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Internationalisation continues at SU despite COVID-19
Author: Hester Klopper
Published: 14/09/2020

Amid travel bans and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, universities have had to find innovative ways to remain part of the global knowledge economy and continue their efforts in internationalisation, a vital aspect of higher education in the 21st century, writes PROF HESTER KLOPPER, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy and Internationalisation at Stellenbosch University, in an article for University World News (10 September).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.​

We often hear, and say, that globalisation has made the world so much smaller. You can travel around the globe in a day, experience different cultures at a whim, and be a global citizen working in diverse contexts. Technology has done much to ensure and enrich these experiences.

Likewise, over the past few decades, higher education institutions across the globe have included a focus on internationalisation in their strategy, research, teaching and learning, and have prioritised building comprehensive partnerships with institutions in other countries. Giving students and staff an international experience and forging research collaborations have been the pillars of universities' internationalisation efforts.

Through internationalisation students are given the opportunity to develop skills that relate to global competencies so that they can be globally-engaged 21st-century citizens. Exchange programmes have been developed around intercultural learning outcomes and over time a more strategic approach has been employed in fostering partnerships (research and other types) with institutions and networks abroad.

Universities themselves are also global citizens in higher education and participate in various playing fields in an international community of like-minded institutions. One such field is university rankings, with different rankings requiring certain data to evaluate an institution's performance. Coupled with clear communication and marketing strategies, rankings have become tools to influence global public opinion about higher education institutions.

Functioning effectively in the higher education sector today, institutions must aspire to boost their international standing and forge links across the world. Stellenbosch University (SU) is no different. Since 1993 we have been working on building international relations, and in 1997 the first International Office was established at SU to focus on building partnerships and creating opportunities for staff and student mobility between institutions. For the first two decades of internationalisation at SU, the focus had been on curriculum development, international student mobility, and collaboration between research groups.

But in 2019, a new internationalisation strategy was put in place allowing us to move beyond these aspects and place greater emphasis on research and innovation. Still, in essence, these have required visits abroad and face-to-face contact with our partner universities and networks.

As the COVIC-19 pandemic continues to turn our world upside down, our usual means of practicing internationalisation have suddenly become obsolete. Current projections indicate that the international travel ban will probably be in place until the end of 2020, or even early 2021. In the face of a world where crossing borders to experiencing other cultures, education systems and means of learning and knowledge sharing have for now practically been banned, universities have had to find innovative ways of continuing internationalisation.

Even if international travel should open sooner, the current situation has not only made us use new practices but has made us think anew about how we do internationalisation in higher education without crossing borders. During this time, universities have been exploring alternative and novel ways to achieve their internationalisation goals, which has meant that international mobility between universities and networks has become virtual.

At SU, for instance, interaction has moved onto digital platforms where participants can continue to share ideas and knowledge. The welcoming and orientation programmes of new incoming international students have moved online, we have presented the first webinar to support semester students abroad with a focus on student wellbeing, and webinars have also engaged academics from partner institutions on various topics and in conferences.

Moving online has become a necessary yet simplistic tactic, with online meetings and streaming events at the order of the day. But in the context of internationalisation it has enabled us to continue a vital part of higher education that will ensure the relevance and sustainability of universities in the future. We need to continue integrating intercultural and global dimensions into our offering to students and the impact we make through our research and on society.

By being part of an international community of higher education institutions, universities can broaden their purpose, functions and programmes. This allows students and staff to make a meaningful contribution globally through learning and teaching, research and innovation and work linked to the Sustainable Development Goals. And, not least, it provides universities with third-stream income through research contracts and programmes offered to international students, making it possible to expand on mobility opportunities for our own students and staff.

However, the value of internationalisation stretches further. The COVID-19 pandemic serves as an example, with many researchers internationally collaborating to address the various challenges the world is currently facing – from finding a vaccine to combat the virus to investigating the impact on economies and societies. Bringing together the minds of various scientists has served us well in the progress that has been made in research around COVID-19.

Much has been made of our preparation for the “next normal", and we will need the collaborative thinking of academics to prepare societies for what is to come once the health issues related to COVID-19 have been addressed. One can even say that all aspects of life as we had known it will now be reset, but what that means is still unclear. For this, we need interdisciplinary thinking from global role-players.

It is in a time like this, that we see the value of internationalisation in higher education in solving the global issues humanity faces now and in future will face. This value lies not only in connecting experts from across the world and enabling collaborative research, but internationalisation gives students and academics the necessary skills for intercultural partnerships to provide global solutions for global challenges.

Internationalisation has certainly become a force for good in higher education, no matter the size or reputation of an institution – and it will and needs to continue to be that even in a time of business unusual and in the future “next normal". As universities adapt and innovate the way they operate in learning, teaching and research, they must also continue to work with international partners and networks to develop innovative new practices in further supporting internationalisation in higher education.