How can internationalisation regain momentum in South Africa?

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Orla Quinlan, Director of internationalisation at Rhodes University
Orla Quinlan, Director of internationalisation at Rhodes University

By Orla Quinlan and Tasmeera Singh


It is mandatory for each South African institution to develop its own policy and plan on internationalisation two years after the Policy Framework for Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa was published on 6 November 2020, and at a time when international student numbers are decreasing.

Against this backdrop, there have been calls for closer collaboration on integrating internationalisation into the work of all higher education communities of practice and for urgent work that needs to be done to enable effective collaboration in higher education, both within South Africa and with our neighbours in Africa.

The International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) played a significant role in the lobbying and development of the policy framework and has been involved in a series of workshops and consultations over several years.

The policy framework recognises IEASA as the non-statutory body, leading on internationalisation in the South African higher education sector.

Since the release of the framework, several articles have been published both lauding and criticising it. It is not prescriptive and implicitly recognises that the policy strategy and plan for internationalisation in any university must be specific to its own context.

However, it is now a requirement for each institution to develop its own policy and plan for internationalisation, with annual reporting targets for the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

The focus of this article is to understand the challenges hindering the meaningful integration of internationalisation in the South African higher education context, as determined by the realities of the multilayered asymmetrical context in which we are located.

These include the institutional, local, national, regional, continental and the broader global context.

While many aspects of internationalisation in the South African higher education context are influenced by the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, and the broader African context, funding for certain forms of international activity, especially mobility and capacity development projects, is largely dominated by North American and European funding sources.

It is ironic that, after 25 years of leading the internationalisation conversation in South Africa and on behalf of South Africa internationally, IEASA’s excitement at finally having a national policy to guide internationalisation was severely dampened by the onset of the COVID pandemic.

The international lockdowns and worldwide travel restrictions disrupted or completely halted a huge range of academic internationalisation activities and negatively impacted on international students, who were requested to leave South Africa.

Traditional forms of internationalisation in South Africa have never undergone a more challenging period than in the past two years, as the disruption of COVID-19 compounded an already stressed and stretched South African higher education system.

Yet, we have witnessed great innovation and creativity in international virtual collaboration, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR, was accelerated, although not without disparities, due to the sector’s move to online teaching and learning.

We argue, though, that internationalisation in the higher education sector has been confronted by several other impinging factors. These have hindered the sector’s ability to integrate comprehensive internationalisation both meaningfully and purposefully in supporting the teaching, learning, research and community engagement pillars of higher education. These have also hindered the development of African higher education partnerships.


It is undeniable that the ramifications of the financial impact of #FeesMustFall on universities, the shift to emergency online teaching and learning, the deteriorating environmental context in which we are working, evidenced by the recent destructive floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the devastating droughts in Eastern Cape, as well as the difficult, disappointing and challenging political context in which we are now operating have inevitably impacted the higher education landscape.

While the specific challenges may vary, due to ongoing historical disparities across the higher education system, the leadership of all South African universities are besieged with crisis management, responding to the multiple daily challenges.

Against this backdrop, the need for an inspired leadership that can integrate all the components essential in a contemporary university, including a contextually appropriate internationalisation in Africa, has never been more urgent.

Decline in international students

The attractiveness of South Africa to the rest of the continent has been challenged and South Africa has witnessed a steady decrease in international students, mainly from the continent, registering in South Africa.

The percentage of international undergraduates registered in South Africa’s public higher education system had dropped from 5.93% to 3.09% at the end of 2020. The percentage of international postgraduates had dropped from 15.82% in 2015 to 12.94% in 2020 (DHET, 2021). The concern has been noted by DHET and IEASA.

The international students who still want to study in South Africa, the majority of whom hail from the SADC region and the rest of the continent, are faced with very practical obstacles.

Government department backlogs

COVID-related disruptions have taken a toll on the capacity of several government departments to deal with backlogs, as well as ongoing demands.

Some international students, waiting to register in 2022, were unable to do so due to delays in the issuing of police clearance certificates which, in turn, delayed the processing of new student visas, leading to delays in registration.

In some cases, as a result of these delays, the funding of students who were sponsored to study in South Africa was put at risk, with the subsequent uncertainties, leading to great distress and suffering.

Bureaucratic obstacles to working effectively with African partners in higher education include the delays in South African Qualification Authority verification of qualifications; issues around accreditation; recognition and equivalence of degrees; visa processing delays; and quality assurance processes for an innovative cross-border programme.

