25 years of internationalisation: Opportunities and challenges

South Africa has been a backslider on commitments to increase the number of international students at its universities. And there was a ‘disconnect’ between government policy, which supported internationalisation, and a fiscus that did not fund it. Meanwhile, officialdom frustrated efforts to admit foreign students with its ‘abominable’ visa service.

These were some of the views that emerged during a roundtable session at the milestone 25th annual conference of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), hosted under the theme, ‘Looking Back – Looking Forward’, from 22-25 August.

The topic for discussion was ‘Twenty-five years of internationalisation in South Africa: Vice- chancellors’ perspectives of challenges and opportunities’.

Sharing the stage in Durban on 23 August were the heads of South African universities and an Australian university’s deputy president.

Delegates heard that, under a regional agreement, students from Southern African Development Community countries were expected to make up about 10% of the student population at South African universities. But this had not materialised.

This article is published in partnership with the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA). Its 25th annual conference from 22-25 August 2023 is themed ‘Looking Back – Looking Forward’. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

COVID-19’s impact

Professor Thandwa Mthembu, the chancellor and principal of the Durban University of Technology (DUT), told the conference that, before COVID-19, the DUT was approaching a figure of about 7.5% foreign students, but this had fallen to about 4.5%. And, if students from neighbouring Zimbabwe were excluded from the headcount, the percentage was nearer 2%.

Historically, many Zimbabweans study at South African universities, particularly Rhodes University. Economic and political difficulties in Zimbabwe have ensured this trend continues.

“Essentially, we have been going backwards in internationalisation of students,” said Mthembu.

On the other hand, the country has done rather better at collaborating and co-research with colleagues elsewhere in the world, with a doubling in co-research in the past 10-15 years, he said.

He also spoke of progress since the government adopted a policy on internationalisation at universities in 2013.

“There’s so much we have been able to incorporate into internationalisation,” said Mthembu, “in what is a relatively underfunded mandate – community services, or as we call it, engagement, (but) if internationalisation is to be done right, we must go beyond policy and provide funding,” he said.

Internationalisation was “embedded” in the DUT’s strategy. The technical university was keen for staff and students to take advantage of opportunities abroad, but “without funding we will never be able to see a significant number of our students travelling”.

Mthembu explained that many of their students came from families that struggled to make ends meet, with 75% reliant on the government’s bursary scheme, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

Nonetheless, through international partnerships and collaboration, staff and students had “done a lot”. This included online learning and exchanges of tradition and culture.

Becoming outward-looking

Rather better off financially was Stellenbosch University (SU), the once insular Afrikaans-language university, and by some accounts, apartheid cradle.

In the democratic era, it had refashioned itself as a multilingual, outward-looking institution, said Professor Wim de Villiers, its rector and vice-chancellor.

He told the conference that Stellenbosch was on a mission to become the top research and learning university in Africa and that internationalisation had contributed “immeasurably” to this and to raising the university’s global standing.

How does it go about building internationalisation?

“We can all attest to signing MoUs [Memorandums of Agreement], but they gather dust on the shelf,” said De Villiers.

Rather, he said, Stellenbosch had built partnerships and joined networks and was a member of 36 of these, 13 of which were in Africa.

Membership of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate had helped Stellenbosch – a “very traditional university”, “resistant to change”, with 10 faculties, “silos” – to establish cross-faculty initiatives.

These had helped it become a leader in emerging fields like new energy and sustainable futures, while it assisted its partner universities.

Other examples of fruitful partnerships included the Global Health Network, with its multidisciplinary approach to public health; and the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

The latter grouping worked to strengthen scientific collaboration using a hub-and-spoke model, with the African and European wheels overlapping to mutual benefit.

The ‘colour’ of internationalisation

However, De Villiers and his vice-chancellor colleagues were criticised for pursuing relationships with universities in developed countries ahead of African partnerships.

Speaking from the floor during question time, Professor Chika Sehoole, the dean of education at the University of Pretoria, said South African academics advocated internationalisation, “but we jump the whole continent and look north”. The face of internationalisation “has a colour”, he said.

In an interview later, Sehoole acknowledged that South African universities had forged good partnerships with other African universities over the past 25 years, but these were not enough or were with other “elite” institutions.

In reply, De Villiers said Stellenbosch was “a national asset for Africa” and Europe-Africa networks like ARUA and the Guild were “equitable partnerships”.

He spoke about Stellenbosch’s doctoral academy and post-doctoral fellowship programmes, which supported young African scholars, but noted that worthy applications far exceeded available places.

Visa problems

Also, in reply to the floor, fellow panellist Professor Francis Petersen, the vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State, said his university had been involved in many exchanges on the continent, mentioning agriculture as an example. But he acknowledged there was “a lot of work to be done” and it needed to be focused.

South African universities must “continue with the conversation” so they could find a united voice when they spoke to the government.

As for the government, its support for internationalisation was essential, he said, and he wanted it to develop a “solid monitoring and evaluation system” to encourage exchanges.

De Villiers was critical of the government’s “mixed signals”. There was a disconnect between what it said about the importance of internationalisation and what it actually did, he said.

He told the meeting he was reaching the end of his term of office and felt free to speak his mind: “We are getting abominable service from Home Affairs for visas for students.”

De Villiers also stressed the importance of funding.

He noted that South African universities differed completely from their Australian and British counterparts in the way they were dependent to some measure on fees from international students. “It is not seen as an important contributor to our revenue stream,” he said.

Earlier in the discussion, Mthembu expressed pleasure that colleagues from Australia were among the many delegates, at what was IEASA’s first in-person annual conference since the pandemic.

“Australia has done an excellent job over the years building a national, regional and local ecosystem which has been successful” in advancing internationalisation, he said.

Panellist Professor Sarah Todd, the vice president (global) of Griffith University in the state of Queensland, agreed. But she reminded the conference that universities in Australia, and indeed in many countries, were grappling with similar problems to South Africa.

Todd, a New Zealander who has been working in Australia for the past 10 years, said internationalisation had been integral to the missions of universities in the two countries since their inception.

They had striven to attract foreign researchers and students, inevitably as a response to their geographic isolation. However, the focus on internationalism had evolved, as Australasian institutions became more aware of their role in the Indo-Pacific region.

She said the government in Australia, at all levels, played a strong role in driving internationalisation. This included recruiting students and fostering collaborative partnerships.

This was welcome, but not entirely so.

“Be careful what you wish for,” she said to complaints from some of the South African panellists about insufficient government support for internationalisation.

The ‘soft power’ dilemma

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs recognised the soft power that educational exchanges allowed the country to wield and were exercising increasing oversight over internationalisation, said Todd.

This meant less freedom and more scrutiny for universities, she said.

The delays experienced by Stellenbosch and other South African universities in getting visas for foreign students applied equally to Australian universities, said Todd, who felt it was a “universal truth”.

Another similarity, she noted, between universities in South Africa and Australasia, were the initiatives being pursued to give indigenous languages and communities a bigger voice in the institutions.