Dean Forbes


Australian International Education Conference

Adelaide 11-14th October 2011

Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International & Communities)

Flinders University

Good afternoon.

Accepting an invitation to speak about soft power and international education brought again to the surface a delicious irony.

I spent most of my career as an academic writing and teaching about Pacific Asia. Then I drifted over to the dark side.  I became a manager with responsibility for international education.

Instead of researching and commenting on the actions of others, researchers and writers began to focus on what us practitioners of international education were trying to do. 

Research papers now address a broad agenda ranging from the human rights of international students to the soft power potential of international education. Listening to academic criticism of international education can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Today I will provide a perspective on soft power from within international education. I will try not to be too defensive or wordy!  However, succinctness is not one of the skills promoted in universities.


The soft power proposition is, in the words of Joseph Nye (2004), about focusing diplomacy on ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want - co-opt people rather than coerce them’.

Caitlyn Byrne and Rebecca Hall’s (2011) proposition is that soft power, or public diplomacy, is about informing and engaging in order to promote Australia’s interests. As a middle-level power, public diplomacy should enhance Australia’s influence internationally.

In their view the problem is Australia’s public diplomacy is undervalued and lacks support.

More specifically, international education, as is stated in the title of their Discussion Paper, has unrealized soft power potential for Australia. The implication is that those engaged in international diplomacy, and those in international education, could, and should, make a greater effort to ensure that international education does enhance Australia’s soft power.

I will speak to three aspects of this argument.


The primary answer to this is straightforward. Yes, the soft power potential of international education is important. We often hear reference to the positive benefits to Australia of engagement in the Colombo Plan.  Judging by the many successful careers of Colombo Plan students, it also produced significant benefits to the individuals involved.

International education post the mid 1980s is also important for Australia. It contributes to building the knowledge and skills of students.  And it also leads to greater and more meaningful communication between people across the world. Both enhance the soft power of the country and both are to be encouraged. 

Leveraging international education to increase soft power is a legitimate task for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Government more generally.  In my experience the vast majority of Australia’s Ambassadors and High Commissioners actively engage in promoting the soft power benefits of international education.

The question is should international educators have a more active strategy to promote soft power?

What are the risks of doing this, and how should they be managed?

The first principle of policy and strategy to consider is, do no harm.  No harm either to our students, or to the kind of international education that we deliver. Yet there is an ongoing risk that too much emphasis on promoting Australian soft power could divert attention from the broader goals of international education.

There are also risks inherent in becoming too closely connected to government strategies.  In many cases even foreign policy includes much that is short term, and associated with particular political parties and strategies.

Having said that, universities have a history of working with Government on broader international policy issues.

One example is the second track diplomacy that occurs through universities. During the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Australian and Vietnamese Governments were in the sensitive process of building diplomatic relations.

Visiting Vietnamese officials would regularly be directed to the Australian National University for discussions and briefings. ANU staff and Vietnamese officials could discuss a wide range of issues and build understanding and goodwill in parallel to, but separate from, official and constrained government-to-government dialogue.

Another example is the role of Australian business schools and business education in creating and sustaining global business through the global ‘cultural circuit of capital’.

More international students in Australian higher education study business than anything else. Students are taught how to operate according to western business principals, and hence become informal ambassadors for western style business practices. Or, more accurately, quasi western style business practices.

This is nothing if not ambitious. But it has been hugely successful.  Who would have thought that Australia, with so few companies in the Global 500, could have become such a significant source of western business skills for Asian students, and thereby smooth the pathways of the integration of the global economy?

However, not all government-university engagement has been mutually beneficial. Education providers have in recent years been badly burned because of the perceived connection between international education and immigration policy. We simply cannot afford to be so exposed again.


International education offers three important ways of strengthening Australia’s soft power over the next decade or so.

The first is to continue to improve the quality of our international education product, ranging from the delivery of education to the overall student experience of living and studying in Australia. We have elements of a national strategy for international education and a regulatory infrastructure that has been strengthened and, we would hope, will be effective.

