Xenophobia fears: 'Fewer African students enrolling at SA universities'

Pretoria - Fewer African students are coming to universities in South Africa due to xenophobia fears and long visa delays – and it could be affecting the future rating of our universities, an academic has said.

Professor Maxi Schoeman from the University of Pretoria said the Faculty of Humanities alone has received 200 fewer applications in 2017 for postgraduate studies. On average the faculty, of which she is deputy dean, gets more than 1000 applications per year.

Schoeman, who addressed a seminar on the future of South African foreign policy at the Institute for Security Studies on Thursday, told the gathering she had seen the impact of the xenophobic attacks and the backlash on the continent in a very practical way at the university campus.

“We’re very, very concerned about the drop in international students this year in enrollment, and by international students, we mean largely students from the rest of the continent.”

'Very, very difficult procedure'

She said the university’s research showed that this was due to two things. “On the one hand, it’s the obvious xenophobia. Parents are scared to send their children here.” She said, ironically, a parent from Burundi, which had seen its own violent political troubles in the recent past, phoned her to ask if her child would be safe on the Pretoria University’s campus.

“The other thing is what many people interpret as a far more subtle form of xenophobia, and that is the very, very difficult procedure for students in getting their student visas. Students have battles with this,” she said.

Schoeman said afterwards students sometimes waited for longer than a year for a visa after gaining acceptance into a university, which made it hard for them to plan ahead. This year alone, more than 100 students were still waiting for permits, she said.

Although this could be due to simple incompetence at embassies, it was being perceived as a deliberate way of trying to keep foreigners out.

Renewing permits 

By the time students got their permits, it was too late for them to register for their courses, and they in effect lost a year of studies. Renewing permits also involved travelling back to their countries of origin, and sometimes also took months, she said.

Schoeman said the number of international students and academics at a university was taken into consideration when ratings were done, and both of these were declining in South Africa. This was despite South Africa’s efforts to attract more skilled and qualified professionals to help grow the economy.

Government’s White Paper on International Migration, approved in March by Cabinet, mentions plans by government to allow international students to stay on in the country and work for a few years after their studies have been completed.