An advocacy for global learning for all and internationalisation in an African context

Published On: 5 May 2022|

Internationalisation in higher education is entering a new and critical phase in which it has to become more inclusive and sustainable. There is a shift away from internationalisation abroad with its strong focus on a small elite of mobile students and faculty staff towards internationalisation at home for all members of the academic community.

This has become more urgent than ever, following the CoVID-19 pandemic and the world’s current geopolitical crises including the war in Ukraine.

Until recently “international education” was a predominantly Western phenomenon in which developing countries only played a reactive role. However, it is imperative that the higher education community in other parts of the world craft their own internationalisation posture and move away from a solely Western, neo-colonial and imperialistic view of same.

This was the message from Professor Hans de Wit (left), a globally recognised scholar and foremost thought leader in the internationalisation of higher education, who is Distinguished Fellow and Emeritus Professor at the Center for International Higher Education  (CIHE) at Boston College in the US.

Professor De Wit was addressing delegates at a recent Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Engagement webinar on internationalisation.

Updated definition: Internationalisation of Higher Learning
“The intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of postsecondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff and to make a meaningful contribution to society” – 
(de Wit et al, 2015, European Parliament Study)

He explained that although internationalisation has always been an integral part of postsecondary education, it has not always been a strategically driven phenomenon.

“It is only in the 1990s, and as a result of the increasing globalisation of our societies and economies, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the first Cold War, that internationalisation became mainstream as a planned concept in higher education — first in the so-called developed world and then in the Global South. It has since undergone numerous changes. We also have to acknowledge that, in most cases, internationalisation is still very fragmented, ad hoc and marginal. This, despite the fact that institutions of higher education, and also increasingly, governments, have adopted internationalisation as a strategic part of their overall mission. However, internationalisation cannot be a goal in itself. It has to have a purpose,” he said, adding that internationalisation needs to be seen as a means to enhance the quality of education, research and service to society.

He said in the Global South, the demand for higher education exceeds the supply,  which means that more students have to go abroad to study. Whereas 250 000 students studied abroad in 1965, that number has grown to more than 5.5 million students pursuing higher education in other countries. This creates immense challenges such as brain drain – particularly in the Global South. Referencing data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, he pointed out that more than 25% of international students do not return to their home countries on completion of their studies. In the US, more than 70% of international doctoral students stay in America after they have graduated.

Professor De Wit explained that higher education worldwide is driven by two conflicting trends: massification and the knowledge economy. Massification increases the demand of access to higher education from countries with insufficient supply, resulting in an increase of students migration, and in an increase in cross-border delivery, such as branch campuses and franchise operations. The knowledge economy pushes higher education into a more international direction, as it asks for world-class universities which can operate on a global scale to compete for top talents and for top research.

“We all know that some Asian universities have been able to rise up in the Top 500 global university  rankings…increasing competition for talent, for funding, for top positions in the rankings, for access to top journals and for patents.

“In itself the more competitive emphasis in international higher education is not negative. However, when it comes at the cost of overall quality of higher education, inclusion and diversity, it increases elitism. There is an increasing divide between a small group of world-class universities and a large group of others with less means to provide quality research and education; a divide between some leading countries and a larger group of developing countries that do not have the means to be competitive; and between a small group of top talented students and scholars, compared to a massive group of those who do not benefit from quality education,” he said.

“We have to ask ourselves the question: How will internationalisation deal with the momentous events of 2020, 2021 and 2022? How will we try to reshape the future of internationalisation of higher education and higher education in general, to make our world better?”

Professor De Wit referenced an article In A New Cold War, Academic Engagement Is Still Necessary that he co-authored with Philip G Altbach and Jamil Salmi.

“Our academic partners in Ukraine should be our absolute priority and receive our full support. All formal relations with Russian government programmes for collaboration and exchange should be cancelled, and formal relations with Russian institutions should be frozen. At the same time, it is important to maintain our professional contacts with the Russian academic community outside and inside the country. More than ever, they need our support and understanding of the difficult circumstances in which they have to operate.

“Complete academic isolation will be counterproductive in the short and long run. The academic boycott against the apartheid regime in South Africa has taught us that such a boycott can be effective as part of a broader social, economic and cultural struggle, but continued active interaction with individuals who were critical of the regime in the academic community of South Africa was mutually beneficial.”

Internationalisation in an African context

Internationalisation for Africa should no longer be considered in terms of a Westernised, largely Anglo-Saxon, and predominantly English-speaking paradigm, he emphasised.

In the current global-knowledge society, internationalisation of higher education is increasingly demanding further consideration of impact on policy and practice as more countries and types of institutions around the world engage in the process. Professor De Wit urged South African universities to define their own internationalisation strategies based on their own values, priorities and objectives so that international cooperation is undertaken on more equal terms going forward.

A need for change

Professor De Wit emphasised that mobility still drives too much of the internationalisation agenda.

