Internationalisation: Looking back and looking forward

The world is facing a myriad of existential challenges. Some of the most pressing ones are inequality, climate destruction, racism, violent conflict and xenophobia.

Higher education around the world is also facing significant challenges, from neoliberalisation and commodification, the lack of funding, academic precariousness, to coloniality of knowledge and epistemic violence, to mention a few.

In a deeply unequal and unjust world, internationalisation has benefited the select few over the past few decades due to the field’s overwhelming focus on physical mobility. Only a small number of privileged students – or the lucky ones who had access to scholarships – have been able to benefit from internationalisation.

The same has been the case with academic and staff mobility, with only those with access to funding being able to travel abroad for research, conferences and engagement.

In addition, the field has been dominated by the concepts, definitions, approaches and practices developed in and for the Global North, which have often been uncritically replicated in the Global South. This way, internationalisation has contributed to the entrenchment of Euro-American epistemic hegemony in higher education.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard a lot about the need for solidarity, equity and equality across the globe. We also heard about the need for a ‘new normal’ in the world, including in higher education and internationalisation.

Yet, as we consider the notions and promises of the ‘new normal,’ it is difficult to see many radical changes in higher education and internationalisation. Much of the world, including higher education, has gone back to the same old practices that exclude many from inclusion, equity and participation.

Looking back – looking forward

To chart a more equitable, equal, just and sustainable way forward for higher education and internationalisation, we have to critically look back and assess the past practices, concepts, approaches, achievements and challenges. Only in this way we can begin to develop a way forward that brings about redress, equity and epistemic justice.

An opportunity to consider the future of internationalisation of higher education in South Africa and beyond is the annual conference of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA).

After three years of virtual conferences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, IEASA is hosting its 25th annual conference in Durban, South Africa, between 22 and 25 August, 2023.

The theme of the conference, ‘Looking back – looking forward’, is focusing on looking back at IEASA’s work and achievements since 1997, when the association was established, as well as at the broader internationalisation field in South Africa, on the African continent, and around the world. In addition, the conference will also ‘look forward’ to IEASA’s and internationalisation’s future priorities, focus areas and opportunities.

This is important, as IEASA has contributed significantly to putting internationalisation on the strategic agendas of South African universities over the past 25 years. The association has also promoted South Africa as a study destination around the world, and engaged with other associations and organisations on all things internationalisation.

At the same time, much remains to be done in South Africa when it comes to internationalisation. Critical engagement on the concepts, practices and definitions of internationalisation that have shaped the field in the country have been overdue.

As highlighted by Dr Samia Chasi and myself, IEASA and the universities need to rethink, reconceptualise and redefine internationalisation in line with the country’s priorities so that the broader sector can meaningfully contribute to the transformational and decolonial agendas of the universities.

Similarly, since the end of apartheid, South African public higher education institutions have prioritised research collaboration with the Global North while neglecting much of the Global South and, specifically, the African continent. Looking back critically at these trends to reimagine internationalisation and research collaboration priorities must be the sector’s and IEASA’s priority.

Dr Lavern Samuels, the president of IEASA, highlights that this theme “has a profound significance. As we look back and reflect, we also envision the future. We envision the future that has, in many ways, been accelerated and amplified by the recent pandemic that has altered the course of history and, by implication, the course of internationalisation.

“During the period of isolation due to the pandemic, we have seen international educators remain committed to deepening engagements and promoting connections, despite the challenges. The innovation and pivots that we have seen have shown the remarkable resolve of a community committed to the cause of bringing the world closer together, promoting greater understanding of diversity and difference, and being more inclusive in our internationalisation efforts.”

At the IEASA conference in August, academics, researchers, leaders, practitioners and students from South Africa and other parts of the globe will engage in discussions about the societal impact of internationalisation; leadership in internationalisation; and the role of internationalisation in promoting justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education and broader society.

The impact of global volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity on internationalisation and higher education; the role of internationalisation in the climate crisis, and the ways the field can minimise its own impact on the climate; the role of technology in internationalisation and of international education associations in promoting progressive and contextually relevant internationalisation will also form part of the discussions.

Learn, engage and shape the future

The keynote will be delivered by Dr Fanta Aw, a global leader in international education and higher education administration, and the executive director and chief executive officer of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Before the annual conference, IEASA will co-host a global leadership summit in partnership with the Association of International Education Administrators, or AIEA.

This will be a one-day event for higher education and internationalisation leaders to engage on the topics related to higher education, internationalisation and sustainability; impactful and relevant internationalisation practices; ethical leadership in higher education and internationalisation; strategic leadership for promotion of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; and leading higher education institutions during challenging national and global conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

In addition to the global leadership summit, IEASA will also host three workshops before the conference. The workshops will focus on internationalisation policy framework in South Africa; collaborative online international learning, or COIL; and the role of community engagement in societally impactful internationalisation of higher education.

Samuels notes that IEASA, in collaboration with other internationalisation associations in other parts of the world, is committed to reshaping internationalisation globally so that the field more effectively contributes to the promotion of social justice, epistemic justice, diversity, inclusion and equity.

Dr Savo Heleta is a researcher and internationalisation specialist at Durban University of Technology, South Africa. He is a member of the management council of IEASA.