UK has been home to alma maters of world leaders
Many global leaders studied in Britain, cementing the country’s status as a historical and quality education hub
One example of a country’s ‘soft power’ is the number of international students it educates who go on to become leaders in their home countries. Experts believe it reflects the host country’s influence and may bring diplomatic and trade benefits. International students have been called ‘The best ambassadors a nation has’ and the British Council believes ‘familiarity with the UK matters’.
A large number of world leaders have been educated in Britain over the centuries, including leading lights from the Indian sub-continent. For example, for a year from December 1988, both India and Pakistan had prime ministers who were educated in Britain: Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. It may never be known how exactly their common education background helped relations between the two countries or their respective bilateral ties with Britain, but British trade and other documents from their time, now declassified, invariably highlight their education in Britain.
Before them, many leaders of India’s freedom struggle studied in Britain, some even plotted moves against colonial rule while in London, and later went on to hold political office.
The list of past and present leaders in politics and other fields from the region with British education reads like a who’s who: including B R Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan, Cornelia Sorabji, Imran Khan, Aung San Suu Kyi, Indira Gandhi, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Jayant Narlikar, Amartya Sen, Dorabji Tata, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Solomon Bandaranaike, Farooq Ahmad Leghari, Abdus Salam, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Lakshman Kadirgamar, V K Krishna Menon and Srinivas Ramanujan.
The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), which tracks the education background of serving world leaders, says that in 2017 the UK educated the most: 58 leaders of 49 countries, while the US ranked second, educating 57 leaders of 51 countries. The UK later lost its top position to the US. In 2020, 57 leaders of 52 countries studied in the UK, compared to 62 leaders of 58 countries who studied in the US, prompting concern among British education experts over the impact Brexit and Covid would have on the country’s future ‘soft power’ rank.
Says Hepi director Nick Hillman: “It is sad to see the UK falling further against the US in terms of educating the world’s leaders, even though the UK still performs well relative to all other countries. 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, these welcome measures would have taken time to have their full effect even without Brexit and Covid. International students improve the education and research of their institutions while bringing financial benefits to the UK. The students who come here and the institutions they study at both benefit, as does the country as a whole.”
The goodwill for Britain that former students have is evident from the words of Manmohan Singh, who gained a doctorate in Economics at Oxford in 1962 and returned as India’s prime minister to accept an honorary degree in July 2005: “Today is a very emotional day for me. Oxford brings back many fond memories that I cherish. For this reason, as much as for the intrinsic value of the honour you bestow upon me, I am truly overwhelmed…I have had the good fortune of receiving several honorary degrees. However, there can be nothing more valuable or precious than receiving an honorary degree from one’s own alma mater. To be so honoured by a university where one has burnt the proverbial midnight oil to earn a regular degree, is a truly most fulfilling experience. I thank you for it. This is a day I will truly cherish…I always come back to the city of dreaming spires and of lost causes as a student.”
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