Rethink internationalisation from Africa’s perspective

In May 2020, during the first COVID-19 wave in South Africa, the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) noted in a position paper that the pandemic provided an opportunity to “critically examine traditional concepts, models and practices of internationalisation and to reimagine internationalisation from the perspective of South Africa, Africa and the Global South”.

A little more than two years later, from 24-26 August, IEASA hosted its 24th conference, themed ‘Reigniting and Reimagining Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa’, as an opportune moment for delegates to reflect on the disruptions higher education has experienced in the wake of COVID-19 and how universities have adopted to their ever-changing environments, particularly regarding their internationalisation activities.

Exploring how lessons learned from and during the pandemic can help us reignite and reimagine higher education internationalisation in South Africa and elsewhere, presenters in numerous parallel sessions offered insights into various aspects of internationalisation endeavours, including institutional policies, strategies and funding flows as well as activities in the areas of international partnerships for the purposes of mobility and research as well as internationalisation at home.

What was foregrounded by many is a heightened awareness that universities cannot pursue internationalisation for internationalisation’s sake but must consider it in relation to global geopolitical trends and demands to be responsive to challenges, needs and priorities at global, regional, national and local levels.

As an overarching concern, it was highlighted that internationalisation needs to be more equitable, inclusive and transformative.

Was COVID a watershed moment?

There is explicit hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will act as a watershed moment for higher education internationalisation. In the words of Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Associate Provost and North Star Distinguished Professor at Case Western Reserve University, it “should be harnessed as an accelerator for rethinking internationalisation”.

What does rethinking internationalisation mean from an African vantage point? In his keynote address titled ‘Internationalisation for Africa in the post-COVID-19 Global Academy’, Zeleza pointed out that African higher education must cease to be the most peripheral system internationally and that the exclusion of the continent from the global academy is a form of epistemic violence.

Instead, Africa must be integrated in the global epistemic commons. This entails, for example, that institutions located outside the continent, particularly in the Global North, incorporate Africa and the experiences, aspirations, problems and perspectives of its peoples and scholars in their academic endeavours.

They must do this for historical, demographic, geopolitical, ethical and intellectual reasons. If higher education is to offer holistic learning and address global challenges, “the totality and trajectory of the human experience on this planet” cannot be captured without Africa.

In the Global South, institutions must fully utilise the potential of academic diasporas. As Zeleza noted, the new African diaspora is the continent’s biggest donor, and African migrants are often among the most educated populations in their countries of residence. These realities constitute an enormous asset, not only in terms of financial, but also intellectual remittances.

Inclusive internationalisation

In general, internationalisation must become a more inclusive concept and practice. For Zeleza, this forms part of strengthening ethical internationalisation, which entails considerations for equity, diversity and inclusion, particularly regarding marginalised people, institutions, communities, countries and intellectual traditions.

In the context of international research collaboration, a commitment to mutuality of benefits is key, as are principles of co-creation, co-sharing and co-development.

As another important aspect in that regard, Zeleza noted that global higher education cooperation must be based on open science, in line with the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science.

This involves recognising the vital importance of science, technology and innovation (STI) in responding to the world’s environmental, social and economic challenges, which are complex and interconnected.

It also means to acknowledge the transformative potential of open science for reducing existing inequalities by making knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable and by opening science to societal actors beyond traditional scientific communities.

Networking in a vibrant science ecosystem

For South Africa, this connection was powerfully demonstrated by Daan du Toit, the deputy director-general of International Cooperation and Resources at the South African Department of Science and Innovation.

In his keynote address titled, ‘South Africa’s Science, Technology and Innovation Decadal Plan: An instrument for reigniting and reimagining the internationalisation of higher education’, Du Toit highlighted that the Decadal Plan, which is expected to be approved by the South African Cabinet before the end of the year, offers an opportunity to reimagine both STI and internationalisation to deliver maximum impact for the benefit of South Africa.

Global and local factors need to be taken into account when thinking about the role science and innovation should play in dealing with complex societal challenges. In South Africa, an initiative such as the Decadal Plan must be implemented in an environment that is fiscally severely constrained, and work to advance STI needs to be considered in the context of low economic growth, rising unemployment and inequality, poor education outcomes and infrastructure backlogs.

Du Toit, therefore, emphasised that the plan includes a deliberate focus on just transitions, for example, in areas such as health, education and energy, and on transformation.

Regarding the latter, he noted that transformative international research and innovation engagements need to be more inclusive in terms of participation, cooperation and impact, with regard to disadvantaged individuals and institutions, on the one hand, and non-traditional partners and players on the other.

Furthermore, the Decadal Plan considers South Africa as part of a vibrant African science and innovation ecosystem and has a clear pan-African focus to promote and enhance STI capabilities in Africa in support of initiatives of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. It also aims to advance South-South collaboration, most notably in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) context.

Internationalisation of higher education and the Decadal Plan, Du Toit concluded, have the potential to complement and reinforce each other.

Internationalisation will play a key role in implementing the Decadal Plan because it helps improve knowledge production in South Africa, develop global networks for South African researchers and profile the country as a preferred global STI partner.

Similarly, the plan will support higher education internationalisation in South Africa by providing a greater strategic focus on partners and themes, developing support instruments for international mobility and exchange and by enhancing inter-governmental coordination.

Such alignment and complementarity are key if both the STI and internationalisation agendas of South Africa are to be materialised. The fact that the Department of Science and Innovation, which developed the Decadal Plan, and the Department of Higher Education and Training, which is responsible for the country’s policy framework for higher education internationalisation, were subsumed under the same ministry bodes well in that regard.

Connecting the local with the global

It is difficult to know what the global post-pandemic landscape of higher education internationalisation will look like.

But, given the deliberations at the recent IEASA conference on how we can forge new futures, it will be increasingly important for universities to have a keen sense of how the global and the local are connected, recognising differences and leveraging nuances in diverse contexts.

It is often said that knowledge and science know no borders. The same is true for disease. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also been a stark reminder that borders do not only exist but are often fortified in times of crisis and that inequalities and inequities prevail in higher education as much as in other spheres.

The concept of ‘ubuntu diplomacy’, which was alluded to in Du Toit’s keynote when he suggested that it be employed to make the world a kinder and more compassionate place, is well worth noting in this regard.

According to the 2011 White Paper on South Africa’s Foreign Policy – Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu, “the philosophy of ubuntu means ‘humanity’ and is reflected in the idea that we affirm our humanity when we affirm the humanity of others”.

Ubuntu, then, directly speaks to the need to firmly integrate Africa in the global commons in recognition of our interconnectedness and interdependency, and it can serve as one of the cornerstones of internationalisation from an African perspective.

It requires us all to reimagine and go beyond what we currently know and do, advancing internationalisation and higher education in more open, inclusive, transformative and innovative ways.

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 the International Education Association of South Africa.