The purpose of this article is to analyse the nature of the global hegemonies in higher education. While anti‐colonial thinkers describe the dominance of the Western paradigm as an oppression of indigenous culture and knowledge and as neo‐colonialism in higher education, their arguments lead to such questions as how much self‐determination do non‐Western countries have? On what basis can the colonised resist the coloniser? To what extent are non‐Western nations aware of the Western hegemony? To answer these questions, this article uses the concept of soft power to interrogate how global hegemonies are manifested in higher education agendas. With reference to the pursuit of a world‐class status in higher education in East Asia, it discusses how the international inequality in higher education is viewed from the anti‐colonial perspective in the existing literature. The article then proposes the soft‐power perspective as an alternative way to explain why non‐Western countries are willing to follow the Anglo‐American paradigm to develop their higher education systems. Extending this analysis, the article argues that the emerging global university rankings are important resources of soft power that have the potential, as a governance tool, to reshape the global higher education landscape. Copyright © 2011 Taylor & Francis.