24 April 2024
by David Mills

Rethinking the Geopolitics of Higher Education

Global higher education is increasingly entangled in geopolitics. International student mobility and scientific collaborations have long been tools of ‘soft power’, but today’s universities are also geopolitical actors. This one day CGHE workshop, held on the 23rd March 2024, provided an opportunity to explore these entanglements in more detail.


Is global higher education becoming ever more entangled in geopolitics? And what does this mean for students, staff, universities and nation states?  International student mobility and scientific collaborations have long been tools of soft power as well as core parts of academic life. Today’s universities have become geopolitical actors in their own right as they build global networks and alliances. At the same time they are vulnerable to policy shifts and reactionary political agendas. There is much to understand about the relational geopolitical agency of higher education’s stakeholders.

On 23rd March, more than fifty researchers gathered at UCL for a one-day conference to explore these issues.  The workshop marked the culmination of a stream of CGHE research projects at UCL, Oxford and Surrey looking into ‘supranational’ dynamics within Higher Education. Convened by Rachel Brooks, Maia Chankseliani, Tristan McCowan, David Mills, and Lee Rensimer, the aim of the day was to bring together established and early career researchers working in this area. Over the course of one day, sixteen presenters in four panels, along with three poster presenters, explored the internationalisation of the European higher education space, conceptualisations of geopolitics, China-Africa comparisons and the role of HE partnerships in crises (slides hyperlinked to presenters’ names below).

The first panel, entitled The geopolitics of internationalisation in the European higher education space began with Ahmet Yirmibes (Bartin University, Türkiye) talking about the global diffusion of the EU’s Erasmus policies, and the specific ways in which these initiatives are taken up at the peripheries of Europe. Odhran Fox (Ulster University, UK) went on to describe the rolling out of the UK Turing scheme to replace Erasmus, and how the expansive ideals of Erasmus have been replaced by a more utilitarian and instrumentalist model of student mobility Andreas Vasilopoulos & Georgios Dourgkounas (University of Patras, Greece) went on to talk about the contradictory aspects of Greek HE internationalisation. They described how the task of attracting international students has been left to a new breed of private universities, with no attempt by the Greek state to acknowledge this strategy or to build capacity, partly because of its symbolic resistance to the EU internationalisation agenda. Finally, Vera Spangler (University of Surrey, UK) pointed to the tensions between HE international student recruitment ambitions and state migration policies, highlighting how the UK and Denmark had been convulsed by a fragile and unstable set of politicised dynamics and messaging around international students. She compared these dynamics to the policy stability and long-term strategy espoused by Germany. As panel discussant Anne Corbett (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK) offered a powerful set of comments, pointing to the analytical challenges of conceptualising geopolitics across multiple scales, including supranational decision making, national political decision making and the strategies of HEIs themselves, as well as the interlocking nature of external threats, national responsibilities and system reactions. Anne went on to offer trenchant advice on the policy making process itself.

The second panel – Thinking through the geopolitics of HE: frameworks, approaches, and challenges – began with a paper by Hannah Moscovitz (Aarhus University, Denmark / University of Cambridge, UK) on the new geopolitics of higher education. Building on her 2023 paper with Emma Sabzalieva, Hannah offered an analytical model of these geopolitical developments that sought to ‘rupture’ existing assumptions. The model combines an attention to, and the relationships between spatial scales, agents, interests, and opportunity structures (SAIOS). Her paper explored ways to put this into practice, and also how to respond to current geopolitical developments. Tessa Celine DeLaquil(Aarhus University, Denmark) explored ways to theorise the ‘value capture’ of university ideals within international organisational policy discourse. In doing so, she sought to implement the insights from the Moscovitz and Sabzalieva model, and the risks of quantifying and simplifying nuanced debates about academic values.  Tessa suggested that one implication of this policy discourse was to narrow ontological horizons and reduce options and future visions. Jonah Otto (University of Augsburg, Germany) used IR theory to theorise transnational partnerships, using an analysis of the Open Alex database to highlight the ways that different IR theories  (such as science diplomacy and soft power etc) are taken up, and used to influence HE stakeholders. He suggestsed that universities needed to be attentive to these knowledge feedback loops and the self-reflexive aspects of geopolitics. Finally, Carolina Guzman Valenzuela (Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile) spoke on partnership dynamics and publication practices, focusing on Latin American international collaborations. In her paper, Carolina combined a conceptual discussion of epistemic imbalance with a scientometric analysis of citation index data. She highlighted the limited nature of South-South collaboration and publication practices, in comparison to work with the Global North. In her discussant remarks Rebecca Schendel (Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA) welcomed the application of these new conceptual models, calling for a greater attention to the range of terms have used to explore these dynamics, and the role of ‘translation’ within the field.

