By Wachira Kigotho
University education partnerships and other organisations that are committed to the internationalisation of higher education in Africa have been urged to do much more to deal with issues of prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia and diversity, among other challenges that international students encounter in their new study destinations far away from home and their countries of origin.
The call was made by experts on partnerships aimed at cross-border student mobility that attended the virtual conference of the International Education Association of South Africa held on 25-27 August and themed Internationalisation, inclusion and social justice “ Towards a fairer world.
Professor LaNitra Berger, the vice president of public policy and practice at NAFSA: Association of International Educators in the United States, said that, whereas in developed countries, higher education abroad is regarded as a finishing school for the elite, for most students from Africa and other developing countries, it is potentially a path for liberation and a search for justice in an unequal world.
Taking this into account, the primary role of university partnerships and other groups that promote the internationalisation of higher education for students from the Global South should be to strive not to make inequality deeper than it is now, said Berger, who is also a senior director of fellowships in the office of undergraduate education at George Mason University.
In her presentation, Social Justice in International Education: The view of the United States, Berger narrated how students from developing countries, and especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa, encounter economic hardships in terms of high college tuition fees and housing costs.
Contributing to the plenary theme, Reimagining Higher Education International Collaborations to Promote Inclusion and Social Justice, Dr Farai Kapfudzaruwa, a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said most African universities depend largely on highly unbalanced partnerships.
Kapfudzaruwa said, although there are benefits and opportunities to Africa of higher education international collaboration, most of the partnerships reinforce geographical inequalities of knowledge and academic power dynamics that devalue contributions from the Global South.
In an attempt to answer the question as to how universities in Africa could acquire more influence in international partnerships, Kapfudzaruwa argued that there is a need to re-examine the current models of collaboration that perpetuate Global North academic privileges and dominance in terms of international student mobility flows and research activities.
Dr Aldo Stroebel, the executive director of strategic partnerships at the National Research Foundation of South Africa, said partnerships should embrace the needs of students by increasing access to quality education in terms of diversity, teaching, innovation and exposure to lifelong learning.
He noted that, with time, higher education partnerships have become too elitist, with national and institutional authorities in Africa expressing a clear preference for collaboration with countries and universities that are highly positioned within the world academic ranking systems.
This is a clear signal that higher education partnerships have developed and consolidated unequal power balances that restrict linkages that would promote inclusion and social justice, said Stroebel.
Support young research leaders
Towards establishing a fairer world in Africa through internationalisation of higher education and academic partnerships, Dr Anja Hallacker, the director of the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, in South Africa, said there is a need to identify and support rising young research leaders in the continent who would be willing to stay and build their careers in African universities.
According to Hallacker, such early-career academics should be given scholarships and funding to do their research in Africa, even if they were to undertake short-term study abroad.
Partnerships should also include funding of intra-Africa academic mobility schemes, support of centres of excellence at African universities as well as backing harmonisation of African higher education systems and advocating for freedom of open science globally, said Hallacker.
Highlighting the need to reimagine partnerships and other models of internationalisation of higher education in Africa, Dr Thandi Mgwebi, deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, said the main problem is that partnerships between African universities and their local communities are very poor.
In this regard, Mgwebi urged African universities to build strong local, interprovincial, regional and intra-Africa partnerships and start generating knowledge, innovation and skills together.
But, even as the senior academics sought for an overhaul of the present architecture of partnerships and other models of internationalisation of higher education, the conference heard that most international students from Africa are confronted by language barriers, culture shock, economic hardships, discrimination, xenophobia, crime and security issues in their search for a fairer world.