South African Policy for Internationalisation of Higher Education

On the beginning of November, the South African Policy for Internationalisation of Higher Education was promulgated and became legally binding. This is a milestone for South African higher education.

The policy includes the positioning of the South African higher education system to be competitive in a globalised world as well as advancing the quality of education. Other stated aims are enhancing intellectual diversity in higher education, furthering the public good and contributing to resolving global challenges.

Institutions are required to develop internationalisation policies or strategies in which they define specific internationalisation targets. These are then integrated into universities’ three-year planning cycles.

All institutions must report annually on their achievements to the South African Department of Higher Education and Training. The role assigned to the government is enabling and facilitating rather than providing a direct steer.

While the policy affords higher education institutions considerable discretion when it comes to framing an internationalisation model which is relevant to the context and specific needs of the institutions, certain aspects are not negotiable:

  • Curriculum internationalisation, which must be advanced in tandem with other curriculum transformation imperatives, becomes mandatory.
  • Higher education institutions are obliged to safeguard the rights and interests of both incoming and outgoing international students.
  • The sector must mitigate the risks associated with internationalisation. For example, it is obliged to ‘address brain drain and seek to offset its negative consequences’ through both a national strategy and institutional policy.

Collaborative qualifications are regulated and the existing practice of awarding joint degrees at some South African higher education institutions is generally confirmed. Besides, the new regulatory framework encourages the award of co-badged and consecutive qualifications, but confirms that double degrees remain prohibited in the country.

All collaborative programmes offered by South African higher education institutions must be approved by the South African Council on Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training and are subject to detailed regulation.

Through the policy, the South African government commits itself to ensuring inter-governmental integration and cooperation for the benefit of internationalisation. This inter-governmental cooperation should, in the future, mean that challenges regarding internationalisation will be avoided.

The innovative policy is conceptually on the cutting edge of international discourse and integrates the thinking of several leading experts in the field. It has the potential to elevate South Africa’s higher education system to a leading position when it comes to advancing internationalisation in the developing world. Whether this capacity can be fully realised will largely depend on the implementation strategy for the framework.
Institutions, particularly those which are historically disadvantaged, need to be supported to develop implementation capacity. A spirit of inter-institutional collaboration for advancing internationalisation and embedding the principles of the policy framework is essential for success. Besides, it will be critically important to guide institutions as to the sequence in which they should tackle the new obligations arising in terms of the policy framework.

The policy provides a space to innovate and integrate digital mobility and traditional mobility practices at all levels. It is an example to other similar higher education systems.

It does not only provide space for private and public institutions to internationalise, but it also addresses the negative impact of commercialisation on higher education which has been practised under the guise of internationalisation.

The success of the policy will, however, depend on the implementation and the capacity building that should happen at both institutional and national level.