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The soft power of student exchange programs

The writer talks about how student exchange programmes have become an essential tool by countries for exercising soft power. According to the writer, Pakistan can strengthen its foreign policy by initiating its own exchange programs.

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For students who have completed or are about to complete their undergraduate degrees, it’s that time of the year where they start contemplating over postgraduate studies and the options available to them locally and abroad.

It is quite a relief when one finds a foreign government-sponsored program that not only covers all education-related expenses at a top-rated university but also provides reasonable stipends to participants for exploring and engaging with the culture of their host country.

For a student in a country with few opportunities, it almost seems like divine intervention that a foreign benefactor would take one under its wing. Very altruistic, right?

Not quite. For those of us who subscribe to a pragmatic worldview and spend most of our time sifting through the international section of magazines and newspapers, there is but one truth: when it comes to international relations, there is no altruism, only interests.

In today’s world, the idea of power has become a bit more nuanced and pursuing one’s national interest requires creativity and ingenuity. It is no longer a world where mere material strength can provide a country with influence. Instead, governments now need to go the extra mile and win the hearts and minds of not only their own people but also of those living in the countries they wish to influence.

Power does not solely lie in the hard fist of coercion anymore but also manifests itself through the softer, more delicate touch of attracted consent.

Read more: Nation branding: shaping narratives through soft power

Features of student exchange programs

One of the most effective tools used by governments to attract such consent is student exchange programs. Across the globe, there are perhaps two common observations one can make when going through the websites of various programs.

The first and more obvious one is that they revolve around education. The second and perhaps the more important feature is that they involve the respective foreign ministry as a key player and stakeholder. This involvement indicates that there is a direct link between exchange programs and foreign policy goals.

Read more: UN chief calls for efforts to re-enhance education

Since these programs are merit-based, they usually attract the best and brightest minds of the land who are more likely to serve at influential positions within their own countries in the future.

What’s more, is that the gradual acculturation that happens through these programs inculcates the values of host countries in students and makes these ‘cultural ambassadors’ more amenable to advancing their host’s interests.

Among such hosts, the US Department of State has the most well-known programs under its umbrella. Programs like the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES)Global UGRAD, and Fulbright cater to students of various age groups and professionals at different career levels.

Read more: USEFP & US Embassy aim to attract more Pakistani students with scholarships & programs

The success of these programs is manifested through their alumni who include notable figures like Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and current New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, among many others.

The United Kingdom, with its Chevening Scholarships, and Australia, with its Australia Awards, are also following a similar path. Within Asia, China and Japan have also developed their own state-sponsored exchange programs.

Pakistan – currently ranked 63rd in the Global Soft Power Index – has also expressed commitment in recent years towards the development of its soft power. Currently, cadets from the Middle East and South Asian countries are trained at military academies in Pakistan.

Over the years, their presence has proven to be of great value while creating military-military and people-people linkages between their native countries and Pakistan.

The National University of Science and Technology (NUST) has also started its NUST Internship Program for International Students (NIPIS) more recently which has been attracting interns from abroad for the past two years.

Should Pakistan have its own exchange program?

Given the unmatched success of foreign exchange programs in promoting a state’s soft power, it would be quite prudent for the Pakistani government to initiate its own holistic exchange program to attract talent from the developing world, especially South Asia, Middle East, and Central Asia.

Relations with states from these regions have played a key role in Pakistan’s foreign policy overtures and will likely influence Pakistan’s options in the future as well. At present, three Pakistani universities feature among the top 500 and seven among the top 1000 based on QS World Universities Ranking.

Read more: Pakistani Universities among Best Global Universities Rankings 2021

While there is room for further improvement, it is worth noting that most Pakistani universities are quite young and have grown quickly in the ranking despite the short life. Compared to options in their own country, Pakistani universities might prove to be a better option for students belonging to mentioned regions.

A potential student exchange program hosted by Pakistan would not only require central effort from the Higher Education Commission but also active involvement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Together, they’ll have to ensure that incoming foreign students not only receive standardized and quality education but also experience the diversity and richness of Pakistani culture.

Such a program would include training workshops, activity sessions, and seminars, specially designed to inculcate and promote positive Pakistani values and narrative.

After the completion of their studies, these students would need to be connected and engaged further within their own countries through an alumni network.

An example that can be replicated is the Pakistan-US Alumni Network (PUAN), whose members include over 29000 alumni. An alumni network of a Pakistan-based exchange program could play a vital role in promoting Pakistan’s interests in the participant country.

Read more: Amb Salman Bashir on Pakistan’s foreign policy in the next decade

No better option 

Over the years, student exchange programs have proven to be a cost-effective and lasting method of enhancing soft power. They facilitate direct engagement with counterparts in academic, governmental, and business fields while promoting cultural understanding between the host and participant countries.

Pakistan’s recent foreign policy aspirations require a new approach to diplomacy. The cultural diplomacy that happens through student exchange not only promotes a positive image of the host but also provides it with reliable soft power assets abroad.

For decades, developed countries have harnessed the soft power of student exchange programs. If Pakistan is to promote itself as a dynamic and progressive country, there is no better option than engaging the youth of its surrounding region through an educational and cultural exchange program of its own.

Read more: Pakistan offers 1000 scholarships to Afghan students at different universities across country

The writer is an Islamabad based author and columnist with an interest in international affairs. He can be reached at saifkhattak97@gmail.com.The views expressed in the article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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