/ 17 September 2020

The wicked challenge of rethinking internationalisation in Southern Africa

Senior academics tried to work out what — 25 years into democracy — some universities are still not transformed in class
The Covid-19 pandemic gives universities an opportunity to find new ways of ensuring the health and well-being of students (Madelene Cronje)


Covid-19 has caused frantic activity in Southern African and global higher education circles. A vibrant discourse on the characteristics of post-pandemic internationalisation has emerged. Drawing from the planning and policy term “wicked problem”, we argue that post-Covid 19 internationalisation of higher education, and higher education itself, has elements of “wickedness”. 

A wicked problem does not mean the question is malevolent, but rather that solutions might lead to new challenges, and that solutions cannot be classified as right or wrong, (Zhao, Wehmeyer, Basham, & Hansen, 2019) and require diverse thinking. 

Internationalisation of higher education is a complex space, full of “social and institutional uncertainties” and involving “multiple interacting systems” (Mertens, 2015). Thus any attempt at a “best” way to advance internationalisation in higher education will be futile. 

We believe we should rather contemplate why internationalisation matters, and why it would matter post-pandemic, and then engage on different and new ways to navigate this wicked space in the Southern African region.

We contend that, before endeavouring to predict future trends meaningfully and evaluating how they will manifest themselves in internationalisation activities, it is necessary to understand why internationalisation will remain relevant to Southern African post-pandemic higher education, and what its future drivers will be. 

In this contribution, we first analyse the relevance of post-Covid-19 internationalisation. Thereafter, we anticipate possible future characteristics of internationalisation in Southern Africa and consider which institutional internationalisation activities may prevail in this environment. We close by suggesting select interventions which universities should consider to advance internationalisation.  

What is the rationale for continuing internationalisation of higher education in Southern Africa, post-Covid-19?

Traditionally, one distinguishes between academic, cultural, political, and economic rationales for internationalisation (De Wit, 2013). A critical driver for internationalisation is the enhancement of the quality of education, including graduate employability. The fourth industrial revolution requires graduates to be equipped with the skill to work in teams with colleagues whom they have never physically met and the ability to understand and use technology that has not yet been engineered and emanates globally. This trend will likely become more pronounced in the post-pandemic environment in which flexible human resource models will likely become pre-eminent, and collaboration in virtual teams transcending international borders will be expected of employees. 

The developing world and thus also Southern Africa will be no exception to this. The control of novel infectious disease, work in office environments and business travel during times of health threats are even more challenging in resource-constrained settings, and the Southern African world of work will likely be forced to adapt to an infectious-disease shaped environment.

Intercultural and global competence acquisition will likely remain critical for graduate employability. In the wake of the pandemic, all students, including first-generation students, as well as those hailing from socioeconomically disadvantaged environments, will likely only succeed in a highly competitive future employment market if they can embrace the “new normal” of working digitally with co-workers they do not know, using technologies developed and described abroad in other cultural contexts. Higher education institutions that are best positioned to deliver education equipping students for this reality will likely be the first choice of students. 

Knowledge production is taking place through innovative global scientific discourse like never before. International collaboration has become a critical aspect of research, amplified by the urgency to develop responses to cross-cutting global challenges such as the current pandemic. 

For universities to succeed in this environment, they must attract the brightest minds in their respective fields. Leading researchers enjoy the privilege of choosing their institutional affiliation. The opportunity to connect with their peers globally and participate in relevant cross-border scientific networks are among the relevant decision-influencing factors, together with intellectually and culturally diverse institutional environments, in which transdisciplinary discourse and research flourishes in an atmosphere of trust, respect and mutual appreciation. 

Efficient research support (including assistance in the identification of international funding opportunities, technical support for preparation and submission of funding applications and logistical support for import/export permit of samples) and access to excellent and intellectually diverse postgraduate students are other relevant factors. 

More than ever, a globally connected research environment will be critical for the success particularly of universities, which will have to integrate with global research networks and have a strong network of continental and global partnerships to succeed.   

Cultivating cultural understanding, intercultural communication and contributing to improved relations between nations are high priorities in a world in which, despite common global challenges and accepted global agendas, at times xenophobic nationalism and populism flourish. The pandemic has intensified this trend; nations are often looking in isolation for solutions, even competing for solutions, and implement at times inconsistent measures developed through national processes, against global intelligence. 

One of the most extreme examples is the United States, which is in the process of departing from the World Health Organisation; however, similar trends can be observed in many nations. 

Higher education, which should be committed to amelioration, and to promote the common good, thus needs to assist in countering those trends. Particularly in Southern Africa, which strives to achieve regional integration and struggles to overcome extremist and divisive threats, higher education institutions should be imbued with a sense of responsibility to promote cultural understanding and support cross-border understanding. 

Income generation through internationalisation has many facets. In Southern Africa, the acquisition of international external funding is a primary motivation for internationalisation; the current fiscal crunch intensifies the need to find alternative funding sources. On the other hand, income generation through international students is not a central driver for internationalisation in this region, as it is in some others, since the majority of international students hail from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries and, according to the 1997 SADC protocol on education & training international students from the region cannot be charged international fees. 

We posit that the commercialisation of internationalisation may result in unintended consequences such as deepening existing inequalities in higher education. To avoid this, funding models for internationalisation need to be reconstructed to enable equal global higher education collaboration. We challenge the Southern African region to take a leadership role in this respect.

