations’ self-interest.

Could it be part of higher education’s service to society to take a stance in global geopolitics?

In today’s highly interconnected world, higher education institutions are not isolated from the world’s geopolitical events anymore, so a new question is raised about their potential responsibility to take a stance towards them.

For example, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries across the globe mandated a halt to all scientific and academic cooperation with higher education institutions in Russia. As panellist Dr Ben Kienzle stated, this geopolitical situation presents a classic ‘wicked problem’, where, on the one hand, universities should not collaborate with a country that has violated international law and norms, but on the other, halting all cooperation disregards any differences between federal-level politics and the individuals pursuing education and research at educational institutions. In the short term, as Dr Kienzle put it, it may have been necessary for these individuals at higher education institutions to ‘pay’ for geopolitical reasons, as UK universities took a stance on this world event.

This is not the first time in history that higher education institutions have actively halted international collaboration. In fact, the current situation is so reminiscent of the lack of collaboration that existed during the Cold War that Prof Matei spoke of there currently being a new ‘Iron Veil’ between Russia and the rest of Europe (a reference to the Cold War ‘Iron Curtain’ between the Soviet Union and Western Europe).

However, scientists and researchers played a major role in re-establishing cooperation between Western and Eastern Europe after the Cold War. If universities have a responsibility toward responding to world political events, even by limiting academic freedom, how much of a role can they – or should they – also play in re-establishing connections amid tense geopolitical situations?

One of the main difficulties of science diplomacy is that its benefits are often hard to trace and only become explicit in the long term. Yet, these benefits are clear, and the development of cross-cultural understanding and trust must remain central to the purpose of higher education. In today’s turbulent geopolitical climate, it is universities’ and academics’ mission to use their voice and take a stance on the role of higher education and research in international relations.

Watch the full event:

In this story

Liviu Matei

Liviu Matei

Professor of Higher Education and Public Policy

Benjamin Kienzle

Benjamin Kienzle

Reader in Security Cooperation

Jane Hayward

Jane Hayward

Lecturer in China and Global Affairs

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