Rethinking international postgrad experiences

27 August 2020 | Story Laura Rawden. Photo ConvertKit, Unsplash. Read time 7 min.

“There is a case to be made for re-thinking the international experience for postgraduate students – whether there is a pandemic or not,” said University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, at the fourth installment in the webinar series, Unleashing the new global university.

Noting the unsustainability of the current model of internationalisation, which relies heavily on students flying around the world, Phakeng said it also creates barriers for those from the global south who might not have access to funds or visas to travel.

“But international experiences and contexts build how we think, solve problems and identify problems that need to be solved,” she said. For postgraduate students the experience is integral to developing as world-class researchers with access to new technologies, career opportunities and leaders in their fields.

Considering this, Phakeng asked: “Is international travel a prerequisite to gain such experience?”

Use virtual to enable collaboration

Digital technologies can significantly enhance the delivery of postgraduate degree training, said Ernest Aryeetey, professor of economics and secretary-general of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).


When teaching goes online, you’re saying here’s an opportunity to listen and take your own time according to your needs.

Speaking at the fourth #NewGlobalUni event held on 24 August, he pointed to online tools that allowed the sharing of resources and collaboration as most valuable, especially for African countries developing graduate degree programmes.

“I’ve seen in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, for example, growing numbers of people seeking graduate degrees,” he said. “The ability to deliver these programmes would best be achieved by working hand-in-hand with universities where the resources already exist.”

Virtual learning may also help improve postgraduate learning outcomes, said speaker Hangwelani Hope Magadimisha-Chipungu from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who is the DST/NRF/SACN SARChl Chair in Inclusive Cities.

“People don’t have the same articulation or understanding of issues. When teaching goes online, you’re saying here’s an opportunity to listen and take your own time according to your needs and how you understand the concept,” she said.

Build postgrad peer groups online

Aspects of research could indeed be conducted virtually, but the need for virtual peer groups should also be acknowledged, said Daya Reddy, president of the International Science Council, and DST/NRF SARChl Chair in Computational Mechanics at UCT.

Noting the stress, loneliness, and financial and academic challenges postgraduates face, he emphasised the value of social cohesion as part of an overall postgrad programme. “Social cohesion in the postgraduate community is a key to resilience, success and ultimately to a richer experience,” he said.

“This is an ideal opportunity to initiate virtual peer groups that include a rich mix of graduate students in the global south and the rest of the world that communicate and build social cohesion.”

That’s not to say that international peer groups aren’t possible in the current environment – even with COVID-19 constraints. According to Magadimisha-Chipungu, internationalisation has already started at home with people from different cultures and backgrounds mixing daily.

“The flow of international migrants worldwide amounts to 130 people moving every minute,” she said. “In academia, that means faculties are driven by teaching that taps into experiences from home countries and engaging with students from different environments, cultures and languages.”

Address equity in internationalisation

That’s not to say the lived experience of internationalisation isn’t important – and possibly irreplaceable.

“The lived experience of travel and contact with the environment and people, we aren’t going to replace that with anything else,” said Magadimisha-Chipungu.

“It’s important and it’s needed. But it’s not equitable.”

Equity should form the foundation of new programmes as we look to the future, said Terence McMaster, associate professor at the School of Physics at the University of Bristol and director of its graduate school.


“Social cohesion in the postgraduate community is a key to resilience, success and ultimately to a richer experience.”

Citing the novel Researchers without Borders PhD programme between the University of Bristol and UCT as an example, he said it was built on a premise of equity and sharing time, resources, costs and intellectual property.

“Equity has to permeate the design of the programme. If we can get the fundamentals right, then our students will be able to take advantage of a future either with prolonged separation from face-to-face contact or a new normal which is regular online interaction,” he said.

The next and final event in the #NewGlobalUni series, happening on 7 September, will focus on these and other learnings gathered from the complete series so far.

By looking at how changing the medium changes the way of doing things, Phakeng confirmed that the final installment will “push the boundaries of conventional thinking around the future of the global university.”

Register for that live digital conversation here.

Unleashing the new global university: next up

How does changing the medium change the way of doing things?
7 September 2020 / 17:30–18:30 (CAT/SAST)

Covid-19 has radically changed the ways that universities do everything: research, teaching, social responsiveness and internationalisation. The great hope has been that we can use new technologies to be more creative in the ways we shape international experiences and collaborations, and to do so in ways that lessen the negative characteristics of the old model. How will changing the medium challenge the nature of global relationships?

Confirmed participants:

  • Achille Mbembe, professor in history at the Wits Institute For Social & Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
  • Monica Kerrets-Makau, academic director for Africa, Thunderbird School of Global Management, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Kate Bowles, associate dean international, Faculty of the Arts, Social Science and Humanities, UOW, Australia
  • Nagla Rizk, professor of economics and founding director, Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D), School of Business, the American University in Cairo, Egypt

Follow the #newglobaluni and join the conversation on Twitter.

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