/ 13 January 2023

Innovation needed from state and varsities to support internationalisation in higher education

Fees Protests Hit Rhodes University
University of Rhodes. Photo: Supplied

A new academic year is soon upon us. As universities take stock of the changes brought about by the Covid pandemic and rebuild relations with student and other stakeholder bodies, ensuring continuity, as well as growth in student enrolments, is crucial — and no more so than when it comes to international students. 

In terms of enrolment of South African students, there is a steady stream of applicants and most universities sit on pools of applications that outweigh the number of study places that can be offered. For international students, the scenario looks slightly different. That said, most South African universities, like their international counterparts, reserve spaces for international students. This is because international students are crucial for ensuring diversity in academia and student life more generally. 

Importantly, if we do not facilitate international students studying in South Africa we cannot guarantee South African students the same experience. The labour market and national economies depend on skills and attributes acquired through international experience. 

South Africa has a Policy Framework for Internationalisation of Higher Education developed with the view to support the enrolment of international students at the country’s universities and institutions of higher education — students from the rest of Africa in particular. This is a “means of contributing to [the continent’s] human resource development and giving expression to our commitment to African development and the African renaissance”.

The policy is a crucial step towards institutionalising internationalisation efforts at South African institutions of higher learning, not only to ensure diversity but, increasingly, to make sure local universities don’t fall behind in international university rankings which measure and reward internationalisation efforts. 

While there might be a steady stream of applications, and finding a study place in South Africa is highly desirable, especially for students from Africa, international students are faced with multiple challenges and applicants must jump through multiple hoops to get accepted and registered. International students are dependent on study visa applications being granted on time, they face the costs of international levies and medical aid payments, as well as arduous South African Qualifications Authority clearance processes, all of which contribute to delays in processing applicants through the enrolment processes. 

In order to ensure internationalisation efforts are not hampered, and to support our international students, we need to take serious steps towards mitigating these challenges. 

Assistance from the department of home affairs in processing visa applications and funding of internationalisation in higher education is crucial and, while the “internationalisation policy” talks to the facilitation of access for inbound international scholars and students through a transparent and streamlined visa application and approval process, how this is to be realised is not detailed. 

Equally, the policy states that “the government does not fund or allocate funds to the internationalisation of higher education”, instead “higher education institutions themselves must allocate resources to internationalisation initiatives and activities”. For already cash-strapped universities this is a tall order. 

With resources scarce and with ever-increasing needs and calls for support from both local and international students, universities must find new and innovative ways of supporting the recruitment and enrolment of international students. 

Much of the marketing to attract international students was put on hold throughout the pandemic. This meant that work done before the pandemic to recruit students needed to be revisited and amped up in order to secure applications and admissions in the years to come. 

South Africa remains the preferred destination in Africa and attracts a substantial number of students, particularly from the rest of the continent, and this is where we stand to make the greatest impact. The recruitment of international students requires strategies and interventions quite different from the recruitment of local students. 

In terms of recruitment, the virtual world has given us unparalleled opportunities for supporting international students and to shift lean budgets to where they are needed most. That said, in some contexts recruitment has to be done in person as students in some geographical locales do not have access to the virtual platforms offered. 

The South African government also has a crucial role to play in this regard and, in support of their own “policy on internationalisation”, should broker deals with other African governments to recruit students and make sure it has properly resourced education and science attaches to build relations with higher education institutions, globally, and on the African continent in particular. 

Such functions will not only strengthen South Africa’s position as a preferred study destination for international students but also strengthen science communication and diplomacy efforts. Assistance from the government in strengthening this will also assist South African universities in their international fundraising efforts.  

Such efforts by the government must include interventions to remove barriers causing visa and study permit delays and, where this is not possible, help universities in their efforts to assist international students through “out of seat registrations”, i.e. allowing students to do classes online from their home countries. 

This might not work in all disciplines or courses, as students need to have access to labs and onsite lectures and tutorials, but can work if there is commitment to partnering with institutions and, importantly, industries and companies on the continent that can supply mentorship and onsite training that either mirrors or simulates that of the module or course students are missing out on. 

Once again, governments can serve as brokers between different international governmental contexts, education institutions, industries and other actors, such as intra and non-governmental institutions. 
There are multiple value-adds to these interventions but they need support from both government and higher education institutions and will in the long term strengthen South Africa’s international brand image.

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