// 30.03.2021 //


  • China beats the US in the Culture League of Nations in 2019
  • Xi posts a 417% increase in educational power since 1991; US and UK drop 20% 
  • China has zoomed up a further 28% since 2015 reaching 71 top universities, outstripping the US and demonstrating the continuous decline in European and Japanese education power. 
  • This follows the US losing global dominance over energy in 2004, the economy in 2016

Culture Power is judged in this League as the number of universities each country has in the respected Shanghai Rankings www.shanghairanking.com of global higher education. We capture this in terms of a country’s culture power. Metrics include the number of international students in a country, the relative quality of its universities, and the academic output of higher education institutions.

The Story

  • USA started the 1990's as the cultural hegemon - it was 5 times more powerful than China.  
  • 1990's India began a cultural explosion in education which petered out by 2000 
  • Japan - second cultural power in the 1990's - began its decline which halves its cultural clout by 2010 
  • Germany began its cultural fall in the 2000's as it loses out educationally to the US and UK 
  • 2000: China now starts its educational blitzkrieg ending up quadrupling its education culture power over the next decade 
  • After 2004, USA starts a post-Iraq cultural retreat, cutting 20% off its cultural power during the 2010's 
  • UK also stalls post-Iraq. It will lose 20% of its cultural power over the era 
  • In the 2010’s France and Italy join Germany in losing their educational and cultural advantage 
  • By 2019, China's amazing rise up the educational league table is complete. It overtakes the US as the major cultural power 

Why is this important? It affects you because if the UK is to become a “science superpower”, the government needs to turbocharge the UK’s stalling higher education sector or UK influence and opportunities in the knowledge economy will fail. 

With the recent release of theQS World University Rankings Asia 2020, it’s clear that Chinese institutions are winning the global higher education battle. 

Although universities from the United States still hold steady in this year’s QS top 1000 list with 8 universities among the Top 10, 45 among the Top 100, 133 among the Top 500 and 206 among the Top 1000, China has motored to 154 universities ranked in Top 1000, among which 66 are in Top 500, 4 are in Top 100. By contrast, the UK has dipped with 61 Top 1000 universities, 36 of which are listed in Top 500 and only 8 the top 100. 

Look how even the UK’s top universities have slipped down the Times Higher Education world university rankings.https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2020  

Let’s look at this in more detail:  

Why is this important in history? 

While the earliest forms of written communication date back to about 3,500-3,000 BCE, education remained for centuries a very restricted technology closely associated with the exercise of power. 

In the past, there were very few higher education institutions since only a small fraction of the population was able to read or write. During this early period, centres of education mostly had a religious focus and trained clergy. In Western Europe these centers were monasteries.

The chart shows the increasing number of monasteries in Western Europe between the 6th and the 15th century. Between the end of the first millennium and the 13th century the number grew rapidly, before coming to a halt and declining.

As the rise of monasteries came to a halt a new form of a higher education institution evolved: the university. These secular institutions began to rise as monasteries slowly started to decline, and the religious powers lost their monopoly on higher education.

It was only until the Middle Ages that book production started growing and literacy among the general population slowly started becoming important in the Western World. In fact, while the ambition of universal literacy in Europe was a fundamental reform born from the Enlightenment, it took centuries for it to happen. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that rates of literacy approached universality in early-industrialised countries.

The following visualization shows the spread of literacy in key European countries since the 15th century, based on estimates from Buringh and Van Zanden (2009).

As it can be seen, the rising levels of education in Europe foreshadowed the emergence of modern societies.

Widespread school education and even basic skills like literacy are a very recent achievement that was enabled and at the same time required by the progress achieved in recent generations. The advancement of these ideas began in the mid 19th century, when most of today’s industrialized countries started expanding primary education, mainly through public finances and government intervention.

In 1870 only one in four people in the world attended school, and this meant that only one in five were able to read. And global inequalities in access to education were very large.

Today, in contrast, the global estimates of literacy and school attendance are above 80%, and the inequality between world regions – while still existing – is much lower.

As economic historians show, there were numerous cases in the past when education was an important driver of modernisation and technological advantage (one of several drivers, though), which then translated into rapid development, and fostered global political influences. Spectacular examples were Germany, France, and Japan in the nineteenth century. Training future generations of intellectuals, technicians, and political elites from other nations is a subtle yet important form of soft power. This was the role of Great Britain at its imperial zenith and of the United States ever since the 1950s,and now China increasingly fills this role.

We have already mentioned that those countries that pioneered the expansion of primary education in the 19th century – all of which are current OECD member states – relied heavily on public funding to do so. Today, public resources still dominate funding for the primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education levels in these countries. While in the last decade the share of public funding for these levels of education has decreased slightly, the broad pattern is remarkably stable. 



The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources:

its cultural power, in places where it is attractive to others;

its state power, when it lives up to its political values at home and abroad; and

its diplomatic power, when its foreign policies are seen as legitimate and having moral authority.

Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries—admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness—want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not just force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power—getting others to want the outcomes you want—co-opts people rather than coerced them.

This is why education power is so important:

Education Power 1The outstanding quality of education is one of the factors that builds a country’s soft power in international relations. The role of education in the international prestige and standing of a country has been significantly increasing in the recent years, mainly because of major transformations in the global economy and a corresponding shift in values, which have grown in importance in the processes of modernisation.

Education Power 2Education, and especially universities and graduate schools attracting foreign students are one of the most important institutions of hegemonic reproduction. The more foreign students a country can educate in its own universities, the more likely its hegemonic ideology will be propagated throughout the world.

Education Power 3The current transformation, in which the world is becoming ‘softer’ and in which political legitimacy derives increasingly from the capacity to make a society prosperous (rather than from the traditional sources such as effective control over violence and security provision), is making education more important internationally

Education Power 4Education becomes even more important in the context of the transformation to a knowledge economy and makes it a necessary condition to avoid the so-called ‘middle income trap’; it is considered to be one of the intensive factors of economic growth and economic competitiveness. 

Let’s see how smart power has been transferred to policy in order to seize future leadership of this critical soft power.

The visualisations show estimations and projections from 1970 to 2050 of higher education by country.

The numbers completing degrees is expected to increase around the world as advanced skills become more important in both developing and developed economies.

Smart Power Conclusions

China was determined to beat the USA in the provision and distribution of the soft power that comes from educational achievement. Heavy spending on the sector with a definitive purpose of increasing institutional quality, student numbers and international reach has succeeded.

The US and UK will maintain the quality of its education but not quantity of its opportunities. Efforts to reduce dependence on international students will decrease their soft power. So expect China to power ahead as Western universities retrench.

The future is that the demand for education and skills will be met in Asia by the supply of many more Asian students, leaving Western countries - so dominant in research and development for so long - to either apply smart power solutions aimed at reviving this key policy lever or to retreat to educational nationalism and suspicion of Chinese foreign students.