Student mobility was a hot topic at USAf’s Research and Innovation Dialogue 

13-10-23 USAf 0 comment

Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) 7th Biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue lived up to its name of being a dialogue, a conversation, when a discussion in a session about student mobility generated more than 20 comments, questions and responses.

Professor Stephanie Burton of the University of Pretoria and a USAf Research Fellow, who chaired the session, introduced the topic by saying everyone saw postgraduate mobility as something good for students but at the same time something difficult to manage efficiently.

She said mobility needed effective collaboration between the organisations where the students are mobile. And this raised questions about governance and accreditation, international programmes, recognition of prior learning and across-borders mobility. 

“We also need to be asking ourselves the perhaps deeper question of what is the value of mobility and exchange for our students,” said Burton.

Professor Jesika Singh (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) Research, Innovation and Partnerships, University of Limpopo, proposed introducing doctoral experiential learning that would give all doctoral candidates the chance to spend three to four weeks at another university nationally or internationally. Singh said this would not only benefit research impact but could also attract more doctoral students. “Should experiential learning become part of the graduate attributes for doctoral study?” was one of the questions she posed.

She said the University of Limpopo had recently hosted three second-year undergraduate French agricultural students. They had come to South Africa on a mobility visit as part of the French South African Agricultural Institute (F’SAGRI), which involves the universities of Fort Hare, Limpopo and Venda. At the end of their stay, she was astounded at how exuberant they were about their local experiences of everything from eating mopani worms to loadshedding. “They were bubbling. Student mobility is a cultural experience. They had a fulfilling experience within a short space of time,” said Singh.

She said mobility enriches students. “And it also does what we want in terms of graduate attributes and that is knowledge enhancement. So why must we do this? My response is: ‘why not?’.”

Singh’s presentation was followed by:

  • Dr Whitty Green, CEO of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), reflecting on areas for action arising from the National Review of Doctoral Programmes;  
  • Mr Bheki Radebe, Director of High-End Skills at the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), on Findings and Recommendations from the National PhD Tracer Study;
  • Dr Mtheto Moyo, Acting Director of International Scholarships at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), on international scholarships and capacity-building opportunities;
  • Professor Loyiso Nongxa, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and now ambassador for the National Graduate Academy for the Mathematical Sciences, on Academic Mobility: Opportunities and Challenges; and
  • Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi, DVC Research and Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University, on Barriers to Collaboration: Incentives at university and government level.

Their presentations sparked off a robust discussion. What follows are some edited comments.

New ways of thinking about student mobility

Dr Samia Chasi (left), Manager: Strategic Initiatives, Partnership Development and Research at the International Education Association of South Africa:Professor Singh asked us to rethink mobility. Physical mobility is the traditional model of what we mean when we talk about student and staff mobility, and I think we have to focus a lot more on alternatives such as virtual mobility. Professor Nongxa, it was one of your bullets under ‘mode’. It’s important in a context like South Africa because it fosters inclusion and greater access and participation for groups that have not traditionally participated in internationalisation. But it also addresses concerns about the increasing contribution internationalisation makes to the destruction of our planet. So, we must talk about internationalisation also in the context of climate change.

“We have spoken a lot about benefits of international mobility, particularly physical mobility. I’ve worked in international education for 25 years. I do agree with all the benefits outlined. But I think we need to look at the benefits beyond the individual level, at institutional and national levels. 

Aldo (Dr Aldo Stroebel, DVC Research, Innovation and Internationalisation, University of Mpumalanga), I look forward to reading the study you mentioned (a PhD he supervised on the benefits of short-term international mobility) but if we agree that these kinds of mobilities are always only for the select few, what does this mean in terms of our internationalisation agendas? And when we say internationalisation contributes to graduate attributes, for example, to generating globally competent citizens, then we must focus on internationalisation of the curriculum because the only way you can reach all students is through teaching and research programmes.” 

Dr Mzilikazi (right): “The impact of international travel on greenhouse emissions is a very sobering issue and one we need to reflect upon. And there are massive opportunities with virtual programmes we should pursue.  However, I also plead that we do not forget about some of the relational aspects highlighted in my proposal. Those can only be traversed by being in a physical space together. So let’s look for complementarities and not replacements.”

SA students lack confidence to compete internationally

Dr Chasi: “One reason for the low uptake is lack of awareness. Many students do not know these scholarship opportunities exist. There is also a lack of confidence. Many South African students think they cannot compete internationally. And very often when they come back, they say, ‘Well, we were actually able to stand our own’ but that’s something you learn when you’ve had the opportunity. 

