There is no doubt that the landscape of international higher education (IHE) is changing, as is the world of international relations (IR). But the intersection of these two phenomena is vastly understudied. A comprehensive and interdisciplinary review of research on the role of IHE in building relations between and among countries and addressing global challenges reveals a number of important findings, misunderstandings and challenges.
Across the two disciplines, there are more than a dozen terms being used (and confused) to describe the relationship between IHE and IR. They include soft power, cultural relations and many different types of diplomacy such as science, public, education, cultural and citizen exchange, among others.
Many of the terms are quite specific and do not fully capture the breadth of contemporary IHE developments or the reality that non-state actors such as universities, research centres and think tanks play a key role in IR.
For example, the most frequently mentioned IHE activities in IR are traditional ones such as student mobility, scholarships and bilateral institutional events and agreements. This ignores recent developments such as knowledge cities and hubs, centres of excellence, international research networks, international joint universities, education-industry partnerships and others.
A comprehensive review of the academic literature from both IHE and IR fields of study revealed that the importance of research and innovation in IHE’s role in IR has not been adequately acknowledged, except by the concept of science diplomacy, and that is most often in the context of science and technology.
Therefore, the term IHE is deliberately expanded to IHERI (international higher education, research and innovation) to acknowledge the importance of ‘research’ and ‘innovation’ in strengthening IR and addressing global challenges. This leads to the introduction of the term ‘knowledge diplomacy’ as a way to capture the breadth and importance of IHERI in IR.
The proposed definition of knowledge diplomacy – ‘the process of strengthening relations between and among countries through international higher education, research and innovation’ – is purposefully generic in order to apply to a diversity of geopolitical situations, issues and sectors.
This definition does not include rationales, activities and values that are intentionally used in a description such as ‘knowledge diplomacy involves diverse state and non-state actors involved in collaborative education, research and innovation initiatives, which are based on mutual benefits and reciprocity and designed to build and strengthen relations between and among countries to increase