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Academic Diplomacy, an Evolving Discipline

Academic Diplomacy, an Evolving Discipline
Academic Diplomacy, an Evolving Discipline
Academic Diplomacy, an Evolving Discipline
Academic Diplomacy, an Evolving Discipline

Academic Diplomacy, an Evolving Discipline

Dr.Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, University of London

Dr. Dan Rycroft, University of East Anglia

Academic diplomacy is an area under higher education activity that has real potential in today’s world. It has two key facets: practice and policy, and theory. Academic diplomacy as a practice, as a set of activities between individuals and between states, has existed for several centuries, though has rarely been termed as such

. When scholars travelled long distances in search of knowledge and understanding, whether of the physical or the metaphysical world, they connected with people and spread ideas. Their diplomacy, so to speak, was purely academic. Ancient centers such as Kancheepuram or Nalanda in India and their modern-day equivalents all help to facilitate such exchanges. Circulation of knowledge displays academic diplomacy in action at an individual level which is, nowadays, termed as knowledge diplomacy or public diplomacy.

In olden days, individual choices were influenced by public provisions made by kings and queens, or private benefactors who supported individual scholars—gurus, who attracted their following. Today, nation-states connect on what are termed as Track Two Initiatives, to facilitate specific kinds of academic and educational cooperation.

Variations in diplomacies include the likes of economic diplomacy, digital diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, etc. In such formulations of diplomacy, the different adjectives foreground the key tools or areas of work. The example of academic diplomacy is no exception; the focus is on academia. Academic diplomacy covers a full range of diplomacies, from knowledge to mind diplomacy (as in the League of Minds), thereby involving staff and students alike. Academic diplomacy can be conducted both at the official level (Track 1.5) and unofficial levels (Track 3), and somewhere in-between (Track 2). Several foreign policy think tanks, embassies, and media houses in different countries use the term ‘academic diplomacy’ in their publicity and evaluation materials.

Diplomacy is studied in universities across the world at undergraduate, postgraduate, and research degree levels. It has, therefore, acquired the features of an established academic discipline – with peer group activities and peer participation approving curricula, established norms of course delivery, approaches to student involvement, assessment criteria and methods, and validation. However, in most institutions, academic diplomacy is not taught in its own right. In many courses, it is subsumed under other forms of diplomacy, especially under public diplomacy.

Discussions on soft power often include aspects of knowledge diplomacy or academic diplomacy in the way academic interactions facilitate wider areas of inter-state cooperation or in people-to-people contacts that are enduring and operate effectively, even when the transnational links are threatened. Academic diplomacy is most effective when it transforms the way the beneficiaries configure or reconfigure their relationships. The changes are qualitative and it is hard to find reliable metrics that could be used across cultures, time, and space.

The India Dialogue Initiative at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK is a vibrant example of the potential of academic diplomacy.
According to Dr. Daniel Rycroft, the Chair (also the co-author of this article), Academic diplomacy, like very few other educational frameworks or rationales, has a conspicuously joint focus.

He believes that one eye focuses on the geopolitical: comprising various political economies and political entities, plus their articulation, their intersection, and their transformation. The other eye remains committed to the epistemological: comprising the interplay of the public, the political and the intellectual, that is, the ‘ethnographic’ and intercultural elements of academia. Considered in these binocular terms, comprising the macro and the micro levels of academic and political life, academic diplomacy has the potential to inform new kinds of institutional, disciplinary and human activity. It presages channels of public outreach, where academia – either on an individual or collective level – will meet the international and the political communities.

He also states that given the constant state of flux which defines these communities and their priorities, values, and discourse, there will inevitably be disagreement about how to engage or develop academia in public, political, and international spaces. And this is part of its function: to deliberate on these academia-led relations and priorities, with a view to developing practical opportunities (for learning and research) and sustainable solutions (for inter-institutional and inter-sectoral cooperation). Academic diplomacy, therefore, as a way-of-being in the world of international higher education, means something quite significant.

Academic diplomacy can be transformative at a personal level too. It forces the practitioner to engage with varied facets of intellectual curiosity to understand both the self and the ‘other’. As Dr. Rycroft explains:

“As a British citizen, I am interested in how possibilities for what some refer to as a ‘global’ Britain, can be maintained or transformed post-Brexit. As a UEA (University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK) employee and someone who advocates intercultural understanding and learning, I am interested in developing the India Dialogue. As an anthropological historian, I am intrigued by just how prevalent academic diplomacy was in pre-independence India. Others before me, before us, have addressed the concerns of the present in comparable terms, and this is true especially for modern India and advocates of academic decolonization that played an important role in opening up horizons of intercultural sensitivity and social action before independence. We find in the works of numerous swadeshi (anti-colonial) philosophers, such as Radha Kamal Mukherjee, Aurobindo Ghosh, Rabindranath Tagore, etc. a commitment to holistic humanism. Their ideas and urgent search for unity-in-diversity helped both the social sciences and humanities in India to shape the ethics and language of convergence, for example through the League of Minds, the United Nations and UNESCO, in the early- to mid-twentieth century. I would suggest that it is in our interests, to engage and reflect carefully upon such historic contributions.”

The India Dialogue is in its third year of operation, and is developing curricula for the humanities field in India. in areas that include academic diplomacy, in collaboration with a range of universities in Calcutta (Presidency, University of Calcutta, and Jadavpur) and Delhi (Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Technology).  It has facilitated interaction between several British and Indian university staff at events organized at the University of Calcutta (2016 and 2018), and at the University of East Anglia in 2017. The Dialogue co-hosted an event on ‘India@70: India-UK relations post Brexit’ at FICCI in New Delhi, November 2016 and has worked with FICCI-UK on its India@70 programs in London. Dr. Chandramohan (co-author and an India Dialogue Associate) has been an expert contributor to discussions on knowledge diplomacy at each event. As the curriculum takes shape, the India Dialogue will nurture a small but significant niche, for academic diplomacy as an interconnected discipline within higher education in India and Britain, and otherwise globally too.