Walter Ellis is a Northern Ireland-born, France-based journalist and commentator. He is the author of “The Beginning of the End: The Daunting Disadvantage of a Happy Irish Childhood.”.”
Who knew that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s autocratic prime minister and friend in adversity to Russian President Vladimir Putin, shared the same Oxford tutor as former US president and Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton?
Sure, the duo’s weekly tutorials with Polish political philosopher Zbigniew Pełczyński, a veteran of the Warsaw Uprising, took place two decades apart, but the message from the professor’s side of the desk changed little in the intervening years. Pełczyński was a liberal capitalist of the old school, who believed in people working together regardless of the underlying ideology, and did what he could to introduce young Poles, and others from Eastern Europe, to the free market and principles democrats during the last days of communism in Poland.
The point is that neither of them was listening, not really. Their minds were already thinking about what their next move should be. No doubt Clinton thought that he did not need instruction in such precepts. Orbán, on the other hand, despite rising through the party ranks and considering himself a “naive and devoted supporter” of the communist regime, was already committed to a thorough cleansing of the old thinking and had no time to make concessions.
Ambition plays a key role in education, especially for those who choose politics as the intended path forward. And Orbán and Clinton are just two of 53 current world leaders who have spent time at British universities. Only the United States, with 54, has a higher figure.
But are these students, who frequently cross entire continents to fill their assigned slots, seeking quality education or the opportunity, in the case of the United States, to become acquainted with the world’s number one economic and military power? Or could it simply be that English is the world’s lingua franca?
Recently published by the Oxford-based Higher Education Policy Institute, the Soft Power Index 2023 lists 13 hereditary rulers who have studied in the UK, from the Emperor of Japan through the kings, queens and princes of Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Jordan, Bahrain, Monaco, Lesotho and Tonga to various Gulf sultans . emirs and sheikhs
Among the remaining 40 names (mere presidents and prime ministers) the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Switzerland, Cyprus, Malta, Bolivia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia, Sierra Leone stand out. Barbados, the Philippines and Singapore.
Not all completed their studies at such varied institutions as Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, and the Universities of Manchester, Warwick, and Southampton. Some, like Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, returned home after just a few months. Others, however, stayed the course, including David Francis, former prime minister and now minister of foreign affairs of Sierra Leone, who, after receiving his Ph.D., became director of the African Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the Bradford University.
Pakistan’s Imran Khan, a former student of Oxford’s Keble College, would also have been high on the British list if, following tradition, he had not been ousted in 2022 after being accused of corruption. Though Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who studied ophthalmology at London’s Western Eye Hospital, remains in command in war-torn Damascus, backed by Russian weapons.
The United States, meanwhile, has narrowly surpassed the United Kingdom on the index in recent years, but it surely won’t come as a surprise that there are more elected leaders and fewer royals on the American list. Among the exceptions is King Felipe VI of Spain, who earned a master’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University, where he shared a room with his cousin, Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.
King Philippe of Belgium is another example, having earned a master’s degree in political science from Stanford University, while Prince Albert of Monaco, son of 1950s movie star Grace Kelly, completed four years of study at Amherst College proudly boasting that they speak not only French, German and Italian but also “American” English.
Among the elected leaders of American origin, the best known is undoubtedly Benjamin Netanyahu – Israel’s seemingly eternal prime minister – who has a bachelor’s degree in architecture and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, like Prince Alberto de Monaco, speaks English. with a distinctive American accent.
Others, in no particular order, include Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, who studied law at Cornell; Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chávez Robles, who studied economics and agriculture at Ohio State; former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who was one of the best among his Harvard MBA cohort; former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, an Amherst graduate in politics and economics; and the Georgian leader Salomé Zourabichvili, who culminated a brilliant career at Sciences Po in Paris with a second master’s degree at Columbia, supervised by Zbigniew Brzezinski.
In terms of trophies, Great Britain still manage to hold on to their lead, if only just. There seems to be a certain chemistry at play here, both related to class and tradition and academic opportunities, which makes up for the country’s relative decline as a global influence. However, what really counts – and will surely be revealed in the years to come – is the extent to which the two “Anglo-Saxon” models are still far ahead of the pack that is chasing them.
France is currently in third place, with 30 serving leaders on its university roster (compared to 40 in 2019). Meanwhile, Russia, 18 months after its invasion of Ukraine, languishes in fourth place, with an external quotient of 10.
Of course, with five times the population of the United Kingdom and the largest and most productive economy in the world, the United States will surely exert the greatest gravitational pull. The takeaway from the survey is that, pound for pound (and dollar for dollar), Britain continues to outweigh its weight.
But is there really any correlation between an elite Western education and future good governance, or even support for the ideal of representative democracy? The experiences of Africa and the Middle East over the past five decades are not inspiring; Assad is a case in point.
One might also wonder why leaders who spent time in the United States and England often do not show any lasting affection or great loyalty to either country.
Orbán was among those for whom the dreamy spires of Oxford were but a passing moment. He loved the “electric dance” of ideas in the UK, still under Margaret Thatcher’s spell at the time. But the Berlin Wall was about to fall and he said to himself: “Viktor, what are you doing here?”
Clinton was another who chose not to lengthen his welcome. He came to Oxford in 1968 to study PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) but was hesitant about his choice of subject and left the following year without a degree to study law at Yale, returning to the US. his stay in England. , Clinton found him class-obsessed, loaded with outdated traditions and, worst of all, frivolous; the latter being an odd complaint given his own frivolity in the Oval Office. He also complained about the humidity in the university classrooms and the bad plumbing.
Meanwhile, with current demographic changes, it is also impossible to know how many future Chinese and Indian leaders will have benefited from time spent abroad. Out of an overseas student body of 680,000, some 152,000 Chinese and 127,000 Indians are currently enrolled in UK universities, along with almost 45,000 Nigerians and 120,000 citizens of European Union member countries.
In the United States, 317,000 Chinese and 168,000 Indians represent half of an international total of 950,000. But of the other countries of origin, none – with the exception of South Korea – has sent more than 25,000 students, very few from Africa outside of Nigeria, and just 40,000 from all of Latin America.
Furthermore, as we move into the second quadrant of the 21st century, there seems to be no loss of love between China, on the one hand, and the United States and Britain, on the other. At the same time, India has taken a Janus-like stance, shifting its gaze between the West and its BRICS alliance, which includes Putin’s Russia. And Africa, having shrugged off its colonial ties, is leaning increasingly towards Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, while the cash-flushed Gulf states are busy building nests of their own. .
In the last 25 years, universities have also become big businesses: practically an industry unto themselves. The UK’s annual income from overseas students is now valued at £14bn ($17.6bn), more than the £13bn annual cost of the country’s EU membership before Brexit. And the corresponding figure for the United States is $38 billion: eight times Boeing Corporation’s most recent gross profit and $12 billion more than Coca-Cola’s.
And meanwhile, in Britain, the thousands of people who failed to get a place at university this year will wonder what they have to do to compete with this ever-rising foreign tide.