Eighteen years after South Africa’s new democracy ushered in tens of thousands of foreign students, the government is drafting policy frameworks and an international relations strategy for international higher education.
The guidelines could help to create coherence out of a plethora of activities that include more than 60,000 international students – 7% of the total student body – development of a regional qualifications framework, and growing student and staff exchange.
The strategy’s focus will be on the development of black South Africans and disadvantaged universities, said Mahlubi Mabizela, chief director of university education policy in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), in a keynote address to the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) conference held in Cape Town from 29-31 August.
Quoting the Green Paper for Post-school Education and Training, published by the DHET earlier this year, he said the department “will work towards facilitating stronger linkages between foreign universities and historically black universities.
“We want to ensure that it is not only well-resourced institutions that are able to benefit” from the many opportunities that higher education internationalisation offers, he added.
Although internationalisation has been mentioned in education policy documents since the end of apartheid opened South Africa to the world in 1994, and IEASA has been calling for a policy for a decade, the government has been slow to respond – there have been many other pressing problems to tackle.
In the 1990s, South Africa was focused on fighting the General Agreement on Trade in Services of the World Trade Organisation, particularly in education, which Mabizela said it saw as a “blatant attempt by the developed world to introduce imperialism of knowledge”.
Today, as articulated in the green paper, the DHET is convinced that higher education internationalisation could be used strategically to strengthen economic and political relations between South Africa and other countries.
“However, we must ensure that the strategic cooperative agreements we enter into are aligned to our foreign policy, which places special emphasis on the promotion of regional partnerships, notably within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the continent at large.”
Two initiatives the government is currently involved in are the development of a regional qualifications framework for SADC, and the harmonisation of open and distance learning in the region in order to enhance access to post-school education.
“In line with the SADC Protocol on Education and Training, the department gives priority to the SADC region with regard to internationalisation of higher education, while keeping an eye out there so as not to jeopardise relationships with countries of the North,” said Mabizela. Most international students in South Africa are from SADC.
The international relations strategy also gives priority to the continent, the global South – in the context of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc, which the country joined last year – and “strategic partners in the North”.
The Green Paper said international opportunities should be leveraged to benefit higher education and to expand study abroad especially for postgraduate South African students as part of the country’s drive to expand PhD production.
“It would assist particularly in producing the next generation of academics,” Mabizela said.
South Africa is working with the European Union to roll out the Erasmus Mundus scholarship programme for local students, with a second cohort of masters and doctoral students selected this year.
Under the programme, collaboration between South African universities is also being boosted as bidding consortia must include at least two historically disadvantaged universities. “In this manner, we seek to instil a culture of sharing of responsibility, skills and knowledge transfer between our different sets of institutions,” Mabizela said.
Finally, in consultation with the statutory advisory Council on Higher Education, the DHET has begun developing guidelines on international joint degrees.
The aim, in this and other areas, is to provide a clear framework, policy and guidelines “to ensure that internationalisation of higher education does not happen at the expense of our sector and the goals we have set for ourselves,” he concluded.
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