Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
20th Apr 2022

Alarm sounded over low approval rates for African students hoping to study in Canada  

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Nigeria is one of the most important student markets for international educators today
  • Despite the fact that Nigeria is one of Canada’s top senders of students, Nigerian students are much more likely to have their study permit applications refused than approved in Canada
  • Research points to systemic discrimination in the Canadian immigration system against Nigerian and other African students

For educators across most leading study destinations, Africa is a highly important region in which to recruit new international students. The continent’s surging population, youthful demographics, and persistent issues around higher education capacity in many African countries means that there is strong demand for overseas study from this part of the world.
Nigerian students are often particularly well suited to study in English-speaking destinations because they tend to have relatively higher English-language proficiency than many other international students. The youth advocacy platform Policy Shapers points out that Nigeria holds a top 30 global ranking and is #3 in Africa on the annual EF English Proficiency Index; that English is Nigeria’s official language; and that its youth are “a tech-savvy generation.”
Yet despite all this – and despite the fact that Nigeria is one of the top ten student markets for Canada – there is evidence that Nigerian and other African students are having their study permits refused by Canadian immigration officials at a notably high rate. In recent testimony to Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, Dr Gideon Christian, the president of the African Scholars Initiative (ASI-Canada), has presented a convincing, research-backed argument that African students are systematically being discriminated against.

Evidence points to discrimination

Dr Christian, who is originally from Nigeria and is now an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, was once an international student himself. In 2005, he was so impressed by a two-week summer programme delivered by Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University that he changed destinations from the US to Canada and took his master’s and then doctorate of law at the University of Ottawa. His ASI-Canada initiative is designed to mentor African graduate students who intend to come to Canada for their studies.
Dr Christian was so alarmed by low visa approval rates for African students in Canada that he prepared a “Study on Recruitment and Acceptance Rates of Foreign Students” report that is informed by several different research sources. He says, “The processing of immigration applications from Africa, especially the study permits, seems to be designed in such a way that people are actually denied of that opportunity I had.”

Nigerian approval rate lowest among top ten source countries

Included in Dr Christian’s submission to the Standing Committee is a report from the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants (CAPIC) based on a review of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data from 2015 to 2020. The report found that,

“Nigerians submit 4.19% of all study permits Canada receives, trailing only China and India. However, Nigeria’s approval rate is consistently below other top ten countries and is currently the lowest among this group.”

The CAPIC report found that of the top 10 sending countries (2015–20), the highest approval rates were for Japan, France, South Korea, and the US (high 70s to high 90s). The next-highest approval rates were for Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Iran (mid-to-high 40s and 34% for Iran). By contrast, only 12% of Nigerian students had their study permits approved from 2015 through 2020.

According to the CAPIC report,

“Nigeria is an outlier when compared with other top ten countries and this downward [visa approval] trend will impact the perception of Canada as an attractive destination for students … Nigerian students now see Canada as a country of last resort when planning secondary, post-secondary, and graduate studies, regardless of Canada’s good educational standing.”

The report provides real-life examples of discrimination against Nigerian students; for example, cases where a student’s visa application was denied on the basis of insufficient finances despite the student having ample financial resources. These cases, says the report, “undermine Canada’s core values of transparency and fairness because of the sharp disconnect between many application packages submitted by Nigerian students and the decisions and outcomes they receive.”
Among other recommendations, CAPIC recommends that IRCC officers receive “additional training … to reduce bias, if applicable.”
A separate Pollara Research study, based on a series of anti-racism focus groups conducted with IRCC employees in March 2021, found that “throughout all groups, the answer [to the question ‘is there racism at IRCC?’] is a firm and clear ‘yes.’”
Furthermore, Pollara’s research participants suggested that there is sufficient systemic racism within the organisation for this to impact the way immigration officers approach visa processing for Nigerian students. Specifically, surveyed IRCC employees said that “overt and subtle racism” that they have encountered is highly likely to introduce “racial biases in the application of IRCC’s programmes, policies and client services.”

Financial burden of applying higher for Nigerians

Canada’s visa system has expedited processing streams available to students from certain nationalities. Nigeria is not as yet part of the expanding Student Direct Stream (SDS) programme available to eligible students from 14 countries (including Morocco and Senegal). However, IRCC established something of a parallel programme in 2020 to enable faster study permit processing for Nigerian students: the Nigeria Student Express (NSE). While students from both the SDS and NSE must demonstrate that they have sufficient funds for their studies in Canada, the NSE’s requirement is considerably higher: Nigerian students must prove that they have had at least CDN$30,000 in their account for a minimum of six months. By contrast, students applying through the SDS must provide only a Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC) of CDN$10,000 and proof of tuition payment for the first year of studies.
ASI-Canada’s Dr Christian told Canada’s CBC News that to make matters worse, “When these applicants overcome this high burden of proof, most of the study visa applications from Nigeria are still refused … it doesn't make sense.”

A bad choice on a number of levels

Nigerian graduates of foreign institutions have a stellar reputation for contributing to their host countries after graduating. Policy Shapers notes,

“According to 2017 data from the Migration Policy Institute, Nigerians are the most highly educated of all groups in the US, with 61% holding at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 31% of the total foreign-born population and 32% of the US-born population. This means the number of Nigerians with a degree (61%) in the US is almost equivalent to a summation of the foreign-born population and the US-born population with a degree (63%). These courses are taught in the English language.

Similarly, Nigerians are also excelling in the UK across several sectors. As of 2021, there are more than 8,737 Nigerian-trained doctors strengthening the health ecosystem in the UK. These are legitimate tax-paying migrants who are contributing to the UK’s growth and development.”

Policy Shapers recommends that Nigeria be added to the Majority English Speaking Country List (MESC), which would allow Nigerians to apply to the UK without paying for English-language proficiency exams. They ask the Home Office to consider the recommendation in light of the intense global competition for talent, saying it would “go a long way in repositioning the UK as the choice destination for skilled and passionate migrants.”
Indeed, the competition for Nigerian students among leading destinations is acute this year. The UK hosted 64% more Nigerians in 2020/21 than in the previous year and between 2019 and 2021, visas granted to Nigerians jumped by a massive 236%. In the US, educators enrolled 12% more Nigerian students in 2021 than in 2020, making Nigeria the 11th largest market last year for US educators after Mexico.

While Nigeria is now in the top 10 sending markets for Canada according to the number of study permits issued in 2021, it won’t be lost on prospective Nigerian students that they currently face a high chance of having their study permit application refused by Canadian officials. As Dr Christian points out, “in a knowledge-driven world, there is global competition for expertise … so Canada loses out on expertise to ‘competitor’ countries due to how difficult it can be to acquire a study permit.”
Still, according to IDP research, interest in study in Canada among Nigerian students was higher than for the UK, US, and Australia in 2021, with affordability and post-graduation work opportunities driving student demand.

For additional background, please see:

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