UK universities educated 57 serving world leaders, soft-power index reveals

Universities in the UK can claim to have educated kings, queens, president and prime ministers from almost every continent in the world

Universities in the UK can collectively claim to have educated more world leaders than their counterparts in any country in the world, except the United States of America, a new study has shown.

The annual “soft-power index” compiled by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) aims to estimate the relative influence the world’s HE sectors have had on the highest echelon: that of world leaders.

The study of alma mater revealed that 57 world leaders, including heads of states and political leaders, attended universities in the UK, eight less than have studied in US universities. The number of world leaders has remained constant over the last five years Hepi has collated the index, peaking at 59 world leaders and dipping at 56. The United States could claim to have educated 57 world leaders in 2017, one less than the UK, but that figure has risen to 65 in 2021. France, with 30 world leaders, Russia, with 10, and Australia, with 10, make up the top five.

The list of leaders educated in the UK includes 14 European leaders, although most are hereditary sovereigns, like King Harald V of Norway, King Philippe of Belgium and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg.

Nineteen Asian and 15 African world leaders attended UK universities. Although not defined as continents, four Caribbean and 10 Middle Eastern world leaders studied in UK HE. One leader from Oceania and three from Central and South America complete the list.

The old target of significantly reducing total net inward migration to under 100,000 has given way to a bold new target to host “at least 600,000” international students a year by the end of this decade
– Nick Hillman, Hepi

Among the list are several notable names: Imran Khan, the international cricketer, Oxford graduate and prime minister of Pakistan; the exiled president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi; the controversial leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, who studied political science at Pembroke College, Oxford; and Mohammad Shtayyeh, the longest-serving prime minister of Palestine.

Since the 2020 soft power index, several world leaders have left office: Aung San Suu Kyi, who, as an undergraduate, attended St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and, as a postgraduate, the School of Oriental and African Studies, was deposed as state counsellor of Myanmar in February. Hassan Rouhani, who studied at Glasgow Caledonian, left office as president of Iran, and Giuseppe Conte, whose claim to have studied at Girton College, Cambridge sparked controversy three years ago, left office as prime minister of Italy.

New leaders appointed in Jordan, Nepal, the Seychelles and Tanzania, upped the UK count. The UK’s figure would be one higher if Taiwan – not currently a member or observer of the United Nations – was counted: its president, Tsai Ing-wen, was educated at the LSE. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also attended the LSE but is similarly not included on the Hepi index as she is not a leader of a sovereign government.

Numerous leaders, including Irish president Michael D Higgins, Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić and Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong have attended universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

To qualify for the index, leaders must have physically attended a university abroad – but Hepi has included all forms of tertiary education and qualifications.

Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi, said: “Since 2017, we have been calculating the number of serving world leaders educated in other countries, enabling country-by-country comparisons to be made. When we started doing this, the UK was at the head of the pack, just pipping the United States to the post. In each year since, the UK has continued to perform well but the US has gradually built up a commanding lead that is coming to look unbeatable, at least in the short term.

“This year, the fifth iteration of the Soft-Power Index shows the US has educated 65 serving world leaders, eight more than the UK on 57. France remains comfortably in third place, some way above Russia and Australia. But France has nonetheless seen a significant drop over the past couple of years in the number of serving world leaders who were educated in the country.

“The good news for those who care about the UK’s standing in the world is that the rules for international students from outside the EU have recently improved. The old target of significantly reducing total net inward migration to under 100,000 has given way to a bold new target to host “at least 600,000” international students a year by the end of this decade. At a practical policy level, the Post-Study Work Visa which disappeared in 2012 has effectively been brought back via the new Graduate Route Visa.

“Such changes are welcome but, given the additional obstacles placed in the way of students crossing national boundaries as a result of both Brexit and Covid, the new policies do not ensure the UK’s continued strong performance in measures such as the HEPI Soft-Power Index.”

Hillman added: “International students continue to underwrite the financial position of UK universities, while also diversifying our campuses, providing vital skills to UK employers and improving the UK’s standing in the world. Long may that continue but, given the competitive and ever-changing environment for international student recruitment, no one should take it for granted.

“Clearly, the HEPI Soft-Power Index is a rough-and-ready way of measuring the influence of different states. It should be supplemented with lots of other information before coming to firm conclusions about the global standing of any one country.”


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