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SIAN 2024 delegates dissect dos and don’ts of internationalisation in higher education.
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 22/03/2024

​​​The intricacies of internationalisation in higher education came under the spotlight at the Stellenbosch International Academic Networks (SIAN) 2024 meeting hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) International from 13 to 15 March.

SIAN is an annual gathering of SU's international partner universities. This year, more than 100 delegates from 70 university partners across 27 countries attended.

“Since its inception in 2003, SIAN has matured into a significant network dedicated to bringing together our partners to share experiences, build partnership capital and foster personal connections," said Prof Wim de Villiers, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor, in his welcoming address. “I wholeheartedly support all efforts to explore potential for collaboration because that is the only way we will be able to address the complex issues that society faces today." And with Africa's population expected to almost double by 2050, there is enormous opportunity for growth and collaboration in higher education on the continent, he added.

Four cornerstones for successful African collaboration

While it has a global reach, SU remains firmly rooted in Africa. This saw the first session of the meeting explore trends in international higher education on the continent, featuring speakers from both SU and fellow African institutions.

In his talk, Dr Nico Elema, director of SU International's Centre for Collaboration in Africa, identified four cornerstones of successful collaboration between African partners. “The first is context. Africa is not one country; the continent is massive. Support local and regional initiatives within larger African programmes to drive the African agenda," Dr Elema said. “The second is equitable partnerships that drive local research and capacity development. In the African context, an equitable partnership means 100/100. Only then can we find common ground to move forward."

He continued: “The third cornerstone is institutional commitment to create an enabling environment for African science academies, universities and research institutions to thrive. Here, we need to answer some tough questions: How mature are our national science systems? How autonomous are our higher education institutions really? Are we solely relying on external funding from the Global North? The fourth and final cornerstone is personal commitment. Remain Afro-optimists and engage with other colleagues on the continent. Support Africa's established and emerging researchers, mobility exchanges, think tanks and capacity development programmes."​

New African-based school-leaving qualifications unlock higher education opportunities

SIAN delegates also heard from SU's Unit for International Credentialing (SU-UIC), whose work includes quality-assuring external school-leaving qualifications administered in and for Africa.

“The cross-border movement of people has become more diverse and complex and is increasingly affecting education opportunities and systems," said Prof Sarah Howie, director of the ​Africa Centre for Scholarship. “From 1960 to 2015, international migrants increased from 93 million to 241 million. Immigration rates in countries as diverse as Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Malaysia and South Africa are two to three times above the global average." This is why the SU-UIC is working with both the South African Independent Examinations Board (IEB) and the Examinations Council of Lesotho to ensure homegrown yet high-quality school-leaving qualifications that offer access to higher education at top institutions on the continent and further afield.

With the IEB, the Unit quality-assures the International Secondary Certificate (ISC), which is comparable to the United Kingdom's AS-levels and the Australian Senior Secondary Certificate. Also benchmarked nationally by Universities South Africa (USAf), the ISC has been found to be on a par with South Africa's National Senior Certificate, and students who pass it with merit could apply to institutions worldwide. The ISC is currently offered in Namibia, Mozambique and Eswatini.

Consultations with the Examinations Council of Lesotho, in turn, are aimed at quality-assuring the new Lesotho Advanced Secondary Certificate. Preparations for the implementation of the qualification are under way, including the training of quality assurance officers and the review of syllabi, sample papers and processes.

“The SU-UIC's focus is more on quality enhancement than mere conformity to standards," said Unit coordinator Mia Andersen. “We are moving beyond a compliance culture as we collectively try to navigate this complex and dynamic world of internationalised education."

Internationalisation at African partners

Delegates from other African institutions also shared their internationalisation strategies. According to Meryem El Alaoui from Université Internationale de Rabat (UIR) in Morocco, their internationalisation strategy aligns with the goals of the Kingdom of Morocco, the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, as well as King Mohamed VI's plan to strengthen relations with other African countries. “To this end, our integrated strategy includes encouraging students and staff to participate in mobility programmes. We have also developed joint degrees with our partners, as well as English-focused courses. In addition, we try to recruit international students – 10% of them are currently from sub-Saharan Africa – and we integrate internationalisation at home through different activities."

Elaborating on the University of Namibia's internationalisation strategy, Dr Romanus Shivoro said: “Our strategy rests on the pillars of global partnerships and networks, a diverse international student and staff body, international research activities, and being a responsive industry partner. We have developed key partnerships with countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, as well as the Americas. Internationalisation is key to us, and we hope to explore further partnership agreements through this SIAN event."

Reflecting on responsible internationalisation

In a session devoted to responsible internationalisation, Robert Kotzé, senior director of SU International, stressed the importance of knowing, understanding and working with your institution's context. “At SU, for instance, we understand that our institution is rooted in Africa, with a global reach. That is the context that determines how we think about internationalisation, and how we engage with it," he said.

