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Virtual world left out of policy on universities’ international collaboration

As lockdown and travel restrictions are eased, renewed emphasis is put on international education and the need for strengthening internationalisation efforts in higher education. After years in the making, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande has signed the Policy Framework for Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa.

The policy framework guides and regulates higher education internationalisation activities. Circulated as a draft policy in 2017, the government has postponed its adoption apparently to account for significant global and local disruptions in the higher education system. 

The question is whether amendments have been included in the final policy, and whether the policy deals with what internationalisation of higher education means in the context of the fourth industrial revolution, information and communication technology (ICT) development and virtualisation triggered most recently by the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and travel restrictions.

What do we mean by internationalisation? Why is a national policy on internationalisation important and what does it aim to achieve? Can it be regulated and broken down as separate sets of interventions and activities?

Post-1994 higher education institutions have been hard pressed to keep up with international peers and the pressures to compete locally and globally have increased. What the policy framework talks to is a recognition of the need to formalise and strengthen activities in the interest of providing a diverse and transformational education experience for local and international students as well as international research collaborations and partnerships.

Higher education has always been international in scope. Recognising the need for active policymaking and that internationalisation can easily become a catch-all phrase for everything and anything international, the policy sets out broad focus areas and isolates activities in relation to international mobility to equip students and researchers with the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to contribute to the country’s socioeconomic development and well-being, and to attract international talent to enhance South Africa’s human capital. 

Emphasised is policy related to the protection of international students enrolled at local universities. The policy also seeks to enhance international research collaboration and partnerships and sets out guidelines for such activities.

The policy does not address the context of virtuality and the need for innovation in higher education. Although the policy states that it seeks to advance innovation through facilitating access for international scientists and scholars to research opportunities and research facilities in South Africa and vice versa facilitate mobility for local students researchers to work with international partners, there is no explicit acknowledgement of “the new normal” and the need for strengthening internationalisation through virtuality and ICT development.

The pandemic has shown us just how interdependent we are and reaching out to students and colleagues around the world has never been easier because of virtual platforms. In many ways we have never been more international.

Funding of internationalisation activities, not least travel regardless of whether restrictions are continuous or not, is likely to be the biggest difficulty for higher education institutions. Virtual mobility — through virtual tours, course, seminar participation, online study programmes, work placements and research collaborations — will have to form part of the new normal and, when it is possible, complement physical engagements and mobility.

What is missing in the policy framework are guidelines for ICT in advancing internationalisation and support for the development of new collaborative platforms for research, teaching and learning. In addition we need to rethink how we work with students and render easily accessible and comprehensive services online. Here we also need to interface better with other stakeholders such as the department of home affairs, medical aid schemes and international student funding sources.

To do so we need to address students’ difficulties in access to data and devices. We need the government to discuss cellular services and data costs with service providers.

We also need to develop guidelines for online degree offerings without losing sight of differences between distance education and residential tertiary offerings. Existing models for degrees might have to be reconsidered and regulations put in place for cooperation and consortia with multiple international partners as well as with degree issuers outside of the traditional tertiary education sector.

Innovative solutions, particularly as it talks to virtual strategies for internationalisation, have to be developed and the policy framework could have assisted with this. If we get this right there are great opportunities and benefits to be reaped, particularly in a resource-starved environment. The virtual and the global is the new normal and this has to inform policy on a governmental as well as institutional level.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the head of the international office at the University of Johannesburg

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Ylva Rodny-Gumede
Ylva Rodny-Gumede is a professor of communication studies and the senior director of the division for internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg

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