Internationalisation both directly and indirectly assists universities with institutional positioning by improving their ranking position. University rankings, including the Times Higher Education Ranking, attribute considerable weight to the number of international academic staff members and international students at institutions. Besides, the improved quality of higher education through internationalisation indirectly reflects improved ranking positions of universities. While there is a multitude of perspectives on rankings, they are a reality that is likely to remain post-Covid-19. Ranking organisations have become important stakeholders in the higher education landscape, and as such should be included in the discourse around rethinking internationalisation, rather than steering it unintentionally.  

While it is not possible to predict future global and Southern African political, social, cultural and economic developments, it is apparent that the “new normal” will be characterised by uncertainty. We posit that developing the ability to navigate unknown spaces is one of the significant benefits of internationalisation. Through global engagement, students, academics, institutions and other higher education stakeholders strengthen the adaptability and flexibility necessary to navigate the unknown future environment which they are expected to shape. 

The future of higher education internationalisation in Southern Africa 

Presently, a forced radical paradigm shift in internationalisation practice appears to be taking place. Some commentators in the higher education discourse argue that, as a consequence of the emergency shift to online delivery of university teaching and learning, internationalisation would no longer be considered synergistic with mobility, and the value of remote and digital mobility would emerge. 

This may be a true reflection of the mainstream higher education discourse not anchored in internationalisation theory; however, those changes were anticipated in the last decade’s internationalisation literature and practice. The ongoing pandemic merely accentuates them. The rapid conceptual development of internationalisation and the evolution of its practice is part of an ongoing process, and Southern African higher education has the opportunity to position itself at the avant-garde of this development. 

The radical transformation of internationalisation was already identified almost a decade ago. Knight (2012) observed the shift from individual to programme mobility as well as curriculum internationalisation which focuses on international and intercultural skills acquisition. Brandenburg and De Wit (2017) indeed provocatively proclaimed the end of internationalisation as we know it. Noting that internationalisation has moved from fringe to core, they called for a new set of values and rationales. 

Consensus started emerging around a new definition for internationalisation, which reflects an understanding of internationalisation as a means to achieve quality in higher education and focuses on benefiting society at large through internationalisation. Parallel to this, internationalisation at home and virtual exchange gained prominence in theory and practice, and the central question of how virtual collaboration can be positioned in the internationalisation at home emerged. 

Furthermore, a focus on the internationalisation of higher education in society is starting to emerge (Brandenburg, De Wit, Jones and Laesk, 2019).  

Likely, the impact of the pandemic on internationalisation in Southern Africa will be profound. It will accelerate trends that were emerging in the last decade. For the benefit of the region’s higher education, it is essential that the existing basic framework for higher education in the 1997 SADC protocol is adapted to the changing environment and strengthened and that appropriate national frameworks, which should be regionally aligned, are finalised.  

In this context, it is regrettable that the draft policy framework for the internationalisation of higher education in South Africa has not been promulgated, which would have provided structure to critical aspects of internationalisation, such as joint degrees, internationalisation of the curriculum, mobility and international collaboration in South Africa.

Following the pandemic, it can be anticipated that all forms of physical mobility will be impacted. International degree student numbers, especially at the undergraduate level, will likely decline. Exponential growth of virtual exchanges and mobility can be expected, as well as a strong focus on internationalisation at home. Research internationalisation will be characterised by virtual collaboration; virtual conferences and webinars will shape knowledge exchange.

Foci areas for internationalisation post-Covid-19

To succeed in the post-Covid-19 higher education environment, and create an improved, more inclusive model of internationalisation, Southern African universities will have to rethink their internationalisation strategies and ensure that they take a comprehensive internationalisation approach. It will be important to foreground interventions that do not require the physical mobility of staff and students. We advance that, while travel and mobility will resume and remain an aspect of internationalisation, virtual collaboration and local internationalisation will become the main growth areas for institutional internationalisation. 

Regional mobility can provide a cost-effective alternative to intercontinental exchange, which retains an element of direct exposure. Universities should consider a focus on the development of innovative interventions, including:

  • curriculum internationalisation
  • co-curricular internationalisation at home activities
  • joint degree programme development
  • short-term virtual exchanges;
  • semester or year virtual mobilities
  • activities that take internationalisation beyond campus boundaries to include communities
  • intra-Africa and intra-SADC academic mobility
  • growing the international academic staff component by leveraging on flexible human resource models
  • inclusion of a broad range of university staff in internationalisation activities
  • strengthening global thinking at universities by promoting broad-based participation in comprehensive internationalisation
  • virtual conference and webinar support, and
  • rethinking international offices as strategic enabling offices for internationalisation.

Ultimately, the ability to innovate, and adaptability as well as flexibility of higher education institutions will determine whether they will succeed in advancing internationalisation in the post-Covid-19 world. For internationalisation to succeed in the “new normal”, it will have to be comprehensive, realistic in adapting to a changing environment and responsive to the shifting rationales for internationalisation. 

The present period in which many internationalisation activities are paused provides stakeholders in the Southern African internationalisation process the opportunity to pause and tackle the wicked challenge of rethinking internationalisation in the region. The region should canvass the opportunity to provide continued thought leadership for internationalisation of higher education, thus strengthening its role as an incubator for new thinking in internationalisation, which for example manifested itself in the 2014 Nelson Mandela Bay declaration on the future of internationalisation of higher education.  

From the University of the Free State, Cornelius Hagenmeier is director of the office of international affairs, Professor Corli Witthuhn is the vice-rector for research and internationalisation, Professor Lynette Jacobs is the head of research and Dr Nico Jooste is research fellow and also senior director at the African Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.