Internationalisation: Learning from a lion and a storyteller

Internationalisation of higher education, when all the administrative and transactional issues are dealt with, is – or should be – a transformational endeavour meant to contribute to the broader human project and address the historical and contemporary societal injustices and inequalities.

It is also about educating and shaping a new generation of leaders and change-makers. In international education, values based, ethical and inspired leadership, foregrounded by service and support of collegiality and collaboration, is a necessity.

Internationalisation of higher education is a powerful vehicle to enrich lives beyond the university, unshackle minds, challenge existing and dominant narratives and hegemonies, and shape powerful and more inclusive new realities and new narratives. Internationalisation can contribute to liberating the mind and imagination, and colour the lives of people in unimaginable ways.

For this to happen, we must strive for inclusive and democratic internationalisation, which includes rethinking dominant concepts, definitions and practices. In South Africa, Dr Savo Heleta and Dr Samia Chasi have recently proposed a new definition of internationalisation that counters dominant concepts, approaches and frameworks which are devoid of contextual relevance for the African continent and broader Global South. Their definition states that:

“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, antiracist, anti-hegemonic learning about the world from diverse global perspectives to enhance the quality and relevance of education.”

The key highlights from this definition are the need to learn critically about the world and all its complexities, and the need to do so through engagement with all global perspectives, knowledges and worldviews.

This is what epistemic decolonisation is about. It is not about closing ourselves into our own spaces. Decolonisation is about dismantling existing hegemonies and embracing the entire world and all knowledges, peoples and perspectives equally.

This is what an inclusive and democratic internationalisation should be all about.

Our global interconnectedness

Nothing demonstrates our interconnectedness more than the pandemic we have recently experienced, in which the local impacted the global, and the global impacted the local.

A global approach is absolutely essential in addressing challenges such as food insecurity, climate change, and the burden of disease and conflict. We have an opportunity to come together as an international community to address these grand challenges and contribute to a better tomorrow for all of us.

The global challenges that are embedded in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Africa Agenda 2063 are simultaneously intensely local, regional and global.

This is the time to work towards building an inclusive global commons of scholars, scholarship and engagement. These global commons can open the way for development of a more inclusive and socially just approach to internationalisation by broadening the base of participation.

The notion of global learning or a global classroom has never been more possible, real, innovative and creative. International virtual collaboration and collaborative online international learning, or COIL, are among the options for more inclusive international academic engagement.

These opportunities can level the playing field, embracing diversity and plurality, infusing social and epistemic justice in our work, and bringing new voices to the table.

We need to work together in traditional academic endeavours, but also outside academia with government, civil society and the corporate world, together driving opportunities to bridge different spheres of society. We need to be inclusive in terms of involving communities – appreciating the diversity of communities, both in the local and global contexts.

Genuine internationalisation and decolonisation

It is important to acknowledge the gatekeeping role education and knowledge production have played in denying many people access to learning and upliftment, including the ugly underbelly of science. In a world filled with conflict and contestation about the past, present and future, decolonisation of knowledge is hugely important.

We need to be inclusive in how we value knowledge and promote epistemic justice, never forgetting the value of indigenous knowledge and knowledge from voices still at the periphery.

We need to work across our national borders and include countries and regions that have previously not been at the centre of collaborative efforts. This is important – not just for diversity, but for the democratisation of internationalisation and decolonisation of the curriculum.

Decolonisation of the curriculum is not a narrow parochial national project, but a global movement for transformation and epistemic and social justice. It calls, not for less internationalisation, but broader and deeper internationalisation with all parts of the globe.

Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, in his 2021 paper titled, ‘Internationalisation of higher education for pluriversity: A decolonial reflection’, highlights that ‘there is no genuinely international higher education without decolonisation of knowledge and education’. Internationalisation must be more than the domination of the global knowledge project and education by a few countries from the Global North.

Internationalisation is not just about bringing the global dimension to the university or the local environment, but a dynamic and evolving two-way bridge that links the local and the global. It is about providing equally for the knowledges from the Global South to find the way to the global stage on an equal footing.

Critical engagement by all

Decolonisation of knowledge calls for critical engagement with all knowledges by all of us. In some cases, it calls for rewriting the history and critically examining our current lived experiences and worldviews in order to chart a more just and sustainable future for all.

We cannot continue with epistemic injustices and domination by the few over the majority of the world. We have to embrace epistemic justice and plurality, and critically engage with all knowledges.

The powerful African proverb that I use in the title of this article captures this in a few lines: ‘For as long as the lion does not have a storyteller, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ We need to support those who have been silenced and sidelined until now, and provide them with platforms for speaking out, writing, sharing and engaging.

At the heart of inclusive internationalisation, which embodies decolonisation of knowledge and epistemic plurality, is collaboration, cooperation, coming together across borders and differences, and sometimes across comfort zones. Internationalisation is about mutual care, mutual respect and mutual acknowledgement, whereby we work together in shaping a better future.

I truly believe that internationalisation can contribute to liberating the minds and imagination of our students and broader communities. But, for this to happen, we must embrace the entire world and all knowledges, peoples and perspectives equally, through what I have called here an inclusive and democratised internationalisation.

In the past 10 years, my efforts in driving inclusive comprehensive internationalisation have been about moving internationalisation from being exclusive, elitist and often elusive, to being inclusive, inviting and embracing.

I have tried to focus on optimising the transformative potential of internationalisation using all opportunities available. While I can see some changes, there is still a lot all of us have to do in our field.

Dr Lavern Samuels is the director of international education and partnerships at Durban University of Technology, South Africa. He is also the president of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA). This article is an edited version of his keynote address at the 2023 NAFSA conference.