Covid-19 has posed the ‘wicked problem’ of how to maintain internationalisation in higher education

Covid-19 has posed the ‘wicked problem’ of how to maintain internationalisation in higher education
(Photo: Unsplash/Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz)

International collaboration is a critical aspect of university research and of academic rankings, amplified by the urgency to develop responses to cross-cutting global challenges. Southern African universities must rethink their internationalisation strategies to remain globally competitive and succeed after Covid-19. Key will be interventions that do not require the physical mobility of staff and students.

Covid-19 has caused frantic activity in southern African and global higher education, and a vibrant discourse on the characteristics of post-pandemic internationalisation has emerged, among others.

Drawing from the notion of a “wicked problem”, we argue that post-Covid-19 internationalisation of higher education, and higher education itself, indeed has elements of “wickedness”. A wicked problem does not mean the question is “malevolent”, but rather that solutions might lead to new challenges, and that solutions cannot be classified as “right” or “wrong” (Zhao, Wehmeyer, Basham, & Hansen, 2019), and require diverse thinking.

Internationalisation of higher education is a complex space, full of “social and institutional uncertainties” and involving “multiple interacting systems” (Mertens, 2015, p3). Thus any attempt at a “best” way to advance internationalisation in higher education will be futile. We believe we should rather contemplate why internationalisation matters and why it would matter post-pandemic, and then engage on different and new ways to navigate this wicked space in southern Africa.

Before endeavouring to predict future trends meaningfully and evaluating how they will manifest themselves in internationalisation activities, it is necessary to understand why internationalisation will remain relevant to southern African post-pandemic higher education and what its future drivers will be. In this contribution, we first analyse the relevance of post-Covid-19 internationalisation. Thereafter, we anticipate possible future characteristics of internationalisation in southern Africa and consider which institutional internationalisation activities may prevail in this environment. We close by suggesting select interventions which universities should consider to advance internationalisation.

What is the rationale for continuing internationalisation of higher education in southern Africa after Covid-19?

Traditionally, one distinguishes between academic, cultural, political and economic rationales for internationalisation (De Wit, 2013). A critical driver for internationalisation is the enhancement of the quality of education, including graduate employability.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution requires graduates to be equipped with the skill to work in teams with colleagues who they have never physically met and the ability to understand and use technology which has not yet been engineered and emanates globally. This trend will likely become more pronounced in the post-pandemic environment in which flexible human resource models will likely become pre-eminent, and collaboration in virtual teams transcending international borders will be expected of employees.

More than ever, a globally connected research environment will be critical for the success, particularly of universities, which will have to integrate with global research networks and have a strong network of continental and global partnerships to succeed.

The developing world and thus also southern Africa will be no exception to this. The control of novel infectious disease, enabling work in office environments and business travel during times of health threats, is even more challenging in resource-constrained settings, and the southern African world of work will likely be forced to adapt to an environment shaped by infectious disease.

Intercultural and global competence acquisition will likely remain critical for graduate employability. In the wake of the pandemic, all students, including first-generation students as well as those hailing from socioeconomically disadvantaged environments, will likely only succeed in a highly competitive future employment market if they can embrace the “new normal” of working digitally with co-workers they do not know, using technologies developed and described abroad in other cultural contexts. Higher education institutions that are best positioned to deliver education equipping students for this reality will likely be the first choice of students.

Furthermore, knowledge production is taking place through innovative global scientific discourse like never before. International collaboration has become a critical aspect of research, amplified by the urgency to develop responses to cross-cutting global challenges, such as the current pandemic.

For universities to succeed in this environment, they must attract the brightest minds in their respective fields. Leading researchers enjoy the privilege of choosing their institutional affiliation. The opportunity to connect with their peers continentally and globally, and participate in relevant cross-border scientific networks, are among the relevant decision-influencing factors, with intellectually and culturally diverse institutional environments, in which transdisciplinary discourse and research flourishes in an atmosphere of trust, respect and mutual appreciation.

Efficient research support (including assistance in the identification of international funding opportunities, technical support for preparation and submission of funding applications and logistical support for import/export permits of samples) and access to excellent and intellectually diverse postgraduate students are other relevant factors.

More than ever, a globally connected research environment will be critical for the success, particularly of universities, which will have to integrate with global research networks and have a strong network of continental and global partnerships to succeed.

