SA’s visa crisis jeopardises internationalisation efforts of universities, businesses
Market depends on skilled labour with universal exposure.
Along with the many other issues hampering foreign investment and development in South Africa, the country is facing a visa crisis.
Visa chaos at Home Affairs
Skilled labour, students and visitors on business, as well as tourists, are being held up by a failing administration and bureaucracy.
Businesses are struggling and losing out on not only critical skills injections, but also on broader interactions with overseas partners in terms of internships, mentorships and short-term exchanges of staff.
This is acutely felt across all sectors of society, and no more so than in higher education and at our universities as the academic year gets underway.
Amidst the challenges of student protests over finances and debts, universities’ internationalisation projects are being jeopardised. Universities continue to lose students who would otherwise add to the diversity and broader internationalisation project of the country.
Universities’ quotas of international students are low, compared to bigger and more developed economies.
Some might say this makes sense in the bigger ecosystem of fierce competition for study spaces in SA. However, it is not the percentage of international nor local students that presents a problem to the economy, it is the lack of study spaces.
We cannot afford to lose international students and staff for several reasons.
A university degree and higher education experience are dependent on a diversity of viewpoints from scholarships, peers and teachers and the curriculum itself.
From an education and organisational perspective, diversity feeds excellence. With the increased importance of university rankings, international students, staff, research collaborations and citations and partnerships have gained substantial importance and form the backbone of the rankings system.
Facilitation of international students
We cannot rely on other nations and universities to reciprocate if we do not facilitate for international students to study in SA.
Our own labour market depends on skilled labour with international experience and exposure. International students add to the economy in several ways and in the immediate to the finances of the institution where they are registered through paying international student levies and fees.
Even though internationalisation and attracting African students and staff for SA universities remains mainly an exercise in equity and diversity, there is no reason we should not compete for students from the continent with bigger economies.
In the long-term, the international students are highly educated, often the top students in their home countries and after graduation become part of our international alumni.
International alumni are our brand ambassadors and with tight budgets for marketing and recruitment, engaging alumni has become more important than ever. In particular, our African alumni will help build future partnerships and coalitions on the continent. We cannot afford not to leverage off our African alumni.
This is recognised through the Policy Framework for Internationalisation of Higher Education, developed to support the enrolment of international students at the country’s universities and institutions of higher education, particularly from the rest of Africa.
This is a “means of contributing to [the continent’s] human resource development and giving expression to our commitment to African development and the African renaissance”.
Inbound and outbound access for international scholars
The policy states government is to facilitate inbound and outbound access for international scholars and students, yet nothing is said as to how this will be implemented.
And as SA universities are completing their main registration cycle, assistance has not been forthcoming, and administration staff at our universities is having to answer to government failures with understandable little understanding from students and colleagues frustrated by the processes and lack of support.
Colleagues within the administration are concerned about what happens to students and staff and the broader internationalisation project of our universities when we cannot facilitate the basics for our international students and staff. Increasingly, staff is asking “what is it going to take for government to wake up”.
And while staff is strained and under pressure, the impact this has on our students and staff caught in limbo is massive and has consequences for people’s futures, livelihoods and families, and the toll taken on mental health.
Despite some mitigation measures, such as blanket extensions for pending visa applications – including pending waiver applications – this is simply not enough.
The country needs and depends on being able to process all applications quickly and with outmost professionalism.
We need the support from government to streamline and increase transparency in visa processes. Without it, our internationalisation efforts and the broader global engagement project of our universities is jeopardised
Written by Ylva Rodny-Gumede