Britain faces great uncertainty as it seeks to disentangle itself from the European Union in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ vote in June’s referendum. A long-standing issue, one which precedes the many questions overhanging the country’s future trading relations, is how an imbalanced economy, with a vast financial sector and a diminished manufacturing base, will cope.

There is one sector, however, that seems confident of a secure future. As we report in this issue, British educational institutions are enjoying a boom in demand for their services abroad, especially in Asia. Free from any concerns about negotiations with the rest of the EU, British schools and universities are opening satellite campuses across Asia, marketing distance learning programmes and luring Asian students to Britain. Why are they so successful? The reasons reveal much about Asia.

British educational outposts in the region are concentrated in China, South-east Asia and the Gulf. It is easy to understand that wealthy élites in the small Gulf states should want their heirs to have an international outlook. The oil and gas reserves on which their economies are based will one day run out, and their countries will have to find new ways of earning a living.

Look further east, though, and the motives appear more complex. The growing middle class in China senses that a regimented, authoritarian education system will not serve the next generation well. Chinese students who arrive at universities in Britain and elsewhere in the West often flounder when they are challenged to think for themselves. Their parents realise they have to be prepared in advance, and not simply to ensure fluency in English. When they return home, how will these liberally-educated students deal with the contradictions of a fast-expanding economy and an unreformed political system? It is one of the more intriguing questions of coming years.

The English language is not a problem in Commonwealth countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, but large numbers of their citizens still seek British-style education. Perhaps it has become clear to them that the insistence on ‘discipline’ one used to hear from their former leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad respectively, can only take their countries so far. It helped industrialise Malaysia and turn Singapore into a financial centre, but in the globalised Information Age, something more is needed: people cannot be ordered to think for themselves when they have been schooled to leave the thinking to others.

It is noticeable that British centres of learning have made few inroads in South Asia. That might be because there are already British-style institutions such as The Doon School in Dehra Dun and Aitchison College in Lahore, or because the lingering legacy of the Raj renders such outposts unnecessary. (Or, indeed, because resistance to the Raj legacy has resulted in regulations that also make it hard to set up such satellites.) But the thriving tech hub of Bangalore serves as proof that India is diverse enough, stable enough, and has an education system that is liberal enough, to be confident of its ability to promote entrepreneurship and creative thought. That would be threatened, however, if nationalism and chauvinism gain ground.

Developing countries tend to see the purpose of education as turning out technocrats – the engineers, administrators and doctors they need to eradicate poverty and build a modern economy. Studies have shown that at the early stage of development, universal primary education is the most powerful driver. But many Asian countries are well past that stage and, in seeking to take the next step, are turning to British institutions for help.

It is not just when it comes to exporting education that Britain ‘punches above its weight’, in the fashionable phrase. It is a world leader in creative industries, from Harry Potter to television series such as Downton Abbey, from top-selling pop artists like Adele to computer games and street fashion. But those industries are underpinned by an education system that has evolved over decades, even centuries, to encourage a spirit of inquiry, where common assumptions are challenged.

Britain may no longer the world’s pre-eminent military or economic power, but thanks to the English language, the BBC, the British Council and the country’s schools and universities, it is a major wielder of so-called ‘soft power’ – and many Asians want some of it.

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