Anchor internationalisation in country contexts

African higher learning institutions have been advised not to copy high-income country concepts on internationalisation, but always look at why internationalisation in their own contexts is important.

Experts at the recent 19th International Conference on Private Higher Education in Africa, hosted virtually on September 2 at St Mary’s University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said African institutions should build on their historical, cultural, social and geographic strengths and define their needs on those foundations.

“Create a right balance between attuning programmes to the experiences of traditionally oppressed and marginalised groups, and safeguarding the values of the Western university model of search for truth based on scientific evidence and academic freedom,” said Hans de Wit, professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Center for International Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College in the United States.

“Old habits are difficult to change, but the challenges our planet faces urge us more than ever to do so, and internationalisation has to again become a socially responsible tool, [something] it has moved away from over the past decades.”

De Wit, who presented on ‘Internationalisation in Higher Education: The challenging road from a Western programme to a global inclusive concept’ said internationalisation is a Western paradigm and the pandemic will increase internationalisation, on the one hand, through further inequality, but might also create opportunities for low- and middle-income countries to develop their own models and approaches to internationalisation.

Competition and soft power

National governments have been increasingly more active in developing international education strategies, but mostly of a competitive and-or soft power nature.

It will be important to determine whether they will include a more socially responsible approach or a mixture of the old habits, which include competition for students and soft power, he said.

“In the current global-knowledge society, the concept of internationalisation of higher education has, itself, become globalised, demanding further consideration of its impact on policy and practice as more countries and types of institution around the world engage in the process,” noted De Wit.

“Internationalisation for Africa should no longer be considered in terms of a Westernised, largely Anglo-Saxon, and predominantly English-speaking paradigm,” he added.

In the next decade, post COVID-19, he said, we are likely to see a return to a more cooperative and less market-oriented approach to internationalisation that will include higher learning institutions taking advantage of lessons learned in the pandemic, realising global learning for all, making use of online expertise, not by replacing onsite by online learning, but integrating it.

It would also mean linking internationalisation to the third mission of higher education, service to society (Social Development Goals); making internationalisation more carbon-neutral, and recognising that mobility is, in itself, positive but not available for all and not sustainable.


The virtual conference was held under the theme ‘African Higher Education and its Contributions to Self-reliance’.

The conference deliberated on three timely sub-themes, namely, ‘Technology and its Implications on Access, Equity and Quality’; ‘Internationalisation of Higher Education and its Benefits and Implications’; and ‘Private Higher Education in Africa – The response to development challenges’.

On the benefits of internationalisation and the challenges of global rankings, Ellen Hazelkorn, professor emeritus, Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, said that, because higher education plays a vital role in human and capital development, how universities perform and how they are governed are matters of interest and importance.

Being part of international higher education and global science is vital. But achieving these objectives requires a balanced approach. Without endless resources, it is almost impossible to improve in the rankings.

“Be alert to rankings, but do not be slavish … being excellent requires more than simply climbing the rankings. Consider any improvement in rankings as an outcome of your institutional strategy, not an input or driver of that strategy,” said Hazelkorn.

She advised that higher learning institutions should emphasise world-class systems, not world-class universities.

They should not use global rankings as an indicator of quality or to inform policy or resource allocation decisions but to change their national policies or institutional mission or priorities to conform with rankings.

Internationalisation strategies should be firmly embedded in the context and policies of the country and institutions should use rankings only as part of overall quality assurance, assessment or benchmarking systems and never as a standalone evaluation tool.

Ethiopia’s State Minister of Science and Higher Education, Afework Kassu, said that Africa has made progress in terms of producing educated people at higher education institutions, but the returns that the continent gets from its educated citizens remains far from adequate, specifically in equipping citizens with the basic skills of sustaining their livelihoods.

“For instance, we Africans are, to a large extent, unable to modernise the agriculture sector to be self-reliant in food production. Our dependence on imported agricultural produce and foreign aid has exposed us to undue pressure from forces outside the continent,” he said.

“What one would have expected from universities in any one country is the knowledge and skills that would enable graduates to make a difference in the communities they have come from,” he added.