Also, our profile of students is very different to the instruments designed for them. We have many mature students and students with dependents – children or spouses – and many scholarship programmes do not provide financial support for dependents. And increasingly, we have difficulties with getting visas for dependents.

Geopolitical developments, such as some of the experiences that African students had in the Ukraine, where they were left to their own devices, when a lot of Europeans came to the aid of their students stranded there, is a little bit discouraging.” 

Let’s look at CHATGPT

Dr Daisy Selematsela (right), Director of Wits Libraries, and chairperson of the Committee for Higher Education Libraries of South Africa (CHELSA): “I was amazed I didn’t hear anything about what’s happening as part of our academic programmes when it comes to AI (artificial intelligence) and especially CHATGTP. When we talk about how students are using it, what comes to mind is ‘oh, it’s plagiarism’ and we forget the good side of CHATGTP. We need to be moving towards training on the virtual literacies around CHATGPT and I’m pleading that this forum looks at a strategy for postgraduate support.”

Professor Singh: “We need to embrace the new technologies. CHATGPT is just one example – a whole range of others are going to crop up. Most libraries are virtual, and students don’t have to physically go to one. We need to keep on the cutting edge in terms of innovation and how we respond to it as a sector.”

Professor Sibusiso Moyo (above, left), DVC Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Stellenbosch University:“We focus a lot on training the students but leave out the supervisors and the academics who also need exposure.”

Dr Vathiswa Papu-Zamxaka (above, right), DVC Research, Innovation and Engagement at Tshwane University of Technology:“We are taking too long as a country to have regulations around AI.  I only know of South African universities that have guidelines on the use of AI, not policies. This discussion needs to be driven outside of the university forum at the level of the CHE, DHET and DSI so that whatever strides we take at the university level are aligned to us as a collective in the sector.”

Where does the National Graduate Academy for the Mathematical Sciences fit in?

Dr Thandi Mgwebi, DVC Research, Innovation, and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University: “Professor Nongxa, what is the relationship between the National Graduate Academy for the Mathematical Sciences you spoke about and the AfricanInstitute for MathematicalSciences (AIMS)?  Is there a partnership because I see a lot of linkages?”

Professor Nongxa (left): “Around 2008, 2009, there was an international review of the mathematical sciences. The major recommendation was a national centre for the mathematical sciences. We started lobbying the then Department of Science and Technology and they said they don’t have an instrument to fund that. They decided to set up a centre of excellence (COE) for mathematical sciences which, as you know, is premised on existing strengths within the system. But that report also pointed out weaknesses within the system, one of them being graduate education in mathematical sciences in South Africa.

“We call the graduate academy a grassroots entity because it was the institutions themselves – with the support of the National Research Foundation – that decided to establish a consortium that will address the things not addressed by the COE. So AIMS is a member of the graduate academy. And all universities that offer a postgraduate qualification in the mathematical sciences can join.”

We need to consider inter-institutional mobility 

Professor Moyo: We haven’t talked about credit transfer even within the national system. It would be good if one of the outcomes of this is to have some programme where we can demonstrate this mobility nationally. International mobility is important, but a focus on a programme which can allow for interprovince mobility would be useful.”

Dr Mzilikazi: “I wanted to bring our attention to the MSc in nanoscience that is a collaborative structured programme between the universities of Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela, Zululand, Free State, and Western Cape. It’s been running for a long time, and it’s very successful. I think there are lots of lessons to be learned from that as a case study.”

Professor Burton:“Write it up so that we have a model.”

Government has pledged R1-billion for PhDs mobility abroad

Mr Hadebe (left): “I must say this although some of you have may have heard this as it was mentioned on two public platforms. The Minister (Dr Blade Nzimande) has pledged R1-billion from the National Skills Fund to be deployed for upskilling and adjustments in addressing new fields such as data science and emerging fields of mathematics. The money is for sending PhD students abroad. It talks to the digital economy and is focused in areas where we don’t have supervisory capacity. The President wants to make it a presidential project, in terms of mobilising other heads of states to match the investments that will be made in their countries.” 

Let’s continue to talk 

Professor Thoko Mayekiso (right), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga and Chairperson of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) that hosted the Dialogue:“I am sure all of you will agree that the deliberations have been insightful, thought provoking, informative, inspiring and solution oriented. Colleagues, let’s continue with the dialogue, let’s continue to establish these networks we’re talking about. Several of the presentations have dealt with the importance of collaboration. And we can’t collaborate if we are not able to establish relationships with one another. So let’s network and establish linkages.” 

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.