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South Africa’s international education sector judders back to life

It’s fair to say the pandemic was a rough period for the sector, and in general, across the world – but it posed unique challenges for South Africa. 

South Africa's international student population fell sharply during the pandemic, according to experts. Photo: Unsplash

In 2019, there were just over 40,000 international students in South Africa

From 10 to 12 hour power cuts throughout the country, to collapsing state entities like airlines and post offices and undrinkable tap water, it was an extremely difficult time.

At one point under lockdown rules, South Africans were not even allowed to buy or sell open-toed shoes.

A gradual recovery has occurred in the last year or so. In July, it was suggested that the country was “nearing the end” of its national practice of Loadshedding – the local name of daily controlled power cuts to rotate electricity throughout the network. 

Despite the optimism of possibly ending and the economy returning to its pre-pandemic state, the GDP has continued to fluctuate, and South Africans are feeling the brunt of the lack of clarity.

While the pandemic and its fallout has been unfortunate, Brent Morris says, it was essentially good for study abroad business. 

Canada, Australia and the UK are seeing big upticks in interest – especially Canada, with an enticing price point and post-study work opportunities. 

“I don’t like running a business like that so it’s not what we do – we tell people not to run away, because South Africa’s still amazing – you still get to live by the beach and have those niceties if you want to. 

“We spend a lot of time trying to get people to invest offshore – by getting people to study outside the country and come back – and people do come back,” Morris, director of study abroad at Sable International, tells The PIE.

On a national level, however, there is not a way to quantify this, says Wiseman Jack – and considering the investment they’ve made, many simply don’t return. 

“Those who go overseas to study in any country, they seldom come back if they’ve paid their way there. Of course, if they went on a scholarship – like when the government sponsors doctors to go and study Cuba, they have to come back,” explains Jack, consultant and former president of the International Education Association of South Africa

Jack said some will return after two or three years – he references the UK’s Graduate Route visa, and rules in France allowing some international students to work for up to five years – but the likelihood of an immediate return is low. 

Such cases, where affluent South Africans who can afford it, study outside and then don’t come back – not to mention those who study in South Africa and then leave – mean a “brain drain” is possibly looming. 

“We are going to see big skills gaps,” claims Nico Jooste, chair of AfriC and the mind behind Nelson Mandela University’s expansive internationalisation strategy in the 2000s and 2010s. 

“We are going to see big skills gaps”

“We need economic growth of 5% – and want to address our poverty levels, and we’re not going to get there if we don’t keep all the people with the skills,” he notes. 

Stringent rules around post graduation work in South Africa mean many international students from India, he adds, are also leaving the country after graduation, with few opportunities available. 

After general elections next year, Jooste predicts, it may be a different story – but at the moment, the gaps will remain a preoccupation in the minds of many.

Further back in the funnel, inbound mobility seems to be slowly awakening too, as international offices dust themselves off after a tumultuous three years. 

“When it comes to mobility, we collectively, as universities and as the association, are encouraging, promoting and trying our best to reconnect with our partners – we can’t exactly quantify it, but the number [of students] is still small,” Jack explains. 

In 2019, there were just over 40,000 international students in South Africa, over 33,000 of whom were from Sub-Saharan Africa.

This number sank rapidly during the pandemic – and while there is not available data on the current numbers, they are beginning to slowly climb back up, he added. 

“We haven’t seen a full return of students coming back to South Africa,” Jack says. “It’s still a challenge with rebuilding and we hope with the new strategies that we’re putting in place as the association, we will see the improvement. It’s a struggle.” 

Carlien Jooste – Nico Jooste’s daughter – works as the head of internationalisation at Sefako Makgatho University, a smaller health science-focused institution in the city of Ga-Rankuwa, near Pretoria. 

“Previously, internationalisation was within the marketing and communications strategy – now, internationalisation has been given a separate office,” she explains, a process only completed last year. 

Universities across the country are at different stages in their internationalisation journey. Some, like NMU, have been going for 25 years with strong international partnerships and mobility, others, like SMU, are just beginning their efforts.

As a medical institution, there are quotas for international students at SMU – most, as with the rest of the country, are from the African continent. While numbers have dropped, the university is beginning to focus on its comprehensive internationalisation strategy. 

“We’re very much now entrenching comprehensive internationalisation within the university itself. It’s not as scattered across different departments as it was before.

“Obviously with that comes more international students, more partners, better service, and better experience – where they know there’s one office that they can actually speak to,” she says. 

Nico Jooste, meanwhile, argues that it isn’t just about mobility and explains his theory behind the two separate entities of internationalisation.

“We’re encouraging, promoting and trying our best to reconnect with our partners”

“There is intellectual internationalisation, and then applied internationalisation – intellectual being looking at the curriculum and doing joint research, and applied focusing on mobility development.

“South Africa’s universities have developed quite a good model in terms of mobility due to the need for visa compliance to get international students and staff, but we’ve always been lacking in the intellectual side.

“Covid forced us to do that differently. One can’t exist without the other,” he insists.

After two years of breathing space, he says, universities have an optimal chance to develop in both areas. 

Carlien Jooste says there is plenty of support for general internationalisation at SMU – both students and staff know how much they will gain from international knowledge on the campus.

Such international knowledge, Morris muses, can come from a South African studying abroad too. 

While his business can’t definitively convince its clients to study abroad and come straight back, he knows that at the very least, they will become global citizens.  

“You become this person that understands Western society and African society and there’s a huge demand for someone who can bring the two together,” he notes. 

Questions remain as to the future of international education in South Africa, but Jack urges the sector to keep its eyes peeled for a new Study in South Africa campaign in the Autumn. In the not-so-distant future, post-pandemic numbers can begin to look like pre-pandemic numbers once more. 

“We’re hoping that by putting our heads together, the higher education sector in South Africa and IEASA, we’ll see those numbers recover.”

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