Early findings show internationalisation is seen as part of SA universities’ core missions

06-10-23 USAf 0 comment

Internationalisation is well embedded in the context of the core missions of South African universities, including research, teaching & learning and engagement. 

This emerged from the very early findings of a study commissioned by the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) in partnership with the British Council to understand, among other issues, the current Higher Education internationalisation environment and specific South African needs and interests.

The findings were presented by Dr Samia Chasi (below), IEASA Manager: Strategic Initiatives, Partnership Development and Research, at the recent 7th Biennial Research and Innovation (R&I) Dialogue that was concluded at the Umhlanga Coastlands Convention Centre, just north of Durban, on 22 September.  

The R&I Dialogue 2023, themed Research and Innovation for Societal and Economic Impact, tackled four sub-themes, namely: 

  • Research and Innovation Impact: Moving towards a conceptual framework for research and innovation for universities;
  • Student Mobility: Rethinking student mobility nationally and internationally;
  • Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Societal Impact: Creating an enabling ecosystem for social innovation and entrepreneurship at universities; and 
  • Transformative Internationalisation: Towards a transformative and inclusive internationalisation strategy for USAf

Dr Chasi spoke during the session titled Towards a transformative and inclusive internationalisation strategy for USAf,addressing the topic The state of internationalisation in South African universities: Preliminary findings of the IEASA – British Council study

“These findings offer early insights into the context of internationalisation in the public higher education sector in South Africa,” she told an audience of university executives, senior academics, science councils and higher education policy makers. 

Key objective

Working in consultation with the Department of Higher Education and Training and Universities South Africa, IEASA and the British Council commissioned the study to a research team led by Professor Felix Maringe of the University of the Witwatersrand. The purpose of the study was:

  1. To understand the current Higher Education internationalisation environment and South Africa’s specific needs and interests;
  2. To assess local implementation readiness regarding the recently adopted national Internationalisation Policy Framework;
  3. To provide guidelines for universities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to engage, partner or collaborate with SA universities.

This study targeted all 26 public universities in South Africa. The methodology entailed:

  • A review of relevant literature at global, national and institutional levels
  • Interviews and surveys – four to five interviews per institution (VCs or DVCs, directors of international offices, deans and heads of school/department and surveys with postgraduate students in a particular faculty.

Dr Chasi said data collection was concluded in August this year. With the analysis still in   progress at the time of the R & I Dialogue, the study report is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.


She reported that 19 universities had participated in the interviews, representing 73% of the study’s population. A total of 60 interviews were conducted, with response rates varying from 53% to 89% in the different categories. Regarding surveys, she noted a very low response rate across the participating institutions, with just 282 responses from post graduate students (representing 20 home countries) from 10 universities. 

Dr Chasi pointed out that what she was sharing was based on a progress report from the research team, highlighting preliminary findings emerging from the ongoing data analysis. An encouraging early finding was that internationalisation is interpreted and seen in the context of the core missions of universities. “That speaks to research, teaching and learning and also engagement, and bodes well for the notion of comprehensive internationalisation. This  means that internationalisation becomes an integral part of everything that an institution does.”

“There’s much discourse around growing international competitiveness regarding research and innovation. But, when it comes to the recruitment of international staff, there seems to be some tension between operating in a national environment that is politically tolerant, open and invites and encourages the recruitment of international staff — and local politics.

“Another observation is that there seems to be a disjuncture between the institutional function of internationalisation and the international office. That links to the fact that the mandate of the international office is often narrowly defined,” she said.

Also, the early findings suggest reporting dislocations at some institutions where there is no direct responsibility for internationalisation at the level of the DVCs. Furthermore, “Often, institutions don’t have centralised budgets for internationalisation, apart from an allocation that the international office receives, if there is such a unit.”

International Office responsibilities seem to be mostly concerned with the following:

  • International students
  • Student and staff mobility programmes
  • University partnerships and collaborations
  • Data maintenance and management
  • Events, especially regarding Africa Day, international festivals etc.

On South Africa’s specific needs, Dr Chasi outlined observations made by the research team, as follows:

  • Internationalisation is moulded by Eurocentric / neo-colonial assumptions.
  • The universalisation of English as a medium of instruction seems to entrench the European hold on higher education.
  • Internationalisation is ‘a distant ambition’ at some institutions where more urgent matters take priority.
  • Postcolonial discourses on internationalisation in South Africa are often seen as protest discourses (#Fees Must Fall, #Rhodes Must Fall) and perceived as based on beliefs and unvalidated claims. Thus, the internationalisation conversation continues to happen in Western discourses and theories. 
  • A need has been identified for a dedicated journal or outlet for more focused regional and continental internationalisation discourses.

What the Data says about policy implementation readiness

Dr Chasi: “It seems there are varying degrees of awareness of the Policy Framework across the sector. The research team highlighted a number of critical challenges that are described as having the potential to limit the readiness of implementing the Policy Framework across the sector.

  • Academic Xenophobia: The national Policy Framework has an outward looking approach in terms of internationalisation and how it engages with the world. At institutional level, an inward focus creates tension. 
  • Lack of scholarly leadership around internationalisation: Some responses recorded: “In universities, big ideas are steered by firm scholarship while administrative excellence is required to drive the implementation. In many cases we have administrative excellence but lack scholarly leadership.”
  • Recruitment of international students was in decline before Covid and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. 
  • Respondents found the silence on decolonisation in the Policy Framework a serious omission, especially since it was finalised after the ‘Fallist’ movements of 2015/2016. 
  • Lack of adequate funding for internationalisation which, linked to the lack of clear reporting lines, needed to be looked at.
  • Heavy reliance on Global North funding for international activities, specifically partnerships, collaborations and exchanges. 

