SA higher education must ensure no international student is left behind in current Covid-19 crisis
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By Cornelius Hagenmeier and Dr Nico Jooste
South Africa has established itself as a regional higher education hub, which has until the recent Covid-19 pandemic been hosting increasing numbers of international students.
The vast majority hails from the neighbouring countries in the Southern African Development Community and includes increasing numbers of postgraduate students.
The way the country and its higher-education system treat international students in the present crisis may determine whether it will be able to retain its position as a regional higher education hub, and whether it will be able to be a driver for PhD capacity development in the SADC region.
South African higher education has promoted ethical practices that govern their engagements with international students.
Most universities expected that their international students would come back to campuses after an extended recess in April 2020.
At many universities, international offices assisted international students with travel arrangements and organised for those unable to travel, mostly students from other regions of the world, to remain in university residences.
However, controlling the Covid-19 pandemic proved complicated.
How can the South African higher-education system ensure that no international student is left behind in modules for which face-to-face classes resume, especially considering those who require clinical/laboratory training?
Who will bear the considerable cost for necessary interventions?
How can the training of critical professions for combating Covid-19 in Southern Africa be sustained at South African higher-education institutions when degrees such as medicine (MB ChB degree) require clinical training and examinations through a practical component?
We posit that careful balancing of the often conflicting priorities of combating Covid-19, ensuring that no international students are left behind, and sustaining the training of professionals who are critical in the fight against Covid-19 in Southern Africa, is necessary to ensure that South Africa contributes optimally to the fight against the pandemic in Southern Africa and sustains its position as a preferred destination for international students.
Moving forward, thoughtful action is required to ensure that future generations of international students choose to study in South Africa following the pandemic, and to encourage those who left in haste when the Covid-19 crisis intensified, to return to complete their studies.
Jooste is senior director of the African Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (AfriC) and a research fellow of the University of the Free State South Campus.
Hagenmeier is director of the Office for International Affairs at UFS and serves on the AfriC board of directors.