Over the lunch hour participants were treated to poster presentations by three postgraduate students examining various higher education issues with geopolitical implications. Haolin Zhang (University of Glasgow, UK) critically questioned the impact of the increasing restrictions and salary requirements placed on UK work visa applicants. Her research drew attention to the consequences for Britain’s nearly 700,000 international students. As well as paying considerably higher tuition fees, they will have to secure graduate jobs starting at 15% above the UK average salary in order to remain. Yamin (University of Birmingham, UK) also explored the geopolitical push and pull factors shaping international student flows, looking specifically at the structures and agencies shaping student mobilities from Bangladesh and Myanmar to the UK. Finally, Yiran Ma (University of Oxford, UK) analysed the ‘Chinese characteristics’ of research collaborations between the US and China, tracing the shifts in both countries’ policies on bilateral knowledge and cultural exchanges. Her analysis of policy discourses highlighted divergent strategies, with China embracing a ‘positive-sum’ knowledge diplomacy approach compared to the ‘zero-sum’ competitive soft-power ethos of neo-nationalist US policy.

After lunch, the third panel – Academic mobility, capacity and partnerships:  China and Africa in comparative perspective – offered a range of case-studies from Africa and East Asia, providing an important geopolitical counterweight to the Europe focus of the first panel. Jonathan Williams (Centre for Higher Education and Science Studies (DZHW), Germany) spoke about the African Centers of Excellence programme, and its strategic approach to regional capacity-building, global reputation and locally relevant science. Jonathan provided a short history of this initiative and the challenges of building regional research capacity in Africa as well as assessing its outcomes. Miguel Lim, Heather Cockayne, and Zhuo Sun (University of Manchester, UK) explored new ideals in Chinese educational partnerships and forms of Sino-Foreign transnational HE after the COVID 19 pandemic. They highlighted the very different models being developed by regional actors within China, such as Shanghai, contrasting the Sino-Danish partnership with the UK’s market-led approach to promoting TNE and international mobility. Qiyu Zhuang (University of Edinburgh, UK) discussed the negotiation of cultural, political, and ideological boundaries by Chinese universities seeking to position themselves within both regional and international higher education spaces. She pointed to the importance of attending to the role of the CCCP in shaping these agendas, both in promoting political socialisation but also in potentially shaping mobility policies. Jack Lee (University of Glasgow, UK) used the case of Taiwan to directly challenge existing models of international student mobility and geopolitics. He called for more thought about the assumptions made about educational diplomacy and soft power, drew attention to Taiwan’s limited geopolitical agency within the region, but also questioned whether it was as democratic as it portrayed itself to be. He ended by espousing ‘Asia as Method’ in order to subvert global North discourses. Finally Julie, Lin, Yi-Chuan Chiu, Ting-Syuan Jhang and Douglas Pea (University of Oxford, UK) built on Jack’s paper by comparing the forms of higher education soft-power deployed by China and Taiwan between 2010 and 2020, and the very different options open to them. As discussant, Pauline Essah (Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) asked if policymakers continued to deploy a deficit framing of African Higher education. She also compared the financial investments made by China into higher education with that being made in Africa. She argued that there were lessons to learn across the two regions for both sides, including from indigenous cultures of higher learning.

The final panel, Higher education partnerships in times of crises, began with a paper by Anatoly Oleksiyenko (The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong) analysing international statements and practices of solidarity in relation to the Ukrainian crisis. Anatoly began by arguing that humanitarianism is less an analytical category than a context-dependent policy rhetoric. He compared different university website statements, suggesting that the decision by universities from across the world – from Poland to Japan – to make such statements reveals their embeddedness within geographies of dependency and cultural legacies. Anatoly suggested that for globally engaged universities, the very ability to make such statements was important. Abbas Abbasov (ADA University, Azerbaijan) compared HE governance during the Covid pandemic in HE systems at universities in Hong Kong, Johannesburg and New York. Abbas pointed to the very different governance roles – advice, brokerage, coordination, data collection, lobbying, material support and translation – HE stakeholders held during this period, and the way that this enabled them to effectively lobby governments for support. Finally, Ahmad Akkad (University of Oxford, UK) explored the role of universities in the Arab world in responding to recent crises, ranging from empowering individuals to building solidarity platforms and supporting scholars at risk. These varied from temporary collaborations to more formal networks, and he stressed the importance of building longer term structures of solidarity. Acting as discussant, Fariba Soetan (The Association of Commonwealth Universities) began by explaining how the ACU’s equitable partnership framework seeks to help HE organisations work together across contexts of inequality. She highlighted how national interests were often couched in geopolitical terms, placing an onus on universities to negotiate effectively. She ended by pointing to the continued role of educational scholarships in responding to crises and the important role of HE associations as policy advocates.

The day demonstrated the importance of HE researchers addressing geopolitical questions in their work. Ranging across regions and scales, participants opened up a broad spectrum of research topics and further questions. The quality of the presentations highlighted the strength of new work in this area. Some presenters were unable to attend, and they will present CGHE webinars over the course of the next few months.