Reigniting the Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa

Published On: 5 May 2022|

While the CoVID-19 pandemic prevented students from going overseas to study because of travel bans, it did create opportunities for South African universities to think creatively around  internationalisation in education.

In fact, the virtual learning space led to more inclusion and equality thanks to “internationalisation at home” which is defined as “the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments”. (Beelen & Jones, 2015).

This was the perspective shared by Dr Tasmeera Singh, Manager: International Relations at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), at a recent Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Engage webinar that was dedicated to internationalisation.

Dr Singh and her colleague, Ms Orla Quinlan, both from The International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), spoke alongside keynote speaker of the day, Professor Hans De Wit, with a focus on Reigniting and Reimagining Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa.

Quinlan (left), Director of Internationalisation at Rhodes University and a former president of IEASA – began by explaining the relationship between IEASA and Universities South Africa (USAf).

“Following a period of isolation from the rest of the academic world due to the anti-apartheid boycotts, the international community was keen to engage with South Africa. However, the universities did not have the structures, knowledge and skills in place to deal with the unique issues facing incoming international students who wanted to register in the South African university and higher education system.”

She explained that as a result, institutions decided to join forces and resolve these issues collectively and IEASA was formed in 1997. IEASA has since developed a close knit community of practice in South Africa with members sharing knowledge, skills and ideas on appropriate internationalisation within the South African context.

Quinlan said that following the disruptive period of CoVID-19, “there is now a need to start reengaging and building relationships both within institutions and across institutions as we move back to face-to-face engagements.”

She spoke about partnerships with international networks on the African continent including Southern African Nordic Centre (SANORD) and the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) as referred to the role IEASA had played in helping develop the South African Policy for Internationalisation of Higher Education which became effective from November 2020.

“The policy framework is not prescriptive and implicitly recognises that the policy strategic plan for internationalisation in any university must be context specific. You can see across South Africa, certain disparities in resourcing allows some people to really develop and build on this area of work and resource it well, whereas others have less resources, but there are ways of doing internationalisation on campus that can accommodate this diversity,” she explained.

Setbacks to internationalisation

“CoVID-19,” she said, “had a dramatic effect on internationalisation with all traditional mobility stopped. Some universities weren’t particularly geared up to start emergency online teaching. Then there’s the deteriorating environmental context evidenced by the recent disruptive floods in KZN and the devastating droughts in the  Eastern Cape as well as the challenging political context including xenophobic attacks and unrest. All this has taken its toll on higher education. The higher education landscape is stressed and the people in it are very stretched.

“These challenges have an impact on internationalisation, one of which is the severe drop of international students coming to South Africa, a trend that started before the pandemic.

“There has also been a serious impact in the capacity of government departments to assist those who still want to study in South Africa with delays in the processing of student visas and police clearance certificates with students unable to register in a timely fashion. IEASA will be meeting with various government entities in an attempt to resolve these bureaucratic obstacles before the next academic registration period,” she explained.

“There is a lot of work to be done and it does need to be done collectively. These are not issues that one university can resolve by itself so we need a collaborative approach,” she concluded.

For her part, Dr Tasmeera Singh (right) focused on opportunities presented for the internationalisation of South Africa’s higher education and the way forward.

“The South African Policy for Internationalisation of Higher Education speaks to the larger goals of internationalisation and its place in the globalised world, as well as its role towards the creation of a better society. How then, should universities in South Africa interpret this in articulating their own policies in a meaningful way?” she asked.

Some suggestions she gave included:

  • The ability to creatively expand on “internationalisation at home” activities to extend opportunities to the majority of students who do not reap the benefits of international exposure due to their socio-economic, cultural and material circumstances.
  • Internationalisation of the curriculum that speaks to the realities of our context whilst simultaneously remaining globally relevant in deploying divergent pedagogical approaches.
  • The need to focus on joint international collaborative programmes and joint degrees on the continent, and beyond, as an imperative to diversify and create multicultural learning environments to produce globally relevant scholars who are able to confront universal challenges.
  • The need to create strategic partnerships that are multidisciplinary in nature focusing on the exchange of research with transformational benefits to a larger society.

So what can universities do to address the broad goals of internationalisation in confronting the realities of their institutional contexts bearing in mind the fiscal constraints, the upending political climates and the imperative to work closely with partner institutions in Africa?

“As higher education international specialists, we are aware that the policy framework strongly encourages partnering with the continent and expanding our African footprint. But as universities have we successfully done this as an integral aspect of internationalisation. I think realistically speaking our engagement with the Global South has been asymmetrical compared to the relations of the Global North,” she concluded.

She admitted that in the past, traditional paradigms of internationalisation in the form of student exchange programmes were celebrated as the gold standard of internationalisation. However, with the acute disruption of the CoVID-19 pandemic halting international mobility globally, higher education institutions have had to rethink their international activities creatively and with relevance for the broader and more significant goals of internationalisation.

Dr Singh believes there should be a targeted approach to establishing partnerships with organisations such as The Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, the Brazil Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) network, embassies, consulates and funding agencies while collaborations with African institutions are vital.

“The basic principles of a partnership when thinking through an internationalisation policy must be ones of mutuality, trust, equality, reciprocity and honesty as well as sustainable and financial viability. There should be a trans/multi and interdisciplinary approach where the academic curriculum lends itself to joint degrees and collaborative online learning (COIL) short courses.”

Continued Dr Singh: “It is more pertinent than ever to establish partnerships in Africa and a good way to do this is through Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL).” She described COIL as an innovative approach to teaching and learning which enables academics and students to communicate and collaborate with peers internationally through online platforms (Rubin, 2015).

“It allows for the creation of global classrooms across multicultural contexts. COIL participation is an inexpensive means by which we can internationalise on so many levels while also fostering a global mindset as students and academics from diverse socio, cultural and geopolitical backgrounds connect.

“International offices at universities and IEASA have developed a strong collective knowledge of the opportunities and obstacles affecting internationalisation in South Africa, and in particular, our engagement with the rest of the continent. We would encourage institutions to collaborate on internationalisation and to share our collective experience and knowledge to assist the whole of the South African system to stay engaged with the rest of the region, the continent and the world.”

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