Why we need a definitive change in internationalisation

Definitions are important. They can shape worldviews, strategies, policies, plans, visions, practices and activities in higher education. They can limit or broaden our outlooks and influence our thinking about future possibilities. Definitions that lack contextual relevance can limit us and our institutions, while more relevant and appropriate definitions can help us (re)imagine what is possible.

Dominant concepts and approaches to internationalisation of higher education have been developed around definitions that have “served to legitimise anything and everything related to the notion of ‘international’,” which, in a Euro-American-dominated world, refers to that which comes from the Global North.

Such definitions are inherently linked to the needs and priorities of higher education settings and institutions in Europe and North America. Yet, due to the hegemonic power and influence of Eurocentrism, the Global North and the “intellectual hegemony of the [neocolonial] metropole”, these definitions became seen, perceived and-or accepted as universal around the world, including in South Africa.

In our recently published paper in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, we consider the mainstream definitions of higher education internationalisation and their relevance in the South African context.

Using a decolonial lens, we show that the definitions of internationalisation developed in the Global North are limiting and inappropriate for post-apartheid challenges and complexities, and that their use is contributing to the maintenance of coloniality and Eurocentric hegemony in South African higher education.

Eurocentric hegemony

South African universities are products of colonialism and apartheid, with their institutional models and cultures rooted in higher education systems, institutions and curricula of Dutch and British colonisers.

Despite the end of apartheid almost three decades ago, for much of South African academia Eurocentric knowledge continues to be seen as the “only basis for higher forms of thinking” and as a “superior epistemological and cultural form across time and space”.

This kind of thinking about knowledge also influences strategies, policies and practices of internationalisation, side-lining knowledges and worldviews outside the Eurocentric gaze. Eurocentric concepts and definitions of internationalisation have been used and replicated in South African higher education without much critical interrogation of their relevance and appropriateness.

Since 1994, internationalisation at South African universities has largely implied and involved the engagement with the Global North and promotion of the Eurocentric epistemic canon. At the same time, links with the African continent and the rest of the Global South, and engagements with diverse knowledge systems outside of the Eurocentric hegemonic spaces, have been sporadic or non-existent.

New definition

In our paper, we follow a decolonial approach to internationalisation exemplified by Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, chair of epistemologies of the Global South with emphasis on Africa, at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, who calls for challenging the “colonial vertical conceptions of internationalisation of higher education where ‘the international’ is synonymous with Europe and North America”, which are copied in the Global South as models for national policy-making and strategic and institutional planning.

We address what we consider key aspects of the decolonial approach: criticality, positionality and pluriversality.

Criticality refers to a critical deconstruction of dominant discourses, paradigms and practices in education. Positionality “involves reflecting on one’s location in the geopolitics of knowledge production, and its implications”. As a counter to the hegemonic Eurocentric ‘universality’, ‘pluriversality’ is a space where diverse knowledges and worldviews coexist and contribute to new ways of knowing and thinking about the world.

With all this in mind, and linked to Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s call for “horizontal non-colonial internationalisation of higher education which is underpinned by ecologies of knowledges”, we propose a new definition of internationalisation in South Africa:

“Internationalisation of higher education is a critical and comparative process of the study of the world and its complexities, past and present inequalities and injustices, and possibilities for a more equitable and just future for all. Through teaching, learning, research and engagement, internationalisation fosters epistemic plurality and integrates critical, anti-racist and anti-hegemonic learning about the world from diverse global perspectives to enhance the quality and relevance of education.”

Unlike the dominant Eurocentric definitions, this definition does not take the notion of the ‘international’ for granted and does not see the world through an apolitical and ‘conceptually vague’ lens.

It acknowledges that the world is a highly complex, unjust, unequal and divided place, and calls for a critical engagement with this reality through all core functions of the university. The new definition allows for critical, “ethical and political questions about why, in whose name, for whose benefit, and to what end” South African universities should internationalise.

Finally, our new definition also creates an opportunity for South Africa to become an “active and self-determined contributor and partner in the global field of internationalisation of higher education” instead of merely replicating dominant concepts and definitions from the Global North.

We believe that only through pluralistic, critical, anti-racist and anti-hegemonic internationalisation we can bring about genuine epistemic diversity in higher education that incorporates knowledges, perspectives and ways of knowing from all parts of the globe on an equal footing.

We hope that our new definition will have a progressive impact on different aspects of internationalisation and contribute to transformation and decolonisation of higher education in South Africa and, potentially, elsewhere.

Dr Savo Heleta is an internationalisation specialist in the International Education and Partnerships Directorate at Durban University of Technology, South Africa. Dr Samia Chasi is the manager of strategic initiatives, partnership development and research at the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) and a research fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa. This article is a short summary of the paper titled Rethinking and redefining internationalisation of higher education in South Africa using a decolonial lens, published in November 2022 in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.