Tapping into the benefits of internationalisation

The lack of national policies in Africa on higher education internationalisation is fuelling the movement of African students and faculty to Europe, North America and, more recently, Asia, according to Professor Paul Zeleza, pan-Africanist scholar and vice-chancellor of the United States International University-Africa (USIU) based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Speaking at the ninth conference of the African Network for Internationalization of Education (ANIE), Zeleza said Africa was in a “perpetual struggle for internationalisation and indigenisation” of education.

He said the continent provided 540,000 or 10.3% of the world’s 5.3 million outbound students in 2017, while only 226,000 (4.2%) of those opted to study in African universities. This was in sharp contrast to Europe and North America which benefited from the bulk of the students (62.2%).

“Clearly, international academic mobility, collaborations and cross-border provision remain decidedly unequal. In fact, in many ways, internationalisation has reinforced historic inequalities,” the scholar told the conference, which took place from 2 to 4 October in Nairobi.

Forms of dependence

He said in addition to deepening institutional and intellectual dependence by African higher education on more affluent regions of the world, other forms of dependence were emerging in the form of research funding – disproportionate levels were provided by foundations and international, intergovernmental and national agencies from the Global North.

“In other world regions, research funding from business, government and local philanthropic organisations often plays a much bigger role,” Zeleza said.

He said international collaborations in research and co-authorships between academics – both indicators of internationalisation – were growing “vertically” towards the Global North rather than “horizontally” in favour of intra-regional or South-South collaborations, with Africa producing the highest number of co-authored research papers in the world.

According to Zeleza, the world average for international co-authorship was 24.9%; for Africa it was 64.6% compared to 26.1% for Asia, 42.1% for Europe, 38.2% for the Americas and 55.7% for Oceania.

“International research collaboration has reproduced uneven patterns of access to education and knowledge production,” he said, arguing that such patterns betrayed the “persistence of colonial and neo-colonial intellectual dependence”.

He said world university rankings also served a critical role in influencing the flow of students, faculty and resources to universities in wealthier regions of the world – to the disadvantage of poorer ones.

“They [rankings] reflect and reinforce inter-institutional competition in an endless ‘reputational’ and ‘positional’ race,” he said.

According to the 2020 World University Rankings by Times Higher Education, the United States featured 60 universities in the top 200, Europe 96, Asia 23, and Africa only two.

“Not surprisingly, there have been strident calls for African universities not to participate in the ‘biased’ global rankings or to create African rankings that reflect continental realities and priorities,” he said.

He disclosed that the Association of Arab Universities had “agreed to embark upon a process of classification of all Arab universities aimed at achieving consistency in the criteria used to assess institutions in global university rankings”.

Regional initiatives

Despite the challenges, initiatives to promote internationalisation within Africa were taking place at various levels with harmonisation at the centre of the processes, and spearheaded by regional economic blocs such as the East African Community, which was declared a ‘Common Higher Education Area’ by its heads of states in 2016, according to Goski Alabi, chairperson of the ANIE management board and president of Laweh Open University College in Ghana.

Similar developments were also taking place in the other regional economic blocs in Africa such as the Southern Africa Development Community, where a common protocol has been developed to foster closer cooperation among institutions.

In Europe and America, she said, internationalisation had become a billion-dollar industry, with universities earning millions each year from foreign students – benefits that many African institutions were missing out on.

“In Africa we are losing out on benefits partly because many countries lack a comprehensive framework for internationalisation, while in places like Europe they have instruments like the Bologna Process to guide them,” she said.

According to Chika Sehoole, dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, a majority of African students preferred to study in another African country as opposed to moving abroad, for reasons including proximity, affordability and relevance of degree programmes to industry demands back home.

African students in Africa

Citing preliminary findings of a study examining trends in student mobility within Africa, conducted with Jenny J Lee of the University of Arizona and due to be published in a book in 2020, Sehoole said an overwhelming majority (82.4%) of the 2,304 students sampled were from African countries.

“An important revelation was that mobility between African countries was increasing, with most respondents in the study confirming that they would prefer studying in another African country,” he said.

Other insightful findings in the study are that two-thirds of respondents were self-funded, 90% were enrolled in undergraduate programmes, and many cited career and academic mobility reasons for their choice of host country more than any other reason.

Respondents expressed satisfaction with their academic experiences and planned to stay in their host country for further education, and intended to return home for employment and work.

They cited accommodation, finances, affordability, quality and safety among those areas in which they had experienced challenges, Sehoole said.

James Jowi, principal education officer in the East African Community Secretariat, told the forum the region was poised to enhance inter-university collaborations for regional integration.

“Supportive policies and frameworks have been put in place in areas such as student and staff mobility, regional quality assurance, regional qualification frameworks and modalities for mutual recognition of qualifications,” he said.

Internationalisation at home

One way of enhancing internationalisation in Africa would be to embrace ‘internationalisation at home’, a concept that offers international exposure without student or staff mobility, according to University of the Western Cape academics Anita Maürtin and Vivienne Lawack.

It involves designing activities that help develop “global understandings and intercultural competencies” among non-mobile students.

“The notion of internationalisation at home was conceptualised because there was an awareness that historically many institutions had study abroad programmes which provided opportunities for student mobility to only a small percentage – under 2% of the student population,” they said.

University of Pretoria scholar Azwifaneli Justice Ratshilaya said the fact that 67% of international students in South Africa were from the southern Africa region was evidence that many students preferred studying within their regions.

South African universities need to develop policies to help learners integrate more easily. Among these are charging fees closer to those paid by locals, allowing access to bursaries, organising social activities to eliminate culture shock, and assisting them to secure internships with local industry, he said.