Internationalisation policy for universities on the cards

Measures designed to facilitate the enrolment of foreign students and academics at South African universities and to eliminate current bureaucratic chaos centred around immigration regulations were announced at a Research and Innovation Dialogue held in Johannesburg from 7-8 April.

The dialogue hosted by Universities South Africa, the association representing the country’s 26 public universities, drew delegates from higher education leadership as well as top government officials and experts.

The new measures will form part of a draft policy framework on internationalisation for South African universities. Despite having more than 50,000 international students attending local universities, South Africa currently has no policy either regulating or promoting internationalisation.

Described as a “work in progress”, details of the draft policy framework were presented at the dialogue by Chief Mabizela, chief director of policy and development support in the Department of Higher Education and Training or DHET.

Policy overdue

Mabizela said the department had been looking at the development of a policy framework since a working group was appointed in November 2014. The group was also charged with incorporating the recommendations of an earlier working group regarding collaborative degrees.

Mabizela acknowledged that such a policy was long overdue but that a performance target had been set for the draft policy to be published in the Government Gazette by 31 March 2017. “We lost about two years working on the policy due to reasons beyond our control,” he said. “We wanted to conclude the process last year.”

Until a policy comes into being Mabizela said the DHET and Council on Higher Education, or CHE, “had agreed on the interpretation and extrapolation of current policy as the status quo, which is that, one, the policy does not bar knowledge mobility or bar institutions from entering into collaborative research and teaching; or joint degree or qualification offerings.

“And, secondly, that all programme offerings which are a local component of collaborative offerings and qualifications must be accredited by the CHE Higher Education Quality Committee in line with all other higher education programmes.”

Mabizela said a policy on internationalisation in South Africa was required as universities had long been involved in international collaborations including knowledge, academic and scholarship exchanges as well as joint programme offerings and qualifications and co-curriculum development.

“A policy framework that enhances internationalisation of higher education is required in South Africa in order to accrue benefits both to higher education and the economy.”

Embracing the region

Mabizela said that while benefits to both education and the economy were primary, the objectives were not necessarily commercial. “They should embrace the Southern African Development Community [SADC] protocol on higher education and training.”

SADC aims to promote socio-economic and political cooperation among its 15 member states. According to the education protocol, cooperation and mutual assistance between member states “can be facilitated more effectively by the development of harmonised and eventually standardised policies regarding education and training”.

Mabizela said that the “focus of the framework policy is on South Africa first, then the SADC region, then Africa, then international”.

Current policy with regard to SADC students would continue. “We will treat SADC students as local students,” Mabizela said. “Fifty per cent or more of our students are from SADC countries and they pay the same fees as South African students.”

Mabizela acknowledged that foreign students and academics from elsewhere in Africa, including the SADC region, had encountered huge problems with visas and other border controls. He said regulations to deal with this would be included in the policy and that the Department of Home Affairs would be involved in creating the policy framework.

Position on joint degrees

The policy would also incorporate offering collaborative or joint degrees. Responding to questions from the floor, Mabizela said there was no policy at present with regard to collaborative degrees.

“We don’t encourage ‘double degrees’ where a student studies in South Africa and a European country at the same time and ends up with two degrees; we would rather have a joint degree with one certificate bearing the logos of two, or even three institutions.”

The policy would also build in measurability of its impact on the higher education system in South Africa. “It must be evaluated,” Mabizela said. “There will be quality assurance in South Africa and for example, the United Kingdom or if necessary a third or fourth country.”

“The policy must not compromise the quality of programmes offering collaborative degrees or qualifications and, at the same time, [must] allow for institutions to maintain their independence and autonomy.”

Welcome development

Nico Jooste, senior director of international education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth and current president of the International Education Association of South Africa or IEASA, welcomed the announcement.

“We have been advocating for years that government develop a policy framework. The document that we submitted will go a long way to not only provide guidance but also assist institutions to afford internationalisation.”

Inward student mobility was but a small part of internationalisation, which should be seen in a much more comprehensive way. Another issue that should be addressed was the number of international academic staff employed at universities.

It was important to note that the new policy would provide a framework. “Thus it would still allow for institutional nuance differences. We should have a framework that will allow for differentiation in the internationalisation strategies of each institution,” Jooste added.

“The coordination between different government departments as well as other players in the sector is very important. It is not only Home Affairs that influences internationalisation but the departments of health, international relations, and science and technology.

“Due to the lack of coordination it is currently all over the place. The draft document proposes better coordination.”

Jooste also noted that for the past 20 years the coordination of internationalisation in South Africa’s higher education system had been done by IEASA. “It was agreed by Universities South Africa and IEASA that we need to drive this jointly in future.”