HE internationalisation – What about the private sector?

The internationalisation of higher education has often been regarded as a critical component of many higher education systems across the globe. However, responding to it has not always been easy since the interest and manner in which efforts are directed towards internationalisation are inextricably connected in terms of who and how, with whom, at what expense and with what output internationalisation is taking place.

As a consequence, internationalisation of higher education has often been critiqued when it is presented – either naively or otherwise – as a neutral ground that benefits all.

Unequal and inequitable relationships – between the Global North and South in terms of promoting and benefiting from internationalisation of higher education – abound.

Owing to the increasing commercialisation and marketisation of higher education in the Global North, the motive behind internationalisation has been significantly tied to the “search for student markets”, which contrasts with the needs of developing countries whose motives predominantly align with academic and capacity-building rationales.

Despite an increasing interest towards realising internationalisation of higher education in the context of countries with various levels of economic development, much more needs to be done in terms of exploring how differences or similarities at the level of institutions could enhance or obstruct the nature of internationalisation envisaged.

Private higher education

Understanding the nature of internationalisation in the context of African private higher education was one of the concerns of the Second International Network for Higher Education in Africa (INHEA) Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America (HEFAALA) International Symposium, held concurrently with St Mary’s University’s 17th International Conference on Private Higher Education in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 23-25 July 2019.

Examining internationalisation of higher education at the level of institutions can provide an interesting array of findings that can inform the field. One observation in this regard could be how the nature of internationalisation envisaged at the level of institutions is significantly affected by the particular type and quality of institutions considered, their size, geographical location and, more often, the resources they have at their disposal.

Internationalisation holds a variety of benefits to the private higher education sector. It provides opportunities such as knowledge and technology transfer, resource acquisition and income generation that can be acquired through international contacts, partnerships and affiliations.

In addition, private higher education can attain an improved level of credibility and reputation through the internationalisation process which is, again, a critical component of the sector’s drive towards sustainability.

Private higher education institutions can have additional motivation to forge partnerships as compared to their public counterparts which rely heavily on government resources. In this sense, internationalisation may provide even more benefits to private than public higher education institutions that are assumed to have greater legitimacy, capacity and resources.

What private institutions can and cannot offer

The achievement of elite private institutions as regards internationalisation can be comparable to, or even better than, public institutions. The quality of such institutions provides the opportunity to forge valuable partnerships along the lines of academic mobility, student attraction, research engagement and the like.

It can also provide significant leverage in attracting the best students at the local level which is often a serious challenge for many private higher education institutions that are less favourably regarded than their public counterparts.

With the exception of the higher education system in the US, Japan and some Latin American countries, most higher education systems across the globe are not known for elite private higher education institutions where internationalisation is at the centre of institutional mission.

Despite their tremendous growth, private higher education institutions in most parts of the world fail to meet many of the criteria that secure a good bargaining (partnership) position for the institution.

Most private institutions are found at the bottom of the academic quality scale. Their infrastructural limitations, absence of qualified staff, hyper-commercialism and poor research performance render them less attractive when it comes to forging relationships with foreign institutions. This is despite the fact that this same route could hold a key to addressing deficiencies, building their capacity and improving their image.

Private higher education institutions operate under a plethora of challenges that emanate from the relative youth of the sector, public policy, views towards the sector’s profit motives, and the negative influences of rogue private providers.

The acceptance of private higher education institutions is highly constrained in countries where the role of providing higher education is exclusively left to the public sector, by tradition or prescription. Often associated with business and profit, the very idea of private is suspect in many contexts and can even be regarded as a hindrance to national and public interests.

Public policy towards private higher education could also affect the nature, growth and acceptance of the sector. The operational efficiency and acceptance of private institutions can be compounded by the excessive profit motive and illegal behaviour of rogue providers that earn the sector a bad name.

Indeed, private higher education institutions shoulder a significant burden (perhaps much greater than their public counterparts) of addressing the concerns of students, parents, government and other stakeholders in maintaining their quality and integrity, both critical elements of the internationalisation process.

While the deficiencies of most private higher education institutions in Africa can be acknowledged from the outset, they also hold a variety of strengths that can take them a long way in any plans to engage in the various forms of internationalisation.

The fact that private institutions are flexible, less bureaucratic and quicker in decision-making is a major strength when compared to their public counterparts. Where they are operating properly, private education institutions are often preferred in terms of their ability to attend to market needs, relevance of programmes, student-centredness, lower corruption levels, and absence of incessant staff and student strikes.

Addressing the conundrum

As noted above, the way internationalisation is featured and guided at institutional level could be influenced by the types of partners, agendas, priorities, relationships and outputs. Hence, African private higher education institutions should be aware that their efforts to internationalise are heavily influenced by how much they work towards improving their institutional stature.

At times there may be no need for camouflaging the inequalities and asymmetrical nature of relationships that exist among partnering institutions, but more focus should be given to building the right synergies that can only be attained when private institutions know their relative strengths, know what they want from their engagements, and stick to their commitments and deliver on promises and partner expectations.

African private higher education institutions should also work harder to build an acceptable level of legitimacy by demonstrating their effectiveness through institutional outcomes and activities that draw greater public recognition.

Governments should equally aid this process, not only through supportive legislative environments, but by considering the private higher education sector as an additional partner in the overall internationalisation of higher education schemes envisaged at a national level.

In order to achieve these goals, the major efforts of African private higher education institutions should be directed at addressing the lack of coherent and balanced policies and strategies. In fact, this move should be the starting point, not only to respond to the major weaknesses of these institutions, but also to plan for the future and take advantage of the specific benefits private higher education institutions can harness by actively engaging in the internationalisation process.