Put the ‘universe’ back in university, counter ethnicity

African governments have been establishing ‘ethnic universities’ that have no capacity to recruit students nationally, let alone internationally. This means they have removed ‘universe’ from their universities, making it impossible for most African universities to appeal to international students.

This concern was raised by veteran Nigerian scholar Professor Pai Obanya, an emeritus professor at the University of Ibadan’s Institute of Education and retired director of the UNESCO regional office for Africa. He was a participant in a virtual conference held on 1-2 October of the International Education Association of South Africa and the African Network for Internationalization of Education titled “Innovation and resilience in higher education internationalisation in an era of COVID-19 and beyond.”

“It is a sad fact that universities are getting increasingly ethnicised not only by being staffed by people from the same country, but by people from a particular region in a country,” he lamented.

Towards internationalising higher education in Africa, Obanya called on African higher education planners to also stop thinking in terms of either being Anglophone or Francophone, but to start enabling universities on the continent to recruit students from different parts of the world.

The ethnicity challenge, said Obanya, was a far cry from the past when the continent had fewer universities serving whole regions. The regional institutions included Nigeria’s University of Ibadan in West Africa, University of Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, and Uganda’s Makerere University in East Africa. They attracted students and faculty from all countries in their regions, making them more international than many universities are today.

A mindset revolution needed

At the conference participants called for new approaches to internationalisation, which had been badly disrupted by COVID-19. However, they also observed that the pandemic brought new opportunities that could enhance growth.

Obanya called on African universities to re-conceptualise the idea of internationalisation to ensure it was not one-way traffic out of Africa, but rather a multi-directional flow of ideas, knowledge, personnel and resources.

As such, time was ripe for an “African-responsive” model of internationalisation and a “mindset revolution” so that Africa could become a giver of ideas to the outside world. “We should stop being perpetual receivers from the outside, especially in higher education, as we shall never become equal partners in research or joint academic programmes,” said Obanya.

For the continent to succeed under the Africa-responsive model, universities needed to put their houses in order first before engaging the rest of the world, he added.

Concerns over stigma, quality

Other concerns about international faculty and students also surfaced during the discussions.

Kenya’s Moi University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Nathan Ogechi observed that many international students and foreign faculty had been subjected to stigmatisation during the early days of the pandemic in some countries, raising questions over whether they will be accepted by their colleagues after the pandemic is over.

Professor Thuli Madonsela, the law trust chair in social justice at Stellenbosch University and the former South African public protector, noted in her keynote address how a large number of international students faced joblessness, food insecurity, hunger and lack of digital devices and data. “Most international students also had their personal freedoms infringed upon and felt socially isolated during lockdowns ...,” said Madonsela.

But in the midst of the COVID-19 adversity, Madonsela observed that probably more than in any other time in human history, digital learning was amplified, governments and telecommunications companies improved online connectivity and education resource sharing between institutions and countries increased, while in a real sense, necessity became the mother of invention.

At the same time Ogechi urged regulators and regional university bodies to move with speed to ensure that the quality of programmes now moving online was not questioned.

While universities had successfully managed to conduct teaching and exams online, quality assurance was emerging as a matter of concern that needed to be attended to instantly. Regulators had to address this urgently so that degrees obtained via online modules could be recognised everywhere, just like those obtained from contact learning, he said.