Africa must lead innovation in higher education internationalisation

The internationalisation of higher education has been described by specialists from the South as a neo-colonial, imperialist or – more mildly – Western concept. It is an undisputed fact that the policy and practice of internationalisation has been primarily driven and controlled from the Anglo Saxon world and continental Europe, with the South being at the receiving end.

This is obvious in the dominance of Western higher education systems, research, academic publishing, patents, mobility flows, transnational operations and partnerships. The dominant position of Western universities in rankings also clearly shows that they still control global higher education policy and practice.

Western domination challenged

At the same time, we see an increasing challenge to this dominance of the North.

The emergence of education hubs in the South, the shift to South-South mobility of students and scholars, the rise of Southern universities in the international rankings, and the quantitative and qualitative revolution taking place in higher education in the South, are challenging the traditional dominance of Western higher education and through that its internationalisation.

Recent publications and conference presentations illustrate this development. In a recent paper in the Trends and Insights series of NAFSA (Association of International Educators), Yenbo Wu, associate vice-president for international education at San Francisco State University and a member of the NAFSA board of directors, speaks of ‘Regional Globalism and International Higher Education in Asia’.

At the annual conference of International Education Association of South Africa held in Cape Town from 29-31 August, changes in higher education and the role of Africa were discussed.

Key issues were addressed, such as: is Africa with its 55 countries a region with clear common characteristics in its higher education systems? Is North Africa not, for instance, more closely linked to the Middle East? What about Francophone East Africa, which has been rather absent from the discourse on African higher education?

What about the specific role of South Africa – does it have more of a Western system or an African one, or does its higher education lie somewhere in between? What about the growing role of private and religious higher education in Africa? And what about the increased presence of China in the region and the sector?

There were more questions than answers, but the debate is still open and will have serious implications for African higher education and its internationalisation.

In his presentation to the IEASA conference, James Jowi of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education (ANIE) acknowledged the risks that the dominant presence of external forces in African higher education creates, such as brain drain, commercialisation and manipulation. But he also sees lots of opportunities for developing African policies and strategies.

Others were more pessimistic. According to them, African higher education and its internationalisation are still primarily driven by external forces, even though those forces are shifting towards Asia, in particular China, and the Middle East.

Damtew Teferra, a specialist in African higher education from Ethiopia who is now working in South Africa, stressed the increase in private higher education, including fraudulent diploma and accreditation mills, as well as a wide range of religious-based higher education institutions.

Dependence on external forces, he says, is hindering the internationalisation of Africa’s higher education. This, and the fact that the continent's 55 countries lack a common system and culture and face different challenges and complexities, make it impossible to talk of a single African higher education system and a single approach to internationalisation.

Yet, at the same time, all agree that there is more to lose if Africa does not internationalise.

As James Jowi says in a paper, “Counting the Gains and Losses: Africa and the global talent race”, published by the European Association for International Education for its 2012 conference in Dublin:

“For the coming years Africa’s biggest resource will be its relatively large but young population. This should be cause for optimism, yet the current stampede for talent could contribute to even more global polarisation, and compound the negative impacts of brain drain for African universities.”

Nevertheless, he also sees opportunities, although not any time soon, for growing academic mobility within Africa and a “healthy balance for Africa in the global race for talent”.

Africa is the world’s most internationalised system

During the conference, reference was made several times to a statement I made at the 2012 Going Global conference of the British Council in London.

I said that Africa, a region that in terms of numbers of academics with a foreign degree, numbers of graduates with a study-abroad experience and the amount of knowledge and concepts from abroad it has imported, has probably the most internationalised higher education system in the world.

But the impact of that is not necessarily positive, and maybe first Africa has to go through a process of de-internationalisation, to liberate itself from these external influences, before it can develop its own position in the global knowledge society.

At the IEASA Conference I elaborated on that statement and said – with reference to my April blog in University World News on the international education conferences circus – that it might indeed be perceived as arrogant that sister organisations of IEASA, such as NAFSA, were not present at the IEASA conference.

But this is sustained by the fact that Africans, like Asians and Latin Americans, continue to attend the NAFSA and European Association for International Education conferences in larger numbers than their own conferences.

And they keep copying the concepts, strategies and policies developed by their Western counterparts without developing their own innovative ideas about how to internationalise their higher education systems.

Innovation and change is needed, and needs to come most particularly from Africa and other emerging economies in the South.

* Hans de Wit is professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands and director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. Email: