International postgraduate students from Africa are struggling

High numbers of postgraduate and international students in a university are major requirements for successful evaluation and ranking. African universities are now preaching ‘internationalisation’ and collaboration with foreign institutions through various programmes, for both research purposes and international recognition.

South African universities are leading other African universities and this can be seen in collaboration between South Africa's universities and those in Europe and America. This is a welcome development. However, internationalisation is putting other African citizens studying in South Africa under pressure.

Another major role of internationalisation is to create an environment for South African students to learn the cultures of other countries – particularly from African students who come from nations north of the Southern African Development Community, SADC.

But this internationalisation is being undermined by exorbitant international student fees. Non-SADC students struggle to access postgraduate scholarships despite all kinds of funding – local and international – available for postgraduate study in South Africa.

But without further ado, let me briefly narrate my experience as an international student in one of South Africa’s top universities.

My experience

I was in the final stage of an honours programme in Nigeria when one of my lecturers, who had gone to South Africa for his PhD, sent me an email suggesting that I apply for a masters at a South African university. He said there were several postgraduate funding opportunities that could cover my studies.

I graduated with a good result and applied for a masters at a leading South African university (which I will not name), with the intention of getting funded. I was working for an international company in Nigeria when the outcome of my application came – and it was positive.

I was very happy, having always dreamed of new experiences. But it turned out that this was a mirage. I was supposed to start my masters that year but could not because I had no money to fund myself, so I deferred my admission to the following academic year.

During this period, my prospective department sent all applicants a form to apply for a particular scholarship that is attached to the department. I did a lot of spiritual vigil, fasting and praying, because I discovered from the application form that the scholarship was restricted to South African students and those from SADC and that it was rare for students from other African countries to be awarded.

It was a bright Monday morning when I got an email saying I had been accepted for the masters a second time, and that this placed me in a competitive position for the scholarship because admission to the programme was a prerequisite.

I started preparing myself for the great journey ahead, having made up my mind to make use of the second opportunity, come what may.

I immediately contacted someone to help with medical aid and other required documentation in order for the South African high commission in my country to issue a study permit. My permit application was successful, though not without hassles.

While in the middle of preparing I received an email on the outcome of the scholarship, and almost fainted when I read that I had been unsuccessful. But something in me kept me going.

My former lecturer said I should find my way to South Africa and would surely get a scholarship once there. I gathered the little money I could from friends and family. On arriving I discovered that the lecturer was no longer in South Africa to accommodate me, and after staying with his friends for three weeks, I was sent on my way.

I could not register at the university because I could not pay the fees. I went to the department for help but nothing came of it. I kept going back and praying for a miracle.

The scholarship and financial aid office said all available scholarships were for South Africans but I could apply for a university merit award due to my excellent result. I applied and was lucky to get it in the middle of the year. I went immediately to the registration centre – I couldn’t wait to finally be a masters student.

Shocking international fees

But I got the shock of my life when I was told to pay an international student fee of more than R16,000 (US$2,000), over and above a tuition fee of almost R35,000 (US$4,500). I was so stressed that I nearly developed psychological problems. I thought of returning to Nigeria, because at no point had anybody told me about the exorbitant international student fee.

The international fee had been jacked up from R2,500 to R16,000 – and it keeps rising every year. In 2012 the international fee at the university, payable by all international students including Africans from outside SADC, is around R21,000.

I was incredibly lucky eventually to receive an international scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, which paid all my fees – one lucky person among very many foreign students in South Africa who are struggling to complete their studies.

I finished my masters but was then faced with the problem of funding PhD studies as an international student.

More help needed for African postgraduate students

What is interesting is that there are large numbers of international postgraduate students from African countries north of SADC, but they pay the same fees as students from rich countries.

What is happening with internationalisation when African students must pay such high fees on their own continent? Students leaving one European country for another are treated as home students.

It is also interesting to note that some universities with such fee discrimination are also collecting substantial government subsidies based on their numbers of postgraduate students.

Many African students have landed on the streets due to the discriminatory policies of some institutions in South Africa, and have lost completely. I know a lot of students from Nigeria and other non-SADC nations who have had to drop out of university because of this problem.

I tried, in my capacity as an executive member of an international students’ association, to discuss this with my university, but the international office and management were dismissive. And most annoying was that the international fees have kept increasing by more than 10% a year.

I sincerely appreciate the scholarship that was awarded to me during my masters, but I was just lucky.

I write this story not to blame anyone or any institution, but to show that international students from the non-SADC region of Africa are finding it really hard to survive, and to argue that they should not be made to pay what non-Africans are paying in South African universities.

I believe South African and international funders should increase scholarships for international postgraduate students and should include non-SADC African students in their funding schemes – because these students are contributing positively to development in South Africa and Africa through their skills, research and publications.

* Adeagbo Oluwafemi is now a PhD student in a South African university that charges lower international student fees.