South Africa has established itself as a regional higher education hub, which had, until the recent Covid-19 pandemic, been hosting increasing numbers of international students.
The vast majority hail from neighbouring countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and include increasing numbers of postgraduate and doctoral students.
While the country grapples with combating the virus, the higher education system and stakeholders must keep focused on the future. The way international students in the present crisis are treated may determine whether South Africa will be able to retain its prominent position as a preferred educational destination, and whether it will be a driver for PhD capacity development in Africa.
International students’ travel, however, is being hampered by coronavirus lockdown regulations.
The lockdown resulted in a large part of the international student population returning home. At the time it was anticipated that students would be able to return after three weeks. Most universities expected that their international students could come back to campuses after an extended recess, in April 2020.
At many universities, international offices assisted students with their travel arrangements or assisted those who couldn’t travel to remain at residences until campuses reopened. Many students left essential learning, research, and personal items behind in residences.
Controlling the Covid-19 pandemic, however, proved far more complicated than anticipated.
As the country progressed into level four on May 1, South African universities were permitted to resume face-to-face classes for final-year medical students. Directions were gazetted which allowed for the once-off travel of final-year medical students. There was no clarity as to whether this included international students; the wording, however, was at least wide enough to allow for this.
Stakeholders interpreted the regulations in different ways, but at least some final-year medical students returned from Lesotho.
When Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande charted the way forward, he said that “all students should be given a fair opportunity to complete the academic year 2020”. In his speech, he stated that final-year students in programmes requiring clinical training, such as nursing and dental sciences, would begin from June 1.
He postulated that other critical groups of students, including final-year and postgraduate students who require access to laboratory equipment, should be allowed to return to the country’s campuses.
He did not refer to a planned exclusion of international students, and at least some universities included them in their planning.
Schools vs universities
When the teaching of select grades in basic education resumed in South Africa, learners from neighbouring countries were allowed to resume their daily commutes across the South African border. It appears, from reports received from border posts, that boarding school students from Lesotho and Botswana have been making their way back.
As the country moved into level three on June 1, some universities anticipated that students from neighbouring low-risk countries such as Lesotho or Botswana would be allowed to return when their face-to-face classes resumed.
Directions issued by the department on June 8, however, stated unequivocally that “International students who returned to their home countries during the lockdown will only be permitted to return to campuses when level 1 of the strategy is announced” and explained, without elaborating in detail, that they would be supported through remote learning and tailored solutions.
Consequently, many international students are likely to return only after face-to-face classes in their modules have already recommenced, and it is left to individual higher education institutions to ensure that they are not “left behind”.
Core issues in ensuring this include the cost of data as well as limited internet speed.
Some universities have tried to alleviate this by providing data allowances for international students, however, this is not yet practised uniformly throughout the sector.
To avoid harm to South Africa’s reputation as a preferred destination for international students, the country and its higher education system will have to find satisfactory answers to critical questions:
How can the South African higher education system ensure that no international student is left behind in modules in which face-to-face classes resume, especially considering those who require clinical/laboratory training?
A recent webinar between vice-chancellors from six SADC countries highlighted the fact that connectivity and data availability throughout Southern Africa is still one of the biggest obstacles facing all higher education systems. All SADC universities will have to be innovative to resolve this problem.
Who will bear the considerable cost for necessary interventions though?
How can the training of critical professions for combating Covid-19 be sustained when degrees such as medicine require clinical training and examinations with a practical component?
How can it be that high school learners from other countries are allowed to enter South Africa but students in critical health science degrees are denied a return to classes?
We posit careful balancing of the often conflicting priorities of combating Covid-19 to ensure that no international students are left behind. The continued training of professionals who are critical in the fight against Covid-19 in Southern Africa is vital to ensure that South Africa contributes optimally to the fight against the pandemic and retains its position as a preferred education destination.
It will be important to demonstrate that the country is living up to its world-renowned Constitution, which entrenches equality as a fundamental right. Any differentiation between international and local students, as well as between secondary and tertiary education students which does not have a rational connection to a legitimate government purpose, such as protecting public health, may taint South Africa’s reputation.
Moving forward, thoughtful action is required to ensure that future generations of international students choose to study in South Africa.
Dr Nico Jooste is senior director of the African Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (AFRIC) and a research fellow of the University of the Free State (UFS). Cornelius Hagenmeier is director of the Office for International Affairs at UFS and serves on the AFRIC board of directors. Both write in their personal capacities