Not enough support for international students

South African universities typically did not provide sufficient support for international students and were trapped by a discriminatory policy that differentiated between African students and those from the rest of the world, a study has found.

Conceptual research undertaken by the University of Witwatersrand's Dr Yasmine Dominguez-Whitehead and Nevensha Sing, showing the challenges facing the South African higher education market, reflected prejudices in the approach to non-South African students.

Delivering the findings during the 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Higher Education Conference, Sing said African students were typically referred to as ‘foreigners’ while those from Europe or the United States were ‘international students’.

This perpetuated a perceived cultural discrimination and resulted in verbal assaults and misconceptions.

South Africa is a major African destination for international students. In 2011 there were more than 68,000 international students enrolled in South African universities, most but not all of them from other African countries. Nearly 40,000 of them are contact students, while others are distance education students.

Globally, the number of students studying outside their home countries was growing and there had been a shift from almost exclusively South-North mobility to more South-South movement.

"This means we need to address the international issue in South African higher education, while recognising that the market is not easily defined but more broadly considers the socio-political and economic factors affecting students," Sing said.

In acknowledging that universities had to enhance students' overall education and learning experience, the research showed that there were non-academic challenges like prejudice, discrimination, homesickness and financial assistance that were not receiving the required attention.

Sing said homesickness typically went unnoticed by staff and was viewed as an ancillary concern. However, universities benefited from international fees, set higher than those paid by South African students.

South Africans had also "hyperbolised" the number of illegal immigrants living within its borders, creating a platform for xenophobia.

Attacks against residents from other African countries in 2008 led to a public outcry and international attention, and this was reflected in behaviour among international students.

Sing said universities also made the common mistake of assuming that international students were homogenous, particularly when considering those from the rest of Africa.

This created problems when two students refused to engage with each other because of their own cultural differences not realised by the teaching staff.

"Language and accent immediately 'red flags' a student as being an outsider," she said.