Cultivating cultural understanding, intercultural communication and contributing to improved relations between nations are high priorities in a world in which, despite common global challenges and accepted global agendas, at times xenophobic nationalism and populism flourish. The pandemic has intensified this trend; nations are often looking in isolation for solutions, even competing for solutions, and implement at times inconsistent measures developed through national processes, against global intelligence.

One of the most extreme examples is the United States, which is in the process of departing from the World Health Organisation; however, similar trends can be observed in many nations. Higher education should be committed to amelioration and to promoting the common good, and thus needs to assist in countering those trends. Particularly in southern Africa, which strives to achieve regional integration and struggles to overcome extremist and divisive threats, higher education institutions should be imbued with a sense of responsibility to promote cultural understanding and support cross-border understanding.

While there is a multitude of perspectives on rankings, they are a reality which is likely to remain after Covid-19. Ranking organisations have become important stakeholders in the higher education landscape, and as such should be included in the discourse around rethinking internationalisation, rather than steering it unintentionally.

Income generation through internationalisation has many facets. In southern Africa, acquisition of international external funding is a primary motivation for internationalisation; the current fiscal crunch intensifies the need to find alternative funding sources.

On the other hand, income generation through international students is not a central driver for internationalisation in this region, as it is in some others, since the majority of international students hail from SADC countries and, according to the 1997 SADC Protocol on Education, international students from the region cannot be charged international fees.

We posit that the commercialisation of internationalisation may result in unintended consequences such as deepening existing inequalities in higher education. To avoid this, funding models for internationalisation need to be reconstructed to enable equal global higher education collaboration. We challenge the southern African region to take a leadership role in this respect.

Internationalisation both directly and indirectly assists universities with institutional positioning by improving their ranking position. University rankings, including the Times Higher Education Ranking, attribute considerable weight to the number of international academic staff members and international students at institutions. Besides, the improved quality of higher education through internationalisation indirectly reflects improved ranking positions of universities.

While there is a multitude of perspectives on rankings, they are a reality which is likely to remain after Covid-19. Ranking organisations have become important stakeholders in the higher education landscape, and as such should be included in the discourse around rethinking internationalisation, rather than steering it unintentionally.

While it is not possible to predict future global and southern African political, social, cultural and economic developments, it is apparent that the “new normal” will be characterised by uncertainty. We posit that developing the ability to navigate unknown spaces is one of the significant benefits of internationalisation. Through global engagement, students, academics, institutions and other higher education stakeholders strengthen the adaptability and flexibility necessary to navigate the unknown future environment which they are expected to shape.

The future of higher education internationalisation in southern Africa

At present, a forced radical paradigm shift in internationalisation practice appears to be taking place. Some commentators in the higher education discourse argue that, as a consequence of the emergency shift to online delivery of university teaching and learning, internationalisation would no longer be considered synergistic with mobility, and the value of remote and digital mobility would emerge. This may be a true reflection of the mainstream higher education discourse not anchored in internationalisation theory; however, those changes were anticipated in the past decade’s internationalisation literature and practice. The ongoing pandemic merely accentuates them.

The rapid conceptual development of internationalisation and the evolution of its practice are part of an ongoing process, and southern African higher education has the opportunity to position itself at the avant-garde of this development.

The radical transformation of internationalisation was already identified almost a decade ago. Knight (2012) observed the shift from individual to programme mobility as well as curriculum internationalisation which focuses on international and intercultural skills acquisition. Brandenburg and De Wit (2017) indeed provocatively proclaimed the end of internationalisation as we know it. Noting that internationalisation has moved from fringe to core, they called for a new set of values and rationales.

Consensus started emerging around a new definition for internationalisation that reflects an understanding of internationalisation as a means to achieve quality in higher education and focuses on benefiting society at large through internationalisation.

Parallel to this, internationalisation at home and virtual exchange gained prominence in theory and practice, and the central question of how virtual collaboration can be positioned in the internationalisation at home emerged. Furthermore, a focus on the “Internationalisation of Higher Education in Society” is starting to emerge (Brandenburg, De Wit, Jones and Laesk, 2019).

Likely, the impact of the pandemic on internationalisation in southern Africa will be profound. It will accelerate trends which were emerging in the past decade. For the benefit of the region’s higher education, it is essential that the existing basic framework for higher education in the 1997 SADC Protocol on Higher Education and Training is adapted to the changing environment and strengthened; and that appropriate national frameworks, which should be regionally aligned, are finalised.

