South Africa seeks to recover as continent’s leading destination

“We are re-thinking international higher education,” said former president International Education Association of South Africa Orla Quinlan, now the treasurer of the association. Quinlan is also director of internationalisation at Rhodes University.

“Virtual engagement has increased in areas such as collaborative online learning programs”

“Programs involving international mobility have been temporarily affected by Covid-19, but virtual engagement has increased in areas such as collaborative online learning programs.”

The move to online emergency teaching has led to a decline in numbers, which was attributable to the “uncertainty of the impact of risk adjusted levels of Covid-19 on international travel”.

It could also be blamed on losses of lives and livelihoods, students having lost their benefactors during the period, the administrator noted.

Despite the challenges some universities have opened their campuses, and international students have been back in campus since last term, she disclosed.

South Africa’s policy framework on internationalisation of education, promulgated in November 2020, is expected to help guide universities on how to attract international students, and assert the country’s position as Africa’s main destination for external students.

“It is going to help universities tremendously, said Mahlubi Mabizela, chief director the Department of Higher Education.

“[Universities] now have a framework that guides them on what to do and what not to do. We will be working with them to implement it and that is another plus for them.”

Under the framework, universities in the country are required for the first time to develop and have internationalisation policies, plans and strategies for internationalisation.

Prior to coming of the document, it was up to universities’ administrators to choose whether to focus on the internationalisation of higher education or not, Quinlan added.

“The policy framework will ensure that appropriate internationalisation and our relationship with the rest of the continent remains firmly on the agenda of South African Higher Education,” she noted.

According to Chika Sehoole, dean of education University of Pretoria, the closure of borders in March 2020 and restrictions of flights into the country had an impact on the mobility of students in and out of the country.  Students, who were still out of the country, could not come in and those inside could not leave.

This, he noted, created some uncertainties which ‘obviously’ impacted on the choices of destination of study for the learners. Since the outbreak, most learning is taking place online.

“One positive lesson coming out of the pandemic is the move to online learning that is borderless.

“Education is being delivered seamlessly across national borders and it benefits both national and international students. So what has mainly been done is that universities have investment online and virtual infrastructure to enable the continuation of education,” he said.

The number of foreign students enrolled in South Africa’s higher education institutions decreased between 2016-2017 decreased from 69,381 in 2016 to 67,435 in 2017, data by the DHET shows.

It also indicates that nearly three out of four were from within Africa, with the majority coming from neighbouring Zimbabwe.

However, some international students have been in the country, Quinlan observed.

“They may be engaging online just like the South African students but in the vicinity of the universities and accessing university resource such as library services. Medical students and science students who need to do lab work have been in class, under tightly controlled conditions,” she explained.

“At Rhodes University, international students have been on campus still mainly doing online learning and engagement, but with access to campus resources and Wi-Fi that they do not necessarily have at home,” Quinlan noted.

“We look forward to welcoming more international students in 2022”

“All students are returning to campus [in September]. There is a vaccination centre on campus and an active campaign for everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. We look forward to welcoming more international students in 2022,” Quinlan said, signalling hope that full mobility was likely to resume soon.


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