South Africa also grapples with a damaged reputation across the rest of the continent, as a result of the sporadic outbursts of ostensibly xenophobic violence in recent years.

Thus, there is much urgent work that needs to be done to enable effective collaboration in higher education, both within South Africa and with our neighbours in Africa.

The issues need to be recognised and solutions found collectively in the South Africa Higher Education system, with the various relevant and responsible bodies and government departments.

Collaboration starts at home

In understanding the evolution of internationalisation in South Africa and who can coordinate the conversations on the urgent solutions required, it is important to understand how the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA, came to fruition and the role it has played in internationalisation in South Africa over the years and to date.

Following its period of official isolation from the rest of the academic world, due to anti-apartheid boycotts, the international community was keen to engage with South Africa as the society opened up and became a democracy.

Both students and academics were keen to explore and come to South Africa. Initially, with the influx of international students wanting to study at South African universities, the sector was not adequately equipped to deal with these students and did not have structures, knowledge and skills in place to deal with the unique issues facing incoming international students into the system of higher education.

It was evident that there were many domestically challenging issues facing the post-apartheid vice-chancellors.

These included institutional transformation of higher education institutions, the massification of higher education and increased access for all domestic students, mergers of universities and the immediate and imperative need for curriculum transformation.

In response to this new phenomenon of incoming international students, mainly from the surrounding SADC region, South African registrars and deputy vice-chancellors set up their own association to respond to the issues that would need to be addressed by universities taking on the responsibility of registering international students.

Universities South Africa (USAf), formerly Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, was expanded from initially being a vice-chancellors’ group to convening groups from all the different stakeholder groups in universities, with the exception of the directors of internationalisation, due to the well-established IEASA platform.

Despite the parallel development of the two organisations, a close and respectful working relationship continues between IEASA and USAf including, among other endeavours, the collaboration on Study SA, the only publication providing the international community with an overview of South African higher education.

Perhaps the time has now come for an even closer collaboration on integrating internationalisation into the work of all communities of practice who meet under the auspices of USAf.

From policy framework to implementation

Mahlubi Mabizela, the chief director of university policy and development support at DHET affirms that: “The DHET will be leading a system-wide process of formulation of an implementation strategy and plan and is already in collaboration with IEASA in gathering information about the current practices at institutional level. The plan, which would include monitoring, should be in place by the end of 2022 and ready for implementation by 2023.”

IEASA, in collaboration with the British Council and DHET, has commissioned research on the current status of internationalisation in universities. Ethical clearance for the research has now been sought from the universities.

While these initiatives are promising, more can be done at different levels by different actors as set out below.

SA universities at institutional level

We call on the leadership of individual South African universities to support their leaders on internationalisation to bring together interested parties and build new relationships within their institutions to reimagine and implement internationalisation appropriate to each context.

National associations

We call on IEASA and USAf to accelerate collaboration across the higher education sector on matters affecting internationalisation in South Africa, including both proactive initiatives reaching outwards to engage internationally and proactive initiatives to address the issues hindering internationalisation at the national level in South Africa.

Government departments

We call on all relevant government departments, including the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and the South African Police Service, to work collaboratively to resolve the systematic issues needed to ensure the efficient entry and exit of international students and academics from the rest of the continent for the forthcoming enrolment year.

To that end, IEASA plans on hosting a conversation with the various government departments in the lead up to its annual conference to be held in August 2022.

In conclusion, we encourage institutions to continue to share their collective experience and knowledge, via IEASA, to assist the whole of the South African higher education system.

We are also calling for greater collaboration within universities, between universities, between IEASA and USAf and the relevant government departments to continue to ensure that the South African higher education system remains one of the strongest and most attractive to international students on the African continent and remains engaged with the rest of the region, the continent and the world.

Orla Quinlan was the president (2019-20) of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), and has held several leadership positions in a career spanning over 30 years, including leading on education and humanitarian programmes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Burundi and Haiti. She remains on the executive of IEASA and is currently employed as the director of internationalisation at Rhodes University. She regularly presents, nationally and internationally, on a range of topics pertaining to internationalisation of higher education. She holds an MSc in social policy, planning and implementation in developing countries from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Tasmeera Singh, PhD, is an international higher education specialist with more than 22 years’ experience in the field. She is currently employed at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) as the manager of international relations. Prior to her appointment at CPUT, she was at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, as the principal international advisor. Singh has previously served on the management council of IEASA. She has a special interest in the issues of transformation, diversity and inclusivity in higher education from a feminist perspective. Her future research interests entail interrogating internationalisation as a driver of transformation in South African higher education.


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