AFRICA: Higher education internationalising - slowly

Higher education in Africa has been internationalising, driven by student mobility, the growth of English and an array of initiatives including the creation of regional bodies and networks and improved internet connectivity. But outside of South Africa, lack of strategies and the many challenges facing higher education are hampering its growth.

This is according to James Otieno Jowi, Executive Director of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education, ANIE, based at Moi University in Kenya. He was speaking at the 1st QS-MAPLE conference held in Dubai from 1-2 May.

With the role of universities in sustainable development widely acknowledged, and in the context of globalisation, internationalisation has gained a central position in higher education with varying implications and consequences for different regions and institutions, Jowi said.

Initiatives to promote internationalisation in Africa have been increasing, with the key actors including government departments and agencies, regional organisations, NGOs and "regional university associations and research networks which continue to flourish across the continent more than ever before".

Jowi said internationalisation was also being driven by new developments in the higher education landscape in Africa. These include:

* Rapid expansion of higher education, especially in numbers of students, institutions and their types, actors and the diversity of academic programmes.
* Increasing mobility of students across national boundaries, making African students among the most mobile in the world.
* The growing role of the English language in academic engagements, especially in countries that have been using other languages for scholarship.
* Improved information and communication technologies, especially internet connectivity, which has changed how universities, students and staff participate in internationalisation.
* Growth of regional networks and programmes has played a "crucial" role in supporting internationalisation.
* Greater interest in and support of African higher education by international partners.
* Increasing intra-Africa initiatives including centres of excellence, quality assurance frameworks, enhanced collaborations between universities, and attempts to harmonise academic programmes.

However, Jowi told University World News, universities in most African countries have dealt with internationalisation in an "ad hoc, non-coordinated and non-coherent way. This makes the objectives and outcomes unclear." There has also been lack of dialogue about the realities and consequences of internationalisation.

This is a void that Jowi's African Network for Internationalisation of Education has been trying to fill. ANIE's main role is to enhance understanding, advocacy and development of the international dimension of higher education on the continent by expanding knowledge and building and sustaining a cohort of competent professionals in this field.

Aside from a messy approach to internationalisation in most Sub-Saharan African countries, Jowi said, progress has also been impeded by problems faced by higher education.

"As such, there are numerous and multifaceted concerns, challenges and risks associated with the process of internationalisation," he said, which have raised questions over its potential on the continent.

"Africa encounters internationalisation engulfed in weaknesses that emanate from the confluence of historical, economic, educational, financial and paradigmatic contexts," Jowi explained, including serious institutional drawbacks such as weak structures and capacities, poor planning and inadequate financial support for internationalisation.

"Quality and weak regulatory frameworks is another challenge and is at the epicenter of internationalisation. Africa's research capacity is also quite marginal, standing at a meager 1% of the world's total. African higher education has continued to depend heavily on external resources in both funding and academic discourse."

"Africa's higher education remains at the margins of international higher education systems with neither a meaningful identity nor influence. As intra-Africa internationalisation initiatives begin to take root, supportive policy frameworks to facilitate student mobility and credit transfers are still problematic.

"And even though there are some improvements, ICT infrastructure and utilisation is still rather low," he continued.

Further, internationalisation came with attendant risks for Africa including the brain drain, commodification and commercialisation of higher education, unfair collaborations dominated by Western hegemony and lack of reciprocity, and negative influences on curriculum and academic quality especially through 'bogus' foreign providers.

Still, internationalisation offered opportunities for African higher education that could be used to mitigate some of the challenges and risks.

While the goals for internationalisation varied among regions, countries and institutions, African universities saw significant academic advantages including opportunities for funding, partnerships and new intra-Africa initiatives and developments in higher education.

"They would like to enhance their research capacity, improve quality and have innovations in curriculum that would contribute to better learning outcomes," Jowi told University World News. "They also see internationalisation as important in enabling them to develop their physical infrastructures and human resource capacity, and to forge strategic allowances.

"Internationalisation is also crucial in preparing globally competent graduates and enhances the visibility and international standing of institutions, especially in this era of rankings. In the long run, it will enable institutions to be more competitive and able to better respond to challenges in their contexts."