Universities get their heads round international-isation

African university leaders overwhelmingly agree that forging ahead with the internationalisation of higher education is a matter of urgency. At the 2015 Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of African Universities in Kigali, Rwanda, they even seemed to be approaching a sound level of agreement on how to get there.

While even in the recent past, internationalisation in African higher education has been conceived as close to synonymous with brain drain, different winds are blowing across the continent today.

Several major projects are promoting an African higher education space, while the African Union Commission, European Union and UNESCO all having large-scale initiatives underway to promote intra-African mobility of students, scholars and knowledge in general.

The Association of African Universities, or AAU, made internationalisation the theme of its 2015 conference because, in the words of AAU President Olusola Oyewole, “the need to come together to face common challenges, such as global competition, is more challenging than ever”.

One of the key requirements for improved intra-African university collaboration is the recognition of foreign learning achievements, and several of the initiatives that University World News has reported on earlier, such as the EU’s Tuning project and the revival of the Arusha Convention, focus exactly on this.

Hurdles to internationalisation

But when the project developers and policy-makers have spoken, academics on the ground are facing a host of other hurdles that still require a lot of attention.

Among the most obvious that – on paper at least – diplomacy can take care of are visa limitations and other measures that serve to protect local labour markets but also adversely affect the exchange of knowledge.

But there are more serious hurdles, according to the university leaders of AAU member universities, and not all of them are easily addressed.

In the wake of the Garissa massacre in Kenya, student abductions in Nigeria and the Ebola crisis in West Africa, security is one crucial impeding factor.

“Security and finances are the two greatest hurdles at the moment,” said Oyewole. “Security may seem difficult to address, but there has been insufficient focus on campus security among university leaders. We can help to change that.”

“Money is not just a matter of a shortage of funds, but also of prioritisation – both within governments and within universities.

“One thing we can help our members with is to look beyond large-scale international projects and start working on what is generally referred to as ‘internationalisation at home’: internationalising the curriculum, the campus and teaching in general.”

Travel logistics also continue to impede mobility. It is, in the words of one of the attendees in Kigali, still a lot easier to travel from any African capital to London or Paris, than it is to fly from, say, Lagos to Banjul.

Where there's a will…

But the will to overcome these hurdles is there, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and it is rapidly getting stronger.

And while in Africa, according to the 4th Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education* of the International Association of Universities, joint research is still the main driver for the desire to collaborate across borders, the same survey shows that among African universities today the top target region for international cooperation is... Africa.

The study, presented in Kigali by International Association of Universities, or IAU, Secretary-General Eva Egron-Polak, is a treasure trove for clues about focal points in African internationalisation strategies.

It shows that African universities generally regard strengthened research and knowledge development capacity as the top perceived benefit of internationalisation, while increased international awareness among students is not even in the top three, unlike any other region bar the Middle East.

“And not having a strategy basically leaves you at the mercy of your partners,” said Egron-Polak.

Africa is the only region where we can find that ‘the dominance of a Western epistemological approach’ is placed in the top three of perceived societal risks of internationalisation.

This should be a flag for international partners. Not necessarily a signal to stay away, but a recommendation to tread carefully, not least because the Tuning project also showed that finding a common African identity was a top priority in cross-border curriculum development.

Credit recognition and transfer

Back on the track of the discussions in Kigali, one of the top perceived hindrances is indeed the lack of credit transfer opportunities and mutual recognition.

A working group dedicated to the subject could not yet agree whether individual countries first should get their internal credit transfer systems in order, or whether international impetus could in itself achieve this.

Many countries in Europe only got effective internal credit transfer mechanisms after Erasmus mobility and later the Bologna Process forced them to look at credit transfer from an international perspective.

The working group did recommend pushing the drive towards harmonisation even further and it asked AAU members to actively engage their governments so as to sensitise them on the benefits of internationalisation – not just for the universities themselves, but for the countries as a whole and, eventually, the entire continent.

* The IAU 4th Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education has a wealth of surprises between the lines, sometimes confirming and sometimes debunking prejudices, and should be obligatory literature for anyone with more than a marginal interest in higher education internationalisation. It can be ordered here.