He referred to two forms of internationalisation that help achieve global learning for all – internationalisation abroad (students and academics studying overseas) and internationalisation at home.

“Internationalisation abroad is still what many governments and also leaders of institutions of higher education perceive as being ‘internationalisation’. That is a big mistake because where it relates to places like Africa it only encompasses possibly 1% of all students. If we do this we are excluding 98 or 99% of the global academic community for the need to internationalise. This is why it is critical to have internationalisation at home.

“The latter offers international and intercultural dimensions of teaching and learning to all students, including those who do not have the opportunity or the wherewithal to study abroad. As the changing global environment increasingly requires, all students must have both a personal and professional understanding of the international and intercultural aspects of their field of study, so

internationalisation at home has grown in importance alongside the notion of internationalised curricula more generally.

“The global knowledge economy will force more attention to be focused on the internationalisation of the curriculum, as the knowledge and skills of all our graduates have to reflect that they are able to operate in a more connected world,” Professor De Wit said.

“Unfortunately, internationalisation at home is mainly active in policies and words but not in actions. It requires much more attention and effort if we really make want to make a difference.

“And while we have to prepare our students to become good professionals in the international context we also have to ensure that they are responsible citizens. The service or ‘third mission’ of higher education institutions – to contribute to the social, economic, and cultural development of communities – has long been a core function of universities alongside teaching and research. However, the service mission is often disconnected from the internationalisation agenda,” he emphasised.

Why do we do what we do, with what outcomes?

“We constantly have to ask ourselves why are we doing this before we can say what are we doing? And how are we doing it? And we also always have to look at what is the impact? We have to look at this within our own context as there is not one size fits all model.”

Professor De Wit stressed the need for universities and institutions of higher learning to move from an internationalisation strategy that is ad hoc and marginal to one that is central and comprehensive. It has to be embedded in the whole university – from academic and student affairs to HR and finance – and not simply as an international office policy.

De Wit presented what he called an Internationalisation Circle which explores how a higher education institution can plan for internationalisation, implement its plan, review how the implementation conforms to the plan, and consolidate all the learnings.

Phase 1 involves higher education institutions analysing the external and internal contexts and reviewing relevant documents, which includes policies at international, national, local, and institutional levels. Phase 2 involves conducting a needs analysis and reflects how internationalisation stands to benefit faculty, students, the institution and the community.

He said internationalisation is not an institutional task for a campus unit or a group of people. It needs commitment from all stakeholders, senior administrators, faculty, staff, and students, which is Phase 3.  Without buy-in, internationalisation is not sustainable and will not be considered a part of the institutional culture and system. Once commitment is obtained, institutions can start on Phase 4, which includes examining current resources and identifying strategies and objectives.

Phase 5 and Phase 6 focus on operations and implementation. Phase 7 assesses the impact of the internationalisation activities and strategies and integrates these findings into Phase 8 which develops rewards, incentives and recognition for participants.

Professor De Wit outlined the key challenges facing internationalisation:

  • There isn’t enough focus on internationalisation at home: “There is recognition ‘in words’ but there is a lack of action and a strategic approach.
  • North/South partnerships are still strongly unequal.
  • Internationalisation is still mostly marginal, fragmented and ad hoc and is not integrated in the overall mission of higher education.
  • Internationalisation is still mainly institutionally driven and isolated from the local, national, regional and global context.
  • It has to be for all students and staff not for a small elite.

Although the world is facing uncertain times, Professor De Wit said he believed there could many positive opportunities for educational internationalisation in the coming decade should the following happen:

  • A return to a more cooperative and less market oriented and commercial approach.
  • A move away from English as the dominant language in higher education with a focus on national and institutional language policies.
  • The need to link internationalisation to innovation and the needs of local and regional development and the ‘third mission’.
  • A shift from internationalisation abroad with a strong focus on a small elite of mobile students, faculty, administrators and programmes towards internationalisation at home for all students, faculty and administrators is even more urgent than ever. You don’t have to go abroad to learn – CoVID-19 has proved that this can be done online.
  • Global engagement has to be built on inclusion, engagement and service to society.

“CoVID-19 put a halt on students travelling to institutions in other countries but it accelerated   internationalisation in innovative and new ways. It showed that every crisis can create an opportunity. The pandemic speeded up many things that we already were advocating for but did not get the chance to convince our leaders to adopt. Collaborative online international learning was already on the agenda but hadn’t gained much momentum. The pandemic changed that. There is now also more collaboration between countries in the South because the North was closed and that helps drive transformation and innovation with is a hugely positive development. We need, however, to keep the momentum going and not to fall back into old habits,” he said.

He encouraged South African educators to develop their own local definition of internationalisation: “Context is crucial. You have to create your own indigenous identity that lives alongside Western internationalisation. You can’t do one without the other. You don’t want to lose your Africanisation but at the same time you can’t exclude yourself from the rest of the world.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.