Internationalisation has to promote inclusion, social justice

The future of the internationalisation of higher education in South Africa will depend on reimagining, reframing and redefining local and international collaborations and partnerships that promote social justice and inclusion for all, according to Wiseman Jack, the president of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA).

Jack, who is also the executive director of international relations and advancement at Vaal University of Technology in South Africa, opened the 23rd annual conference of IEASA from 25-27 August.

In his address, Jack highlighted how COVID-19 has continued to be a major disruptor of higher education internationalisation processes in terms of the suspension of global student mobility, underfunding of university education and deepening inequalities in education at all levels.

“But we in higher education should not sit back and give up to the coronavirus … the current situation should compel us to work hard to bring about positive change in higher education through thought leadership, sharing knowledge and ideas around the world,” said Jack.

He noted that, although higher education in South Africa, as in other parts of the world, has lost eminent scholars and placed severe restrictions on travel, in-person conferences, learning and even how research is conducted, there is still a need to focus on an agenda of global inclusion and social justice.

Contributing towards the theme of the IEASA 2021 conference, ‘Internationalisation, Inclusion and Social Justice – Towards a fairer world’, Professor Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa, a membership organisation representing South Africa’s public universities, said higher education in South Africa should regard obstacles emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call to reflect on challenges facing society.

Students’ challenges

“Higher education is not a floating system that could afford to be blind to unequal realities in communities, as it is embedded in social systems,” said Bawa, who is a former principal and vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology.

According to Bawa, universities in South Africa and other African countries need systemic change in order to understand the true meaning of inequality, which is a product of retrogressive and exploitative economic systems.

He argued that universities in African countries cannot forge ahead with their mandate of quality teaching and research while most students are faced with fees challenges.

In a presentation, ‘Rethinking Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa’, Dr Samia Chasi, a strategic adviser at IEASA and a research fellow at the University of the Free State in South Africa and her associate Dr Savo Heleta, a higher education researcher, analyst, educator and author, said that, whereas internationalisation has prepared graduates for an interconnected world, the process seems to have entrenched colonialist and submissive global relations that continue to promote academic inequalities, exclusion and social injustice in the Global South.

According to the two scholars, internationalisation of higher education in Africa must assume a critical analysis of past and present inequalities and injustices against Africans and other marginalised groups such as women and persons with disabilities.

“Indeed, internationalisation must place South Africa and Africa at the centre of teaching, learning and research and integrate critical, anti-racist and anti-hegemonic learning about the world in order to enhance the quality of education and create knowledge,” said Chasi.

Internationalisation a pipe dream?

The issue is that centuries of colonial, apartheid and neocolonial subjugation and impositions have centred Eurocentric teaching platforms in production of knowledge and ideas globally.

Commenting on the issue, Mahlubi Mabizela, the chief director in charge of the chief directorate of higher education policy and research in the South African Department of Higher Education and Training, said the situation is worrying in that, whereas there are good policies to promote a fairer world and social justice in higher education in South Africa, inequalities are escalating, while racism, corruption and unfair distribution of resources still exist.

He noted that, whereas higher education is a commodity that is being traded in the global marketplace, many young people in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa cannot have access to it.

Academics attending the conference were, however, divided as to how internationalisation of higher education could be achieved during COVID-19 and even after the pandemic.

While there were voices that stressed digital technologies and innovation that could be used to promote internationalisation in higher education as a way of driving inclusivity and social justice towards access to education, others cited digital platform disparities and limited internet connectivity.

In his presentation, Valile Valindawo Dwayi, the institutional director of short learning programmes at Walter Sisulu University, South Africa, argued that, as a result of unequal funding, the idea of internationalisation in education might be a pipe dream for some universities in developing economies.