“If your institution is pursuing responsible internationalisation, your internationalisation policy, strategy and understanding should also speak to the values that your institution aspires to," he added. Again referring to SU as an example, he said internationalisation at SU was informed by a purposeful commitment as guided by the University's Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019-2024. “We aim for comprehensive internationalisation, integrating an international, intercultural and global dimension into all aspects of the University, based on SU's values of excellence, compassion, accountability, respect and equity. We also aim to advance quality research and innovation, learning and teaching in service of society. In this way, we hope to be an internationally recognised research-intensive institution rooted in Africa, with a global reach."

Responsible internationalisation also requires institutions not to lose sight of local and national imperatives, Kotzé concluded. “In South Africa and at SU, we have a responsibility to address inequality and improve our employment equity profile. Therefore, our recruitment of international students and staff must not hamper our employment equity efforts. We also have more work to do to offer socioeconomically disadvantaged students opportunities to participate in mobility. Currently, fewer than 5% of students participating in outgoing mobility are from disadvantaged backgrounds."​

Reimagining being an internationalisation practitioner – opportunities for support staff

Internationalisation goes far beyond academic exchanges, however. Every university stakeholder, including those in the professional administrative support services (PASS) environment, can and should be an internationalisation practitioner. To explore this further, three partner universities discussed how they joined forces to facilitate mobility opportunities for their PASS staff.

According to Lidia du Plessis, programme manager for Staff Internationalisation at SU International, when SU in 2018 introduced its Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019-2024, mobility programmes were still only meant for academic staff. “As SU International, we had to reimagine staff mobility, and that is when I approached one of our partners, Lund University in Sweden, and we initiated the blended international programme for PASS staff," she explained. “The programme, which ran over six months, was a combination of online sessions and in-person mobility weeks at both Lund and SU." Through this unique programme, participants were able to develop intercultural skills, foster inclusion, discuss internationalisation in diverse university fields, share best-practice examples, and engage in job shadowing.


The opportunity then arose for a trilateral staff development programme when Northwestern University in the United States joined forces with partners Hamburg and Stellenbosch universities. Running since 2022, the programme ends this year. Each university is afforded an opportunity to serve as host and choose a theme that plays to their strengths. Each partner selects five participants. First up as host, SU presented the 2022 event under the theme “Inclusive internationalisation competences". In 2023, Northwestern chose the theme “Alumni engagement and development". The Hamburg-hosted event this year will conclude the programme. Positive spinoffs from the programme include the development of an online intercultural competency programme hosted by Northwestern, new connections between and within partner institutions, the ploughing back of new knowledge at home institutions, and staff's personal development and growth.

Northwestern's Kim Rapp, assistant vice-president of International Relations, confirmed that the trilateral staff development programme had strengthened institutional partnerships with SU and Hamburg. “One of the things I really like is that Northwestern is now well known among the staff at Hamburg and Stellenbosch, which raises our visibility. New relationships also developed between staff outside of our respective international offices." Internally, the programme also fostered collaboration between Northwestern's own units, with staff learning about one another's departments and roles, she added.

Hamburg University's objective with participating in the programme was to facilitate the internationalisation of staff at all levels, develop intercultural competencies, strengthen strategic partnerships, and increase visibility of partnerships and their work within the university. So said Eva Leptien, manager of Partnerships in Hamburg University's Department of International Affairs. “Staff exchange programmes are one of the building blocks of our internationalisation strategy," she added. Leptien also used the SIAN meeting as a platform to announce the theme for the 2024 trilateral staff development event, namely “Integrating sustainability across higher education institutions". ​

Being intentional about partnerships

The final session focused on universities' partnership portfolios, and best practices in managing those. Speakers from Leipzig University, the University of Groningen and SU delved deeper into the topic.

Marie Plinke of Leipzig University said that her institution's process to structure their partnership portfolio included the “adaptation of existing university agreements into appropriate formats, intensification of active existing university partnerships, and reduction of the administrative burden". She made the key point that the identification of active international partners could help guide and inform strategic decision-making by university management.

SU International's Sarah van der Westhuizen, director of the Centre for Global Engagement, shared the lessons that SU had learned from being an active partner in a strategic partnership. “Through being an active partner, a specific working process was identified that could be applied to other strategic or comprehensive partnerships," she said. She added that an alignment of funding and collaborative instruments at both partners was essential for a successful partnership, as were joint ownership, shared evaluation measures, and discussions about equity.

“In an increasingly complex world, partnerships, including strategic partnerships, are essential for maintaining and enhancing the quality of education and research, and to ensure a joint approach towards solving small and grand societal challenges," said Anita Veldtmaat of the University of Groningen. She also emphasised the need for internal seed funding as a key requirement for partnership success.

In addition to the formal sessions, the SIAN meeting also included workshops on building institutional capacity for international higher education and responsible internationalisation in Africa. At a Study Abroad fair, SU students were able to connect with potential foreign study destinations. A visit to SU's Ukwanda Rural Clinical School in Worcester and an excursion to the V&A Waterfront were the perfect way to finish the programme.

​Images from the SIAN 2024.​