Harness the power of the university as a new actor in global diplomacy


Although it has been a major actor in international relations , the country is now experiencing various challenges in dealing with contemporary issues – such as the climate crisis, pandemics, terrorism, to economic inequality – because it is often inefficient or even corrupt .

This led to the emergence of a number of non-state actors. For example, terrorist groups such as ISIS which greatly influence the foreign policy of various countries related to terrorism , or other actors such as the K-Pop BTS music group that succeeded in influencing the way the world sees South Korea as a country .

Universities and higher education institutions have now also begun to take over the role of the state as a dominant force in attracting foreign investment – especially in regard to human resources and technology.

Good management of higher education has helped various countries – such as Britain and China , for example – to raise their international profile and attract not only talented researchers but also trillions of rupiah into their economies.

The world higher education market itself is massive, and continues to grow. In 2017, more than 5.3 million students studied outside their country, an increase of almost three times from 2 million in the 2000s.

Understanding the ‘ soft power ‘ of higher education

To explain the great potential of universities, we must first understand the concept of ” soft power ” or “soft power”.

Political researcher from Harvard University, Joseph Nye defines it as the ability to get what we want through attraction rather than using coercion or payment. According to him, the factors that determine the attractiveness of a country include culture, political ideology and foreign policy.

Higher education institutions can be instruments of diplomacy by making a country or culture have a high appeal through intellectual excellence.

Based on the ‘ Soft Power 30 ‘ index , the strong influence of a country’s higher education is judged by several indicators: the number of the world’s top universities, academic publications, and international students in the country.

Many countries with good achievements on these indicators then have a high global influence and appeal.

For example, UNESCO reports that the United Kingdom, Germany and China are among the 10 main destination countries for foreign students.

A 2018 study from Indiana University, USA, showed how the Chinese government’s higher education policy – including providing educational opportunities to students in developing countries to establishing partner institutions abroad – succeeded in helping attract many academic talents there.

Meanwhile in the UK, international students have contributed IDR 57 trillion in the country’s income over the past 10 years through income tax and social security contributions. This amount does not even include tuition fees or post-work work visa fees.

This existing market can not only be used to subsidize students and domestic research, but also encourage cross-cultural collaboration and help create a more multicultural society.

To increase ‘ soft power ‘, multiply global research investments

In the last two decades, a giant science Southeast Asia such as Singapore guide the development of higher education system in collaborative international research and exchange of business innovation and intensive.

For example, Singapore’s investment in global research and development has increased tenfold in the last 25 years; the Singapore government allocates more than Rp 270 trillion for their strategic plans until 2020.

Through the National Research Foundation (NRF) , Singapore offers a variety of international research grants, even funding between Singapore companies and universities and foreign scientists – such as through the Industry Alignment Fund .

As a result, Singapore is the only Asian country in the top 15 in the World University Rankings – an important measure for determining the ‘ Soft Power 30 ‘ index .

However, a different story occurs in neighboring Indonesia, Indonesia – the country with the largest economy in Southeast Asia.

Although Indonesia has the largest number of universities in Southeast Asia , lack of academic freedom and ineffective research funding policies have hampered higher education in Indonesia over the past few decades.

Based on the latest UNESCO data , Indonesia only allocates 0.24% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for research compared to Singapore with 2.2%.

This has reduced international interest in collaborating and investing in higher education institutions in Indonesia.

In 2017, the ratio of the number of foreign students to the total number of students enrolled was only 0.1%, the lowest compared to other countries in Southeast Asia namely Singapore (27.2%), Malaysia (8%), Thailand (1.3%) and even Vietnam (0.24%).

This shows that to achieve global influence or even enter the prestigious ‘ Soft Power 30 ‘ index , it is important for the government to invest more in the ability of Indonesia’s higher education sector to attract international public interest.

Much research has shown that opening channels for global research collaboration – through scholarships or grants – can increase a country’s attractiveness more than other educational factors that affect soft power .

If these changes are not made, various countries including Indonesia will be left behind in the race to utilize higher education institutions as a force for global diplomacy.

Author Bio: Ayu Anastasya Rachman is a PhD Student in International Relations at Padjadjaran University