Mamphela Ramphele

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 12

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


The system of education in South Africa has hitherto been elitist and exclusionary. Post-apartheid "massification" of higher education in South Africa provides a real challenge for the country's universities and technikons. The massification process - the transition from an elite to a mass-based education system - entails increased participation and greater expenditure. The most important aspect of this transition is that increasing numbers of students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds are not only seeking admission to universities and technikons but also looking to the government to foot the bill.

Against this backdrop, it is crucial that tertiary institutions respond decisively and efficiently to the demand for tertiary education from home without sacrificing or abandoning their obligation to neighbouring countries and their international duty. International students are an integral part of any internationally recognized institution. It is therefore crucial that South African institutions recognize the academic, cultural and financial benefits to be gained from international students. This recognition must be balanced by the demands imposed on them by the legitimate demands of the citizenry to redress the devastating legacy of apartheid education.

Over the last decade, tertiary education has become a major global export commodity. About a million and a half students travel overseas for their education every year. Of these, about 22% come from Asia and the Pacific Rim, 17% from North America, and 14% from Europe. This phenomenon presents host institutions with both financial gains and problems. In 1996, over 13,000 international students were studying at South African universities and technikons. The number and proportion of international students varies considerably with Unisa having the highest absolute enrolment. Students from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region accounted for 50% of all international students.

Who qualifies as a foreign or international student? According to the Department of Home Affairs, a "foreign student" is anyone who is not a South African citizen, not a permanent resident, or does not have diplomatic exemption. In practice, the definition and understanding of "foreignness" is not that simple. The issue of foreignness can be a source of tension between a section of largely black South African students and black students from neighbouring African countries. South African students feel deprived and invoke their citizenship or South Africanness in the face of competition from foreign students who compete for local resources in order to make ends meet. They stress the foreignness of their competitors and seek to remove them from the equation. They even blame their deprivation on "foreign" students who do not belong.

In addition, the promotion of equity in terms of race -- to which the South African government has committed itself -- is seen as being open to abuse by "foreign" blacks who stand to gain from its undifferentiated use. Of greater significance is the reality of the better preparedness of students and staff from other African countries who were spared Bantu Education and are thus able to compete on merit for undergraduate, postgraduate and staff positions.

Further complicating the determination of foreignness is the cumbersome definition of what constitutes a neighbouring country. For purposes of state subsidies to international students, a diplomatic and economically and politically constructed definition is used. Thus South Africa's neighbouring countries are not only Botswana,Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, countries with which she shares common borders, but all the other SADC member states. The implications of this for continued state expenditure on the education of international students are profound.

International students have reason to feel aggrieved by recent policy. The spectre of deportation continues to haunt them throughout their student life and the repatriation arrangements they are required to make in advance compound their anxiety. International students understandably fail to divorce these measures from the more stringent and punitive ones designed to halt the influx of "illegal immigrants." The feeling among some international students is that the Department of Home Affairs is pursuing a policy of discouragement. They feel that the policy is not only unnecessarily punitive and deliberately designed to break their spirit but also tinged with xenophobia. University authorities' failure to secure favourable deals for their international students has the unfortunate consequence of being perceived as collusion with the Department of Home Affairs. Iinternational students see the withdrawal of subsidies as a deliberate attempt to make fees prohibitive and exclusionary and another of South Africa's thinly disguised excuses to curb the influx of international students.

Universities and technikons certainly need to retain the confidence of their foreign clientele. International students have always voiced concerns about what they perceive to be punitive immigration controls through their respective host institutions. Some actions by the Department of Home Affairs contradict some of the principles and ideals individual institutions treasure and stand for. Most institutions have expressed commitment to ridding their campuses of all forms of discrimination. According to new legislation, international students can only be employed in areas which have a direct bearing to their studies. The legislation makes perfect sense as it seeks to make more opportunities available to South African students. The downside of that, however, is that if international students are going to be excluded from certain forms of employment offered by universities and technikons they are attending, then that is discrimination on the basis of their nationalities. This has the unfortunate effect of making university authorities appear to be hypocrites who cannot live up to the rhetoric of their mission statements.

In the wake of what international students are increasingly beginning to perceive as xenophobic rhetoric and discriminatory behaviour by all and sundry, and at a time when the term "foreign" is beginning to assume some negative overtones, South African universities and technikons must remain the havens of tolerance and embrace heterogeneous discourses and cultures. Xenophobic sentiments feed on perceived and real differences and prey on feelings of deprivation supposedly caused by the international students who does not belong. The stage is set for tension to mount and the challenge for university and technikon administrators is to manage that tension creatively.

Legitimate questions can be asked about the wisdom of continued state subsidies to international students while South African students are in dire need of financial aid. There is general agreement that the subsidization of international students at the expense of the South African taxpayers and students cannot be allowed to continue. However, the withdrawal of subsidies must be carried out with great sensitivity and that a national policy needs to be formulated to guide the process and make it as painless as possible for all.

An opportunity exists for South African institutions to exploit the favourable conditions they offer and convert demand for their places by international students from developed countries into tangible financial gains. If sensibly managed, this category of student has the potential to yield significant financial rewards for the host institutions. However, the possible economic and social advantage for South Africa in hosting and subsidizing some international students must be balanced against the relatively limited number of places available at South African institutions.

In support of continued subsidies to SADC students, some point out the advantages for South Africa of providing educational opportunities to neighbouring countries within a broader Southern African economic framework. They argue that South Africa owes its neighbours an incalculable debt of gratitude for their invaluable contribution to the demise of apartheid. Many exiled South Africans were educated in these countries at the expense of these countries' taxpayers. Moreover, the apartheid regime's policy of destabilization and the wrath that neighbouring countries incurred for supporting anti-apartheid forces did a lot to derail these countries' development plans. Others suggest that since expanded co-operation within the SADC countries is government policy, it would be counter-productive to terminate all subsidies to students from these countries.

To conclude, this overview of the policy dilemma of international students in South Africa makes several recommendations: