Visa crisis is jeopardising internationalisation efforts

The start of the academic year always comes with its own challenges and, in South Africa, universities have been faced with student protests over finances and historical debt. While these are issues that face both local and international students, our international students are confronted by many additional issues preventing them from registering – and these are ultimately jeopardising internationalisation at our universities.

The country is facing a visa crisis and it is not only students or universities at large in their recruitment of skilled labour and researchers that are being held up by a failing immigration administration and bureaucracy, but other sectors of society as well.

Businesses are struggling and losing out on critical skills injections and on broader interactions with overseas partners in terms of internships, mentorships and short-term staff exchanges.

Universities continue to lose students who would otherwise add to the diversity and broader internationalisation project of the country.

Universities’ quotas of international students are relatively low in comparison to bigger and more developed economies. Some might say this makes sense in the bigger ecosystem of fierce competition for study spaces in South Africa.

However, for several reasons, we cannot afford to lose international students and staff.

Diversity feeds excellence

A university degree and higher education experience are dependent on a diversity of viewpoints from scholarship, peers and teachers and the curriculum itself. From an education and organisational perspective, diversity feeds excellence.

International students, staff, research collaborations and citations as well as partnerships have gained substantial importance in a context in which university rankings have increased in importance and form the backbone of many of the rankings systems.

We cannot rely on other nations and universities to reciprocate if we do not facilitate study opportunities for international students in South Africa. Once again, our own labour market depends on skilled labour with international experience and exposure.

International students add to the South African economy in several ways and, in the short term, to the finances of the institution where they are registered through paying international student levies and fees.

Conversely, the contribution of international students to the United States and the United Kingdom economies trumps other imperatives and serves as a rationale for the internationalisation of higher education, including the need for diversity.

International alumni

And, even though internationalisation and attracting African students and staff for South African universities remains mainly an exercise in equity and diversity, there is no reason why South African and other African universities should not compete for students from the continent with other, bigger, economies.

In the long-term, the international students we receive and provide top education for, become part of our international alumni and brand ambassadors globally. African alumni will help build future partnerships and coalitions on the continent and, with tight budgets for marketing and recruitment, including fundraising, engaging alumni has become more important than ever.

Importantly, in the context of Africa’s contribution to the knowledge economy and increased importance in transformation, diversity and decolonisation efforts, we cannot afford to lose our international students and staff.

This is recognised through the South African Policy Framework for Internationalisation of Higher Education developed to support the enrolment of international students at the country’s universities and institutions of higher education, particularly from the rest of Africa.

This is a “means of contributing to [the continent’s] human resource development and giving expression to our commitment to African development and the African renaissance”. The policy states that government is to facilitate inbound and outbound access for international scholars and students, yet nothing is said as to how this will be implemented.

In need of government support

And, as South African universities are completing their main registration cycle, assistance has not been forthcoming and administration staff at our universities are having to answer to government failures with understandably little understanding from students and colleagues frustrated by the processes and lack of support.

Colleagues within the administration of international students are increasingly taking strain and, more than anything, are concerned about what happens to students and staff and the broader internationalisation project of our universities when we cannot facilitate the basics for our international students and staff.

Increasingly, staff are asking, “What is it going to take for the government to wake up?” And, while the staff is strained and under pressure, the impact this is having on both students and staff, caught in limbo, is massive and has consequences for people’s futures, livelihoods and families, and the toll taken on mental health.

Despite some mitigating measures such as blanket extensions for pending visa applications, including pending waiver applications, this is simply not enough.

The country needs, and depends on, officials to process all applications quickly and with the utmost professionalism. We need the support of the government to streamline and increase transparency in visa processes.

Without it, our internationalisation efforts and the broader global engagement project of our universities are jeopardised.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the head of the division for internationalisation and a professor in the school of communication at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. This is a commentary.