Reigniting internationalisation in a challenging SA context

In early 2022, South African public higher education institutions eagerly moved back to face-to-face teaching, learning and engagement, resuming a degree of normalcy after four waves of the COVID-19 pandemic had considerably disrupted university activities at all levels in 2020 and 2021.

The national state of disaster was finally lifted in April 2022, after having been in place for 750 days, and, in June 2022, South Africa did away with the last remaining COVID-19 regulations regarding a mask mandate, limitations on gatherings and checks on incoming international travel.

Having completed the first semester of the 2022 academic year, we now have an opportune moment to consider how the transition back to campus has gone and how institutions are responding to their ever-changing environment, particularly with regard to their internationalisation activities.

As the second edition of the global survey on the impact of COVID-19 on higher education conducted by the International Association of Universities has shown, the pandemic has had a severe impact on internationalisation all around the globe.

While much of this impact has been negative, the pandemic has also resulted in several positive outcomes, with new opportunities and possibilities opening up in its wake.

Whatever the outcomes, it has become increasingly self-evident that, following the disruptions caused by COVID-19, we cannot simply pick up where we left off before the pandemic. This applies to higher education as much as to other spheres.

There have been regressions in many dimensions of life that we previously took for granted, and we now have to consider what new obstacles internationalisation is facing and how we are going to overcome these.

Air travel, for example, as a key mode of transport for international student and staff mobility programmes, was severely disrupted by COVID-related travel restrictions, resulting in cost and capacity reductions at airlines and airports around the globe.

Recently reported news of travellers experiencing chaos due to flight delays, cancellations and lost luggage – in some instances as a result of airlines getting grounded and ceasing business – serve as a case in point.

Globally, visa processing has slowed down. Over the past months, several academics based at South African institutions have had to cancel their plans to travel internationally for academic purposes, including conference attendance, due to delayed visa appointments.

Because of the current demand, getting a visa appointment can take up to six months, long after the conference dates that the academics were aspiring to attend.

Delays in processing police clearance certificates and visa applications are also evident within South Africa’s government departments, where the lack of capacity is seriously hindering the entry of academics and students into the country.

Concern over numbers

It is concerning that the numbers of international students attending South Africa’s higher education institutions have dropped in recent years.

In addition, the country’s universities have international students registered and in attendance whose study visa renewal applications for the 2022 academic year are still pending.

Despite being covered by current exemptions issued by the Department of Home Affairs while inside the country, not having one’s visa in order can be restricting and lead to feelings of anxiety and insecurity.

Furthermore, we are living in a world where inequality and poverty are on the rise, as highlighted and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africa is facing multiple crises. We are living with poor service delivery, increased load-shedding (scheduled power cuts), increased cost of living, political uncertainty and a prevalence of serious mental health issues.

When populations face economic hardships, politics tends to move to the right. Not surprisingly, in this context, independent United Nations human rights experts have recently warned that discrimination against foreign nationals in South Africa has been institutionalised and that xenophobic mobilisation has become a campaign strategy for some of the country’s political parties.

Exploring challenges and solutions

Against this challenging backdrop, the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA will host its 24th conference titled ‘Reigniting and Reimagining Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa’ to explore the state of the nation and its impact on internationalisation.

Key concerns in this regard are how South African higher education is overcoming obstacles such as those outlined above, what type of innovation is taking place, regardless of the challenges, and how South Africa’s challenges and opportunities compare to other parts of the world.

More specifically, IEASA invited academics, researchers, professional practitioners, educators, students and innovators in higher education internationalisation to particularly consider the following questions:

• What changes have been brought about by the pandemic at the level of institutional internationalisation policies, strategies and funding flows?

• What is responsible internationalisation? How is it linked to other pertinent challenges such as achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and combating the climate crisis? How does it respond to vaccine inequalities and other global divides?

• What does a locally relevant and globally engaged South African university of the future look like? What kind of partners will it require? What should its priorities be?

• How is South Africa engaging with the rest of the world? Are our relationships with our partners changing? Are there distinctive changes in the relationships and engagements with partners in the Global North and partners in the Global South as a result of the pandemic?

• Which aspects and practices of internationalisation have been resumed, adapted or discontinued? How have the access of international students to South Africa and the access of South African students to higher education in other parts of the world been impacted?

• How has technology changed our perspectives on internationalisation practices? Which elements of internationalisation can be meaningfully conducted digitally and-or using blended approaches? How can we enhance intercultural competence in a digital world? How can digital and blended approaches to internationalisation foster inclusion and social justice?

• What lessons have we learned regarding the resilience of our students and staff, and how can we take this forward?

• Where has strong leadership in internationalisation of higher education emerged during this challenging period?

• How have the challenges of our times impacted on diversity, intercultural competence and human connections in South Africa and beyond?

Addressing these and other questions, speakers and presenters at the upcoming online IEASA conference will explore how what we have experienced and learned during the pandemic can help us reignite and reimagine internationalisation of higher education in South Africa and beyond.

Over two conference days, they will share their thoughts, research findings, lived experiences and best practice examples in a mix of plenary, parallel and poster sessions.

Proceedings will close with a panel of international leaders and experts representing several associations, all members of the Network of International Education Associations, sharing insights into the challenges and opportunities experienced in international higher education in their respective parts of the world.

On the third and final day of the conference, participants can attend a workshop titled ‘Fair cooperation in international research – A decolonial take to unpack global higher education and research-specific complexities, challenges and structural inequalities’, which will be considered from a Global South perspective and through a decolonial lens.

Participants will be engaged on how we can dismantle and de-centre existing Eurocentric hegemonies in higher education, knowledge production and research and contribute to decolonisation and plurality of knowledges.

The 24th IEASA Conference will be held online from 24 to 26 August 2022 and registration is open.

Orla Quinlan was the president of IEASA 2019-20, and has been an executive committee member of IEASA for six years. She is currently the IEASA treasurer. She is also the director of internationalisation at Rhodes University, South Africa.

Dr Samia Chasi is an international education practitioner, researcher and facilitator with more than 20 years of experience in this field. She is currently the manager of strategic initiatives, partnership development and research at IEASA.