International-isation: A driver of change

Internationalisation is a phenomenon that now influences different aspects of university activities, including leadership. Its consequences, opportunities, challenges and risks demand not only closer analysis and understanding but also new leadership responses.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Internationalisation has characterised African universities from their inception. Most of the pioneer African universities were established as colleges of European universities and adopted their models and practices that later also guided the establishment of new universities in Africa.

Due to the latecomer position of African higher education compared to other regions of the world, African universities have borrowed bits from universities from other regions. As a result of this, it has been claimed that African universities may be the most internationalised in the world. This could be more to do with circumstances than a strategic response by African universities to internationalisation.

Though internationalisation has a long history within the African higher education system, just as in other parts of the world the past two decades have witnessed a rise in internationalisation activities. These have included growth in student and staff mobility, partnerships and collaborations, joint research projects and transnational education, amongst others. These activities and developments have an impact on institutional leadership.

Drivers of internationalisation

How then does internationalisation impact on university leadership in Africa? The past two global surveys by the International Association of Universities, or IAU, have revealed that university leaders are the main drivers of internationalisation in universities, including in Africa. This shows that, among internal stakeholders, universities’ top leadership consider internationalisation as very important.

There are several benefits of internationalisation that could stimulate top university leadership to prioritise internationalisation. African university leaders are now placing more premium on internationalisation.

This, however, is not a recent development. As early as 1962 at the conference on the Development of Higher Education in Africa held in Antananarivo, African university leaders, recognising the deficiencies of their institutions and systems and the need to work closely together, called for closer cooperation between African universities.

This spirit is still seen decades later. The 2015 Conference of Rectors, Vice Chancellors and Presidents of the Association of African Universities focused on the theme of internationalisation, further underscoring the growing importance of internationalisation to African university leaders.

Internationalisation was again the theme of the African University Day the same year with the celebrations hosted by Ashesi University in Ghana.

While giving his keynote address at the 2016 International Education Association of South Africa conference, Professor Derrick Swartz, vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, emphasised this important role of internationalisation and argued that it presented interesting times and opportunities for African universities.

Professor Olusola Oyewole, vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, and president of the Association of African Universities, has consistently crusaded for the creation of an African higher education space and the development of credit transfer frameworks to foster mobility of students and staff.

At the sixth African Network for Internationalisation of Education, or ANIE, conference in Dar es Salaam in 2015, Professor Elifas Bisanda, vice-chancellor of the Open University of Tanzania, underscored the importance of open educational resources and the ICT revolution in enhancing university partnerships in Africa. He viewed these developments as presenting more possibilities for cross-border teaching and learning and engagements between institutions.

Renewed interest in internationalisation

The above examples present a glimpse into the views of different university leaders from Africa and show that African university leaders are responding to internationalisation with more gusto than before.

As a result, they have spearheaded the establishment of international offices, the development of institutional strategies for internationalisation and even the creation of and support for collaborative projects and activities of university associations that facilitate internationalisation.

These sentiments are also demonstrated in the growth of university networks in Africa, the development of intra-Africa mobility and training programmes and closer cooperation among the universities, especially within regional blocks.

Regional university associations, such as the Inter University Council for East Africa, or IUCEA, and the Southern Africa Regional Universities Association, bring university leaders together to foster regional collaborations.

Speaking at a seminar on doctoral training held in Nairobi, Kenya recently, Professor Alexandre Lyambabaje, executive secretary of the IUCEA, emphasised the need for regional university leaders to join efforts to develop centres of excellence and programmes to strengthen doctoral training on the continent.

Transforming middle management

Internationalisation is also influencing leadership at other levels in African universities. A study carried out by ANIE in 2015 with funding from CODESRIA – the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – under the Higher Education Leadership Programme revealed that deans in faculties with enhanced internationalisation activities demonstrated certain leadership responsibilities more than those in faculties with less internationalisation activities.

The deans who engaged more with internationalisation focused more on their external environment, were aware of opportunities around them and the prevailing competition. They deliberately took steps to improve their faculties and make them more attractive and competitive.

They also tended to acquire abilities that were not useful to other deans who did not emphasise internationalisation. These included forming research teams, fundraising for research, creating more partnerships and being part of networks and consortia. They were also more collaborative and invested in supportive infrastructures such as ICT for communication and for academic support.

The research focused on leadership and management in African universities, especially at the middle management deanship level where most internationalisation activities are undertaken. It aimed at finding out how deans lead in such a complex environment, including balancing between local demands and the demands of internationalisation. It is through deans that universities execute most of their core mandates of teaching, research and service.

Internationalisation is also bringing new dynamics to student life. The rising number of international students in several African universities, partly due to growing intra-African mobility, has led to international students creating spaces for representation, especially through their own unions, which enable them to participate in the governance structures of the institutions.

In general internationalisation brings new dimensions to leadership, requiring leaders of complex organisations such as universities to develop dynamic leadership structures to balance the competing and at times contradictory requirements of their organisations.

Having said this, leadership remains one of the main challenges facing African universities. With internationalisation and the many new dynamics coming in, leadership development, also for internationalisation, would still be useful in many African universities.

The renewed quest to develop a new generation of African leaders may be one of the ways through which this can be addressed. Though internationalisation has been considered everyone’s business, the commitment and support of top institutional leadership has been seen as key to success.

James Otieno Jowi is executive director of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education or ANIE.