Soft power as a policy rationale for international education in the UK: a critical analysis


This article presents the results of a textual analysis conducted on policy discourses on international students in the UK between 1999 and 2013. A number of rationales for and against increasing their numbers have been made, which have largely remained consistent over changing political administrations. One key rationale is that international students enhance the UK’s global political influence through its soft power. Critical analysis indicates that a number of unsubstantiated assumptions are made, representing international higher education and students in an outdated power relation predicated on Cold War politics. Key assumptions are that international students change their political attitudes and identify with the host country as a result of positive experiences. Later they are supposed to return home and reach positions of influence, which they exert in favour of the UK. They are represented to feel the same whether on scholarship or self-funded; and behave in predictable, similar ways. These representations of students as social subjects have disciplinary implications, which should be a topic for critical debate and potentially resistance in pedagogical contexts.

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Author information

Correspondence to Sylvie Lomer.

Additional information

The recent comments by the Home Secretary Amber Rudd at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference appear to constitute a significant rupture with the rationale presented in this article. In light of these comments, the author would like to clarify that the criticisms here should not be understood as arguing against the presence of international students in the UK. Rather, it is argued that international students are not under a moral obligation to confer political influence on the UK or to support its policies.

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Lomer, S. Soft power as a policy rationale for international education in the UK: a critical analysis. High Educ 74, 581–598 (2017).

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  • Policy
  • Discourse
  • International education
  • Soft power
  • International students