Opinion: We need more international students in SA universities, not fewer

​Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the Head of the Division for Internationalisation and a Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg. She recently penned an opinion piece published in the Sunday Times on 22 September 2019.

Over the past week I have in my capacity as the director of the international office at the University of Johannesburg had to engage with the proposal to introduce quotas to restrict the number of international students and staff at South African universities. This comes amid violence and attacks directed at foreign nationals including students.

It is therefore not strange that the two issues become linked. They are linked because international students and staff contribute to the diversity of our universities and with greater diversity come opportunities for better understanding of our own place in the world a world increasingly shaped by the forces of globalisation and higher degrees of internationalisation.

Internationalisation and the enrolment of international students as well as the employment of international staff are crucial to the core business of a university that of knowledge production. If we deny our students and staff the opportunity to engage with international peers whether at home or abroad we stand to perpetuate the isolationist policies that informed and set the parameters for knowledge production and the lack thereof for so many years.

Research shows that gaining international experiences is not just about learning more about the world around you different cultures or languages but also contributes to higher levels of academic achievement. Without quite literally a diversity of views knowledge production becomes stagnant and innovation so crucial to organisational survival in the fourth industrial revolution will suffer. It is known that diverse and multicultural environments are linked to increased creativity. And in its turn creativity is one of the main drivers of innovation and thus central to the technological advances associated with the fourth industrial revolution. Knowledge economies rely on diversity.

Internationalisation is also crucial to university rankings and universities are ranked among other criteria on international research collaboration; student exchanges that is how many international students the university accepts ; the number of international staff; how many local/national students travel abroad for various exchange programmes; how well international students are catered for; and importantly how well and in what ways the institution manages diversity and multiculturalism.

Internationalisation is seen as part and parcel of a university’s brand and status and the better managed and marketed the stronger the brand. A university brand relies on internationalisation in the broadest terms.

So when quota restrictions on international staff and students are sold as a measure to protect a particular South African brand or South Africanness it flies in the face of what the status and reputation of many universities are built on. And to enforce quotas only on a postgraduate level for example runs contrary to higher education policies that explicitly try to grow the pool of postgraduate students. As with all graduates retaining them is a question that has little to do with higher education. Instead it is related to favourable socioeconomic conditions.

That said higher education institutions need to be better at retaining graduates and growing a new generation of academics. Given that most of our international students come from Southern African Development Community countries we need to find ways to make these students once graduated retain an association with our universities. This would forge new partnerships and strengthen regional collaboration.

Equally if we are afraid that international students will not return to SA after graduating with international fix degrees we need to think seriously about an enabling environment that will make graduates want to return. Most importantly given recent debates and amid attacks on foreign nationals in SA real or perceived we need to strengthen the cc internationalisation project within our universities and society at large.

As staff and students at higher education institutions that pride themselves on being centres of knowledge production for the greater good of humanity we have to stand united and speak out against all forms of violence in our society whether gender based or directed against foreign nationals. We need to recognise that violence perpetrated against another and the denial of the lights of others is ultimately denying ourselves and our common humanity. The role of education must be to bring our common humanity to the fore in all its endeavours.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof ylva rodny gurnede
Prof Ylva Rodny-Gumede
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