Given the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and travel restrictions, internationalisation at universities is said to be in jeopardy.
International student enrolments are in decline, and with them, the international tuition levies that generate considerable income for many universities. Funding sources for international students and student exchanges are also drying up. The same goes for international research and research collaboration.
In a country such as the UK, the educational student market is an economy of its own. This is less so in our own context, though still important. South African universities cater mainly for students from the region and continent and often provide education for students that cannot be had at institutions in their home countries. Importantly, we emphasise internationalisation from the perspective of intercultural exchange and exposure to a world beyond our own borders.
But there is also reason to be positive. In many ways higher education has never been more international. “Global” is quickly becoming the new normal.
What the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us is that online and virtual teaching and interaction is becoming the norm. Blended teaching models, where online and onsite teaching complement each other, are integral to how students learn and access education, and for how researchers interact and form new partnerships.
Of course we need to continuously develop these models, make sure academics, students and support staff have the requisite skills to implement such models, and that it becomes part of the identity of educators in higher education. Getting this right is also important in order to counter competition from new online educational content and degree-providers, including tech companies such as Google.
For international students, virtual course offerings will lessen problems of visa requirements and could provide for lower tuition fees.
To try to compensate for the lack of cultural interaction and immersion into South African society, we need to find ways of internationalising the curriculum and including tuition on history, culture, and politics in all our degree offerings, or as standalone courses or modules offered to international students. We need to develop platforms that bring students from different contexts together. Of course, virtual interactions can never fully replace the experience of immersing yourself in another culture and integrating into another society, but it can go some way. And if international tuition fees can be lowered, our chances of attracting larger numbers of students will increase and we will be able to continue to provide high-quality education to a broad array of students.
Then there are the challenges of living in different time zones. These are hopefully solvable challenges and much content can and should be accessible to students at their own convenience. Laboratory work presents a challenge, but with ever-evolving technology and platforms for interaction, even some of the challenges of onsite laboratory work can be overcome.
Virtual interactions also provide for greater cooperation between universities, leveraging costs as well as strengths and niche areas. The creation of higher education networks and university consortia could considerably strengthen internationalisation and assist smaller or less resourced universities.
A new educational model
There is a new educational model here to be explored. With dwindling resources universities will increasingly have to rethink traditional university models of providing a full suite of degrees across a range of disciplines. Through clever networks and partnership we can consolidate our strengths. Such university networks can be formed with local universities as well as universities in the region and the continent, and of course with partners across the globe.
Universities are ranked on how international they are, and rankings play a role in attracting both local and international students.
Internationalisation as it pertains to university rankings is measured on the number of international students and staff as well as international partnerships and collaboration. Simply going by numbers is a crude measure of internationalisation. If we can strengthen our virtual cooperation and teaching offerings we can redefine what internationalisation means and how it contributes to the teaching and learning project, and the education and experience of students and researchers alike.
For universities that cannot compete in the global rankings around international student numbers, there is an opportunity to instead market and showcase their own unique cultures and contexts to a wider audience online. This is particularly pertinent to cultural contexts that are lesser known and/or historically disadvantaged through colonial histories and legacies.
Without denying the tremendous cost of the pandemic, human and financial, we have an opportunity to level the playing field by rethinking the traditional model of the university.
The online environment and technology that enables it allows us to do so now.
South African and African universities must take the lead and be proactive in signing partners up and in setting out the terms of engagement as not to reinforce power imbalances in partnerships between the global South vis-à-vis the global North or between less-resourced versus better-resourced institutions. Negotiating around our unique contributions to partnerships and consortia is what will guarantee our success and that of the internationalisation of higher education.
Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the head of the international office at the University of Johannesburg