Internationalisation and COVID-19 – Challenges and lessons

African actors in the internationalisation of higher education fear that students from the continent may face extra obstacles in seeking study opportunities abroad in a post-COVID-19 era, but are expressing optimism that the sector in Africa will survive the pandemic with the necessary strategies in place.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has come with a lot of uncertainties for the higher education sector and for internationalisation and mobility. Are we, for example, going to see countries impose new conditions such as COVID-19 vaccination compliance certificates targeted at Africa?” asked Professor Goski Alabi, chairperson of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education (ANIE) and president of Laweh Open University College in Ghana.

Speaking at a recent webinar on the implications of COVID-19 on higher education and internationalisation in Africa, hosted by the ANIE network and the International Education Association of South Africa, Alabi said questions have arisen since the outbreak including whether previously issued visas will be extended following institutional and border closures, and whether students will have to pay for the extensions.

There are also concerns that racial discrimination may grow in the wake of the disease, with learners from poorer parts of the world that mainly act as sources of international students being seen as ‘unsafe’, when compared to those from wealthier destination countries.

Black Lives Matter

“How, for example, will the Black Lives Matter call affect mobility to certain countries when it comes to choices of international students; what is the preparedness of host countries to manage safety of their own people and pay attention to safety of international students during and post pandemic?” she asked.

She noted that universities were also faced with massive losses in revenues even after shifting learning online, with queries arising over whether or not all students will return from their home countries after the pandemic.

It is also unclear whether universities could continue charging normal fees for programmes that had shifted online, especially for those who had paid for face-to-face learning, she said. Some international students, she observed, were expecting refunds of their fees for the time they are away. Due to the pandemic, the ability of parents to pay fees as before was likely to be lower, affecting universities’ finances.

Alabi suggested that a blended learning approach, whereby students undertake some of the programmes online and others on campus, would help in making international education more affordable.

It’s an idea shared by Professor Elisabeth Abenga, a lecturer at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kenya, who suggested it was time for Africa to take up “remote internationalisation” in offering programmes to students via virtual learning to solve some of the problems. It was also time for Africa to build “internationalisation at home” by crafting relevant policies and programmes, she said.

A reversal of brain drain

Africa could also gain by engaging academics who have returned home in the wake of the pandemic, and who may not return to their previous stations abroad. Retaining them at home would be an opportunity to reverse brain drain, she observed.

“The COVID-19 crisis calls for enhancing of inter-African mobility as well as internationalising higher education curricula to attract international students globally. This can be done by re-tooling learning objectives, redesigning existing courses and offering internationally accredited courses,” Abenga said.

According to Professor Chika Sehoole, dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic was also likely to hit mobility indirectly, for instance by negatively affecting world economies. This, in turn, will see a reduction in money available for funding scholarships, he said. In addition, many international students may not be able to return to their institutions when normal learning resumes.

“Some of the students may choose to continue their studies from their home countries, negatively affecting mobility as well as the finances of the host universities,” he said.

However, despite the crisis that has left institutions across the world shut, Sehoole identified opportunities for institutions and academics, notably in research collaborations and partnerships, particularly in the fields of human health, infectious diseases and epidemiology, among others.

“Other possible fields of research may include student mobility in relation to health, safety and security,” Sehoole said.

He observed that the pandemic had dispelled the myth of the Northern Hemisphere being ‘safe’ when compared to the Global South, and that the pandemic may encourage more international students than ever before to resort to online studies.

Intra-African mobility

Building and boosting intra-African mobility – which studies suggest is a growing trend – will help sustain internationalisation in the future, he said.

In South Africa, as elsewhere in Africa, Sehoole noted, the pandemic has exposed “fault lines of inequalities”, both in society and in higher education institutions. Some students could not take part in online learning due to a lack of gadgets and electricity, and due to a lack of access to the internet.

Some universities, especially those well-endowed financially, were more able to transition to online learning thanks to their superior infrastructure. They were also able to support poor students in accessing the internet and learning devices.

With virtual learning and events now becoming a “new normal”, higher education organisations were also moving their events online, said Professor Charles Ong’ondo, ANIE executive director. He said the association had cancelled its planned annual conference due to be held in Pretoria later this year. Instead, the event will be hosted online, as will several other events including webinars.

Pai Obanya, emeritus professor at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, said the pandemic had shown the need to transform teaching from a face-to-face activity to a “mind-to-mind engagement” in order for institutions to survive future upheavals. Universities needed to offer e-learning pedagogy as an integral part of career-long training for academics, he said.

“Universities must invest in the necessary human-ware needed to drive both hardware and software to effectively move teaching and research online, and prevail over future challenges,” he concluded.