From the field: An agent’s perspective on the Nigerian market for study abroad

As we highlighted earlier this year, Nigeria is a country to watch for anyone involved in international higher education. For starters, there are stats like these:

  • With roughly 169 million people and growing, Nigeria could be the world’s third most populous country by the end of the 21st century, according to UN projections;
  • Nigeria has the world’s tenth largest oil reserves;
  • Its GDP growth has been around 7% for the past few years, as compared to 2.8% in the US in 2012 and less than 1% in the UK.

Nigeria is definitely a country with potential, but also one with insufficient educational capacity to prepare its students to find work in Nigeria’s economy – and/or the global one – as we will explore later in this article.

Today we’re pleased to present an interview with Felix Adedayo of FAB Consulting. Mr Adedayo explains the reasons behind Nigerian students’ strong interest in study abroad, outlines the areas of study most in demand, and provides advice for foreign educators recruiting in Nigeria.

Why such intense demand for study abroad among Nigerian students?

In 2013, World Education News and Reviews (WENR) reported:

“After Morocco, Nigeria sends the most students overseas of any country on the African continent, according to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS). The UIS pegged the total number of Nigerian students abroad in 2010 at just under 39,000, although anecdotal evidence from education watchers in Nigeria would suggest that the number is considerably higher, with many students taking up places at private institutions in neighbouring countries, with Ghana reportedly being particularly attractive.”

In the video below, Mr Adedayo explains that a key reason Nigerians are so eager to leave the country to study is a lack of domestic capacity at Nigerian universities, despite the government’s efforts to expand the number of university places open to Nigerian students.

It is not surprising that the government is being hard-pressed to keep up with demand; according to WENR, “at the tertiary level alone, the number of students has grown from under 15,000 in 1970 to approximately 1.2 million today.”

Mr Adedayo notes that every year, there are about 1.5 million students looking for undergraduate placements alone – but there are only half a million places available. Given this disparity, Mr Adedayo says that every year, nearly one million Nigerian students look for admission to foreign higher education institutions.

Scholarships abound, especially for engineering-minded students

Scholarships to foreign universities are one way Nigerian students are able to receive the quality education they need. Mr Adedayo estimates that there are about 50,000 scholarships a year for Nigerian students wanting to study abroad, some at the federal level and some at the regional/state level – especially in oil-rich Nigerian states. Many of these scholarships are targeted to key labour market areas for which Nigeria needs talented graduates – engineering, for example, especially as it relates to chemical and petroleum technologies. Mr Adedayo notes that these same fields, as well as medicine and IT, are in general the most popular among Nigerian students looking for foreign degrees.

Australia seems to be one destination country benefiting from Nigerian students’ study abroad demand and study interests: the Financial Review reports that in 2014 nearly twice as many Nigerians are studying in Australia as last year, “many of them engineering students planning to work in their country’s oil industry.”

One Australian engineering university, University of New South Wales (UNSW), is keenly aware of the potential of Nigeria as a source country. Aleksandr Voninski, UNSW’s executive director, international, quipped: “It’s a zero to hero market.” He told the Financial Review that Nigeria is moving ahead of major sending markets such as Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan, and that next year, Nigeria will likely be among Australian universities’ top 10 source countries for international students.

Canada, the US, the UK, and other European countries are also taking a more active recruitment interest in Nigeria. AllAfrica reported last year on the ways in which Canada is trying to attract Nigerian students; the opportunity to work during and post-study completion is one of the advantages Canada promotes in its efforts.

In the UK, Iain Stewart, British Parliament member, estimates that 30,000 Nigerian students will be studying in various universities across the United Kingdom by 2015.

Overall, the most recent UNESCO data show the following countries, in order, as the destination markets with the most Nigerian students enrolled:

  • UK;
  • US;
  • Ghana;
  • Malaysia;
  • South Africa;
  • Canada.

Growing incomes another driver of students’ interest in study abroad

Nigeria’s booming growth rate has led to a sharp increase in the number of Nigerian families able to fund students’ study abroad ambitions. It is one of the reasons that, according to UIS, the number of Nigerian students at overseas institutions grew 71% between 2007 and 2010. Mr Adedayo guesses that about 95% of Nigerian students going abroad are able to self-fund their studies.

Demand is everywhere, and not just for English-language courses

Asked if Nigerian students are primarily interested in English-language instruction, Mr Adedayo responds that this trend is changing. He notes robust interest in European study destinations and growing interest in learning such languages as French, Spanish, and German.

He also strongly advises foreign schools wanting to recruit in Nigeria to look beyond the financial hub of Lagos. His agency has offices in Abuja, Ilorin, and Lagos and he lists off roughly ten Nigerian cities that would be worth having a presence in, and laughingly adds that it wouldn’t hurt to target cities in rich, oil-producing regions.

Much remains to be improved on the domestic front

As exciting as the demand for foreign university places among Nigerian students is in some ways, it is also a result of a domestic education system under stress. The poor quality of education available to most – not to mention how inaccessible education is to millions of Nigerians – is so problematic that Nigerian employers are having trouble finding qualified workers and this is a major factor in a huge youth unemployment rate. University World News reports that a British-funded study, Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development, on four African countries – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – found that the unemployment rate is as high as 23.1% for Nigerian graduates with first degrees.

The report noted:

“With the partial exception of South Africa, other African countries lack strong information on the labour market, on transitions from university to work, and on the link between disciplinary area and employment prospects.”

Beyond problems at the tertiary education level, there are also serious issues within Nigeria’s secondary school system. In 2013, only 44% of high-school-aged Nigerians were enrolled in school – 21 percentage points below the global average – which helps to explain stubbornly low levels of youth literacy in the country. Enrolment rates, particularly among girls, are low in the north of the country (where the notorious Boko Haram kidnappings have taken place).

Looking to the future

In a fascinating CNBC Africa interview, Milan Thomas, a Programme Associate at the UNESCO Results for Development Institute, says his organisation has determined that there are 10 million students “out of school” in Nigeria. Apart from humanitarian costs, Mr Thomas says this has a negative economic impact per year of 1% of GDP, or US$3 billion dollars. Because uneducated youth go on to earn significantly less as they enter the labour market, Mr Thomas says, they represent a huge source of untapped potential for the Nigerian economy. He notes that an exciting possibility for providing traditionally hard-to-reach out-of-school students are “innovative education solutions such as open distance learning or low-cost private school alternatives, which are rapidly spreading across Africa.”

For now, it is good news that an increasing number of Nigerians are taking advantage of scholarships and/or greater family incomes to obtain quality education in other countries to overcome the capacity and quality issues in their own education system. The next stage will be for Nigeria to strengthen its own education system, perhaps with the help of the “innovative” technologies and infrastructure Mr Thomas references in the CNBC interview. Toward that goal, CNBC also reported in March 2014 the promising development that the government has allotted over US$6 billion dollars to the education sector in the next four years.



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