In search of a more equitable global higher education space

October 1, 2019

Dr. Ebrima Sall, Executive Director TrustAfrica/ Interview with University World News

Both the “climax” of globalisation – marked by the rise of Trumpism*, Brexit and narrow nationalisms – and the deepening of globalisation dominated by a neoliberal agenda pose threats to the internationalisation of higher education. However, the African continent and its institutions can still make strategic choices around internationalisation, avoid being locked up in “new forms of dependency”, and contribute towards bridging knowledge divides.

This was the view of Professor Ebrima Sall, former executive secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), and currently executive director of Trust Africa based in Senegal.

Speaking at the second HEFAALA symposium held in Addis Ababa last month on the topic “The climax of globalisation: The endurance of internationalisation”, Sall said the kind of internationalisation promoted by African universities should contribute to the building of a “much more open, inclusive and equitable global higher education space in which the South will not just be at the receiving end, but also an effective, legitimate and recognised contributor”.

“Internationalisation in higher education should also be subjected to critical analysis given the knowledge divides (World Social Science Report 2010) and the inequalities and power dynamics that exist within the world of higher education itself. As we have seen, internationalisation has not always been, and will not always be ‘intentional’.
However, because internationalisation is, in some respects, a site of struggle, Africa as a region, and individual African institutions and countries can make strategic choices in so far as internationalisation is concerned,” he argued.

African higher education space

For Sall, the starting point for the kind of “transformative” internationalisation needed in Africa is the creation of an African higher education space – one that recognises the critical role of the continent’s universities in the structural transformation of African economies and the re-negotiation of Africa’s position in the global epistemological, economic and governance order.

“Internationalisation ought to promote universal values and help in addressing the challenges facing our planet in ways that make it a place where all its inhabitants (humans, flora and fauna) feel secure and acknowledged, and are able to live in harmony,” he said.

The CODESRIA Conference of Deans of Faculties of Social Sciences and Humanities of December 2011, held in Morocco; the African Higher Education Summit of 2015: Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future; the Dakar Declaration of the 2015 African Higher Education Summit; and the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 were all important milestones in the process leading to the building of an African higher education space, he said.

He argued that there was a need to see internationalisation as part of efforts to bring about a more equitable form of globalisation, which, he said, was what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are about. “For that, Africa should envision internationalisation as part what will make Agenda 2063 a reality,” he said.

This also means that higher education ought to be an important contributor to what can make the African Continental Free Trade Area a reality. “That does not seem to be the case at the moment, but the Free Trade Area will be missing something important if higher education is divorced from it,” he said.

Forward looking

Importantly for Africa, internationalisation of higher education should be “forward looking”, alive to the challenges of preparing the present and future generations of Africans to face emerging challenges such as the demographic explosion in Africa, global environmental challenges and the changes heralded by the fourth industrial revolution.

Sall said that on the face of it globalisation appears to be challenged by conservative forces from within the key centres (the Global North) that have propelled it for years.

However, he urged his audience not to forget the ‘Occupy’ movement in the USA, the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement in France, and “the protest movements led by young people all across Africa, as well as the older World Social Movements [the Forums] – all of which were responses to globalisation from progressive standpoints”, he said.

However, the financialisation and the deepening of neoliberal globalisation had also led to the marketisation and extreme forms of fragmentation of higher education and knowledge systems, with certain institutions, disciplines and knowledges, often because of their market value, being considered superior to others.

“Others are seriously marginalised. The competition for resources and space is ferocious. While almost all universities are managed more and more like businesses, some universities are behaving more-or-less like private multinational companies. Steve Fuller talks about ‘academic imperialism’. That doesn’t help internationalisation. Or rather, it is an aspect of internationalisation that creates problems for the weaker institutions, particularly historically disadvantaged ones both in the North and in the South,” said Sall.


He said inequality was “embedded” in the internationalisation currently underway, with global institutional rankings being just one illustration.

Others included the introduction of higher fees for foreign, non-European students in France and Norway – something the United Kingdom and Australia did several decades ago, he said.

This was also happening in Africa as several African countries including Nigeria and Ghana charge much higher fees to students from other African countries.

“The justification, in some cases, is to use the higher fees charged to ‘foreign’ students (who include Africans from other countries) to subsidise the education of national students. This is a challenge to student mobility within the continent, and an illustration of the challenges that the non-existence of an African higher education space poses.”

Balancing out the challenges, Sall pointed to the “extraordinary dynamism and creativity in internationalisation”, some of which was due to the development of new information and communications technologies that have led to the diversification of institutional types, delivery modes and knowledge modes and the explosion of massive open online courses or MOOCs, etc.

“All these developments, I would argue, are part of globalisation, neoliberal globalisation. In the face of these developments, are Trumpism and other forms of narrow nationalism capable of stopping internationalisation? They certainly are major obstacles, but it is yet to be proven that they are capable of really stopping internationalisation.”

Sall said Trumpism and Brexit represented a “re-negotiation of the terms of engagement and attempts to reposition and re-assert the hegemony of certain players” in the global economy.

“For the universities of Africa, one of the questions to be answered is that of how to avoid being locked up in new forms of dependency. For instance, the MOOCs are a formidable global resource, but will African universities be mere users or eternal ‘consumers’ of MOOCs produced elsewhere, after all the struggles to Africanise the universities and their curricula?”

A long history of internationalisation

Highlighting the fact that Africa is home to some of the world’s oldest universities and has a long history of internationalisation of higher education and research dating back to the pre-European renaissance and pre-colonial movement of scholars, Sall said the introduction of the modern university had led to a major shift.

“Old universities and non-Europhone intellectuals and knowledges were devalued and side-lined in favour of the modern university that was modelled on the European universities. That university was and still is Eurocentrist (Western-centrist), and that is still the dominant higher education model institution.”

What the 2010 ISSC-UNESCO World Social Science Report calls “knowledge divides” are many. The divides are closely linked to inequalities within the global higher education and knowledge systems, which are themselves mirror images of the dominant world order.

Efforts to re-member (re-assemble) and build unified, equitable and inclusive scholarly communities and knowledge systems at the global level, and within our respective regions, are still going on, he said. The Pan African University, with sub-regional hubs specialising in different fields, and the adoption of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025, are examples of some of the most important inter-governmental initiatives on the continent, he said.

Sall said the pursuit of what the declaration of the African Higher Education Summit of 2015 called “mutually-beneficial internationalisation initiatives” should also be about the bridging of the knowledge divides, and the opening of the spaces for all knowledges, the ultimate aim being to comprehend and respond to global challenges and build a better world, “leaving nobody behind” (to borrow the formulation of the SDGs).

* Trumpism has been defined as “the policies advocated by [United States President] Donald Trump, those involving a rejection of the current political establishment and the vigorous pursuit of American national interests.” (Collins Dictionary,…h/trumpism)

Original article can be found here.

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