Final reflections

Dr Chasi concluded her presentation with final reflections on transformative and inclusive internationalisation, taking the discussions of the first day of the Dialogue and collective experiences of IEASA members into account. Regarding inclusive internationalisation she noted: “We’ve talked about what it means to be inclusive when it comes to individuals – who participates in student and staff exchange programmes. We have underrepresented groups needing encouragement and support.”

The same, she said, applies to institutions in the national context. 

  • Type: All three types (research intensive, comprehensive universities and universities of technology) participated in this study. 
  • Location: Findings indicate that remote areas have less internationalisation activity than urban centres.
  • Disciplines: Internationalisation seems more natural in some disciplines – which is something to think about when considering trans-disciplinary approaches. 
  • Structures: The way universities are organised with a division between academic and administrative units. 

In addition, she pointed out that while internationalisation is a global phenomenon, it is important to understand that it has specific meaning in South Africa in terms of how we approach and experience it.

Transformative Internationalisation

Dr Chasi said: “In the local context, and the data supports this, we can’t talk about internationalisation without talking about transformation, decolonisation and Africanisation.”

She noted in this regard that Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) models could serve as best practice in internationalisation, particularly in resource constrained environments such as South African higher education sector. 

“In COIL we can become leaders in internationalisation – we have something to contribute to the global discourse.” She talked about the iKudu Project, coordinated by the University of Free State, that looked into virtual exchanges long before Covid. “It has a consortium model, funded by the European Union Erasmus+ Capacity Building Programme, where local universities work with their European counterparts.”  She also pointed out that Durban University of Technology recently implemented 86 COIL projects across all faculties and developed a toolkit for the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Dr Chasi also noted that internationalisation in South Africa is closely linked to discourses about equity and justice. Other initiatives worth considering in this regard include the Africa Charter for Transformative Research Collaborations, recently launched by Perivoli Africa Research Consortium (PARC) at the University of Bristol in the UK, in close collaboration with the University of Cape Town and Unisa as well as regional and continental stakeholders. 

Yet another initiative, the CANIE Accord (Climate Action Network for International Educators), provides international educators and organisations with a tool to take climate action. Looking at internationalisation in the context of environmental sustainability and climate justice, it is worth noting that “the majority of contributions in terms of air travel and mobility are made by colleagues and institutions in the Global North, not the Global South.”

As a final point, Dr Chasi noted that transformative internationalisation means that “Internationalisation does not only happen to us – we can foster transformation by bringing African contributions to the global discourse on internationalisation, which can’t be done without research, innovation and scholarship.”

Post-presentation discussion 

Comment by Dr Ndumiso Cingo (left), Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Council for Scientic and Industrial Research (CSIR): We need to be careful of the terminology we use and, in this regard, your use of the term Academic Xenophobia is a concern. An example was given, of involving unions in interview panels to push for the prioritisation of South Africans. Defining that as xenophobia is worrisome because that tends to illegitimise labour participation in these panels as provided for in our Employment Equity framework. I don’t think exclusion of foreigners is the intent. Our labour framework allows for unions to be on these panels. We therefore need to be careful around using the word Academic Xenophobia, especially in the South African context.

Dr Chasi: In the context of this presentation, Academic Xenophobia was a term used by the research team to relate this finding in the report, and it is something we have to engage with, more deeply. Regarding the involvement of unions as example, it was mentioned in this conference that this happened in Ghana, and I wanted to illustrate that this also happens in South Africa. Generally, we have to be mindful that racism and xenophobia are challenges experienced across the globe when it comes to internationalisation. A recent study done about internationalisation strategies at institutions in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States found that while the presence of international students is often part of the rhetoric around internationalisation – yes, we want international students on our campuses – institutions often do not deal with the downside of students experiencing racism on campuses. Xenophobia also comes up as a concern, for example, when black African academics in South Africa say that in terms of employment equity, “we’re not black enough. We don’t count towards the employment of black academics.”

Ms Renee Goretsky (right), Research Services Officer at Research Services Officer at the University of the Witwatersrand: How can we use our agency to decolonise that neo-liberal apparatus so we have equal partnerships in terms of internationalisation. How do we equalise low vs high resource dichotomy?

Dr Chasi: It takes individual and collective efforts across the board. At IEASA we offer workshops for colleagues on internationalisation. At a past conference, we specifically offered a workshop for Global South scholars asking, ‘how do we negotiate and engage in partnerships that are based on equity and mutuality?’. We also have engagements with our  sister organisations in the Global North. As another example, CANIE’s Climate Justice Working Group has approached us as they specifically seek our Global South perspectives. For individuals in our institutions, agency and confidence often starts with the knowledge that we have something to offer. We might not have the resources or facilities, but we bring academic rigour and experience in working in diverse environments.  

Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Stellenbosch University: Around COIL, the focus is mainly around undergraduates. Is there room for improvement in that area?  From your study, for instance, do we have programmes at post graduate level where we offer joint degrees? 

Dr Chasi: COIL was not a focus of the study per se. It can be implemented at all levels, not just at undergraduate even though it seems to happen there for the larger part. Let’s see if the study will offer further insights in that regard.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.