The 2020 Soft Power Ranking published by the Higher Education Policy Institute listed 354 world leaders – defined as heads of state and heads of government – and noted that leaders educated in another country is widely regarded as a proxy for ‘soft power’.

“As the pandemic eases, we must do all we can to come out of the blocks faster than our main competitors”

The rankings exclude world leaders’ education in their home country, meaning prime minister Boris Johnson’s UK education and president Donald Trump’s US education are not included.

Overall, the latest ranking revealed that the UK, which had educated the most world leaders in 2017 (58) but slipped relative to the US in both 2018 and 2019, has now fallen even further behind.

According to HEPI, as of 2020 there are five fewer world leaders who studied at a higher level in the UK (57) than the US (62).

“The last four years of results, therefore, show a clear and consistent pattern: relative to the US, the UK’s position has deteriorated each year,” HEPI in a policy note explained.

“The UK… is the only high-performing country to have seen two drops since the baseline year of 2017.

“The US, in contrast, has seen two increases and no reduction in the same period.”

However, the UK is some way ahead of the next three countries: France (35), Russia (10) and Australia (10).

But while France remains comfortably in third place, it has slipped back significantly this year, having educated five fewer world leaders in 2020 compared with 2019 or 2018.

In total, over one-in-four countries around the world (53 out of the 195 recognised by the United Nations) have a head of state and/or a head of government educated in the UK, above all other countries apart from the US (58 countries).

The 27 EU countries together educated three more (60) serving world leaders than the UK.

Director of HEPI and the author of the new policy note, Nick Hillman, said it is sad to see the UK falling further against the US in terms of educating the world’s leaders, but added that “it is not a complete surprise”.

“The situation reflects the policy environment in place before this year when some other countries were keener than the UK to succeed in the competitive task of recruiting international students,” he noted.

“Things are now changing, with improved post-study work rules, a new International Education Champion and a commitment to refresh the International Education Strategy.”

However, Hilman added that these welcome measures would have taken time to have their full effect even without Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“With these challenges, the new improved situation may not be enough to reverse the UK’s recent relative decline.

Meanwhile, Hilman noted, there are increasingly loud concerns in Australia about the reliance on international students, while tension between the US and some other countries, such as China, is rising.

“As the pandemic eases, we must do all we can to come out of the blocks faster than our main competitors by showing UK universities remain fully open to people from around the world,” he said.

“The new improved situation may not be enough to reverse the UK’s recent relative decline”

A powerful case for keeping Britain open and welcoming to international talent has also been echoed in recent findings that revealed Covid-19 has not slowed university startup activity down.

According to Creator Fund’s inaugural ‘State of UK Student Startups’ report, attracting international students is key for UK innovation as almost six in 10 (57%) of companies started at university have a non-British founder.

“International students improve the education and research of their institutions while bringing financial benefits to the UK,” continued Hilman at HEPI.

“The students who come here and the institutions they study at both benefit, as does the country as a whole.”

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