We must also draw on our own experience to demonstrate that in addition to enhancing the careers of the individuals involved, Australian higher education provides positive national and global benefits. In particular, that it is a key component of a knowledge economy that in turn leads to increases in economic productivity and quality of life. Unfortunately, Australia’s experience is mixed in this regard.

Second, universities must put extra effort into building their ‘third wave’ internationalization strategies.  This means continuing to build enduring research and teaching collaborations. Probably the most significant task, though, is to expand and deepen international alumni networks.

A recent report commissioned by the Universities Australia DVC I Committee was undertaken by staff from CASE (the Council on the Support and Advancement of Education (MacNeill 2011).  It draws attention to the limitations of our engagement with international alumni, and suggests areas for strengthening.

The third element is to strengthen the scholarships and the education sector support that addresses the needs of the less developed economies, particularly in the Asian Pacific region.  It will require significant support from the Government.

AusAID scholarships are very important. But not everyone thinks so. The case must be made.

Outgoing mobility scholarships are also important. The decision to bring the Endeavour, UMAP and Cheung Kong inbound and outbound programs together under the umbrella of the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP) from 2012 is most welcome. Having a wide range of constantly changing names for scholarships programs has been confusing, both to us and international educators.

On another tack, Australian universities could benefit from the experience of US and Canadian universities international knowledge-based development initiatives.  We have no equivalent of the Americans’ Higher Education for Development (HED) organisation, or of programs such as the Africa-US Higher Education Initiative (Buchere 2009).  According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), Canadian universities have engaged in over 2,600 international development projects since the 1970s (AUCC 2007).

To be effective, this would require a new style of partnerships between universities and AusAID that goes beyond the current linkage grants and scholarships.


The landscape of international education is changing fast, and will almost certainly continue to change significantly in the future.  The investment many countries are putting into higher education (including education abroad), and their eagerness to enhance the capabilities and standing of universities, is unlikely to stall anytime soon. Though there must be a question mark over Europe!

In an increasingly competitive global environment, Australian universities and their international education programs will need to be, and be seen as, high quality, resilient, and capable of meeting the constantly evolving needs of students and society.

There are, as yet, no international measures that capture these elements of higher education. Global university rankings are a neo-colonial, not post-colonial, scoring of university performance. Regrettably, though, they are influential.

Australia’s reputation, and hence its soft power, must become much better connected to the talent and skills of its people, which underpin its knowledge economy and knowledge-rich society. To put it colloquially, we must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Finally, it is essential that our international education story is communicated cleverly and consistently to the world. Australia values education.

The value proposition of the new brand, Australia Unlimited, and its education sub-brand, Future Unlimited, is capable of supporting this. The ‘future focus and global relevance of an Australian education’ is an essential part of the brand.

But we also know how rapidly and decisively the brand can be tarnished. The brand strength will depend as much, if not more, upon the bottom-up way in which we support our international education values.

Education potentially provides an opportunity to associate the Australian brand with something other than sport, minerals and tiresome tourism promotions. If we were to be successful, Australian education could be as well known as Danish design or Dutch cheese.

And that would be our major contribution to Australia’s soft power and provide additional traction for our aspirations as a middle power.


AUCC (Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) 2007 Canadian University Engagement in International Development Cooperation, Ottawa

Buchere, Dave 2009 “Africa-US. 40 universities win partnership awards” University World News Africa, Issue 0032, 28 June 2009.

Byrne, Caitlin and Rebecca Hall 2011 Australia’s International Education as Public Diplomacy: Soft Power Potential, Discussion Papers in Diplomacy, Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’.

Lennon, Vanessa 2011 Education Brand and Campaign Development, July-August 2011.

MacNeill, Catherine 2011 Enhancing International Alumni Relations, CASE, Washington DC

Nye, Joseph 2004 The Benefits of Soft Power.