In this context, it is regrettable that the Draft Policy Framework for the Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa has not been promulgated, which would have provided structure to critical aspects of internationalisation, such as joint degrees, internationalisation of the curriculum, mobility and international collaboration in South Africa.

Following the pandemic, it can be anticipated that all forms of physical mobility will be affected. International degree student numbers, especially at the undergraduate level, will likely decline. The exponential growth of virtual exchanges and mobility can be expected, as well as a strong focus on internationalisation at home. Research internationalisation will be characterised by virtual collaboration; virtual conferences and webinars will shape knowledge exchange.

Focus areas for internationalisation after Covid-19

To succeed in the post-Covid-19 higher education environment, and create an improved, more inclusive model of internationalisation, southern African universities will have to rethink their internationalisation strategies and ensure that they take a comprehensive internationalisation approach. It will be important to foreground interventions which do not require the physical mobility of staff and students.

We advance that, while travel and mobility will resume and remain an aspect of internationalisation, virtual collaboration and local internationalisation will become the main growth areas for institutional internationalisation. Regional mobility can provide a cost-effective alternative to intercontinental exchange, which retains an element of direct exposure. Universities should consider a focus on the development of innovative interventions, including:

  • Curriculum internationalisation;
  • Co-curricular internationalisation at home activities;
  • Joint degree programme development;
  • Short-term virtual exchanges;
  • Semester or year virtual mobilities;
  • Activities which take internationalisation beyond campus boundaries to include communities;
  • Intra-Africa and intra-SADC academic mobility;
  • Growing the international academic staff component by leveraging on flexible human resource models;
  • Inclusion of a range of university staff in internationalisation activities;
  • Strengthening global thinking at universities by promoting broad-based participation in comprehensive internationalisation;
  • Virtual conference and webinar support; and
  • Rethinking international offices as strategic enabling offices for internationalisation.

Ultimately, the ability to innovate, and adaptability, as well as flexibility of higher education institutions will determine whether they will succeed in advancing internationalisation in the world after Covid-19. For internationalisation to succeed in the “new normal”, it will have to be comprehensive, realistic in adapting to a changing environment and responsive to the shifting rationales for internationalisation.

The current period in which many internationalisation activities are paused provides stakeholders in the southern African internationalisation process the opportunity to pause and tackle the wicked challenge of rethinking internationalisation in the region.

The region should canvass the opportunity to provide continued thought leadership for internationalisation of higher education, thus strengthening its role as an incubator for new thinking in internationalisation, which for example manifested itself in the 2014 Nelson Mandela Bay Declaration on the Future of Internationalisation of Higher Education. DM

Cornelius Hagenmeier is Director: Office for International Affairs, University of the Free State (UFS) and member of the Board of Directors: African Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation.

Prof Corli Witthuhn is Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation, UFS.

Dr Nico Jooste is Senior Director: African Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation and Research Fellow: UFS South Campus for Open Distance Learning.

Prof Lynette Jacobs is Head of Research: UFS South Campus for Open Distance Learning.


Brandenburg, De Wit, Jones and Laesk (2019). Internationalisation in Higher Education for Society. World University News of 29 June 2019, available here.

De Wit, H (2013). Internationalisation of Higher Education, an Introduction on the Why, How and What. In De Wit, H (Ed.). (2013). An Introduction to Higher Education Internationalisation.

De Wit, Hans, Hunter, Fiona, Howard, L and Egron-Polak, Eva (2015). Internationalisation of Higher Education: Study. Published by European Parliament Directorate-General for Internal Policies, Policy Department B: Structural and Cohesion Policies, Culture and Education. Document IP/B/CULT/IC/2014-002.

Knight, J. (2012). Concepts, Rationales, and Interpretive Frameworks in the Internationalisation of Higher Education. In Deardorff, D.; De Wit, H.; Heyl, J. and Adams, T (2012): The Sage Handbook of International Higher Education. 

Mertens, D. M. (2015). Mixed Methods and Wicked Problems. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 9(1), 3-6. doi:10.1177/1558689814562944

Zhao, Y., Wehmeyer, M., Basham, J., & Hansen, D. (2019). Tackling the Wicked Problem of Measuring What Matters: Framing the Questions. ECNU Review of Education, 2(3), 262–278. doi:10.1177/2096531119878965 




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