Report calls for political leaders to champion London’s higher education sector to boost UK soft power 

A new report released today by London Higher, the representative body for over 50 higher education institutions in London, highlights the critical role of London’s higher education sector in bolstering the UK’s soft power and global influence. As global change and instability persist, London’s ability to forge international networks, attract resources, and exert influence remains the key to the UK’s global success.
The report, which features two maps illustrating the soft power of London university alumni across the UK and the world, underscores the significance of London’s universities in maintaining and enhancing this influence.
Key findings:
  • London’s universities are pivotal in creating international connections that benefit the UK. By attracting international talent, investment, and fostering collaboration, these institutions significantly contribute to the nation’s soft power.
  • The higher education sector in London not only enhances the UK’s global standing but also drives regional growth and national success. Student, alumni, and researcher mobilities, along with strategic partnerships and knowledge exchange, are essential to the UK’s appeal.
  • London’s higher education institutions are exemplary in partnership working, particularly in addressing global challenges. This collaborative approach is crucial for the UK’s leadership on the world stage on issues such as Net Zero.
With a new Mayoral term and a new government in place, the report emphasises the need for political leaders to recognise and champion the role of London’s higher education sector. It outlines specific actions for the UK government, the Mayor of London, and the higher education sector, calling for the:
UK government to:
  • protect the Graduate Route visa to retain skilled talent and remain internationally competitive; and
  • maintain international research collaborations and expand the Turing scheme to include inbound staff mobility and research exchanges.
Mayor of London to:
  • support the Study London campaign to maintain the capital’s status as the world’s best student city;
  • strengthen support for spinouts and start-ups to secure London’s attractiveness for business development and graduate retention; and
  • leverage the influence of higher education institutions in regional diplomatic efforts to foster greater international collaboration.
Higher education sector to:
  • ensure employers understand the Graduate Route and its role in meeting high-level skills demands;
  • collaborate with organisations such as the British Council and the City of London Corporation to advance soft power through cultural diplomacy; and
  • work with the US-UK Fulbright Commission to promote international exchange and cross-cultural understanding.
In support of the report, Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher said:
“This report highlights the indispensable role of London’s higher education institutions in enhancing the UK’s soft power and global influence. Our universities are not just centres of academic excellence but are pivotal in forging international connections, driving innovation, and attracting global talent. By recognising and championing these contributions, we can ensure that London remains strong on the world stage, benefitting both our society and economy. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that policymakers, educators, and business leaders work together to leverage this tremendous asset for the UK’s continued success.”
Mona Lotten, Head of Soft Power Research and Insight at the British Council said:
“In a world where the balance of power is shifting, relations between nations are becoming more fractious and violent conflict is on the rise, it is no surprise that hard power dominates the debate. Yet, soft power is central to a nation’s ability to attract and earn the trust of others and provide a platform to work for shared goals – be that democracy, climate change mitigation or freedom of expression. When a young person comes to the UK because they have been attracted by the quality and diversity of London’s education offer, they have the opportunity to get a qualification that sets them up for a successful career. They, and we, also have the opportunity to build familiarity and relationships with the UK that can provide a lifetime of personal connections and goodwill. We know from empirical research that those who have studied in another country report more positive perceptions of that country and a greater willingness to engage in the future.”
Evie Aspinall, Director, British Foreign Policy Group said:
“In increasingly turbulent geopolitical times, the UK’s soft power is more important than ever in maintaining the UK’s position on the world stage. London’s universities have a major role to play in attracting top talent to the UK, strengthening the UK economy, and in helping nurture and develop a network of knowledge, ideas and champions for the UK all over the world. This report compellingly articulates how now, more than ever, it is essential that the UK invests in and supports its higher education institutions.”
Afua Osei, Director of External Relations at the US-UK Fulbright Commission said:
“A 1948 treaty between the US and the UK governments specifically established the US-UK Fulbright Commission, one of the first Fulbright programmes in the world. Over 75 years later, we are still the only organization to support international education both ways between the US and the UK for every generation – spanning students, researchers and professionals. Built on the foundations of soft power and the special relationship, our US-UK Fulbright programme enables study, teaching and research at some of the world’s most exciting universities and there are over 2,500 Fulbrighters linked to London’s higher education institutions.”*
The report can be read on our website.
*This quote has been amended on 11.07.2024.