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Should Nigerian students be exempt from English proficiency testing?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There is increasing pressure on governments and institutions in the UK and Canada to drop the requirement for Nigerian students to take English-language tests such as the IELTS or TOEFL to prove their English proficiency
  • EF ranks Nigeria #29 on its English Proficiency list, higher than France, Spain, or Italy (and many other countries)
  • So far, governments aren’t budging, but some institutions are

Imagine that you are a student whose instruction for most of your primary and secondary career was in English, that you speak English every day, and that you may even be gifted in English. Now imagine that you must take an English proficiency test (e.g., the IELTS, or TOEFL) as a requirement to get into a college or university in Canada, the UK, or US – simply because of where you lived in the world.

This is the situation that Nigerian students – as well as students in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia – have found themselves in for years, and they are pushing back against a practice increasingly regarded as discriminatory.

Sapping the desire to study abroad

In Canada, the Globe and Mail newspaper interviewed Enike Samuel, a 27-year-old who, proficient in English, decided to apply to the University of Alberta. He soon learned that he would have to take an English proficiency test to be considered for admission. Offended, he checked with universities in another Canadian province, Ontario, and found that they also required the test. He chose not to apply to the University of Alberta or the others he had considered in Ontario, telling the Globe, “I just lost the motivation to continue applying, because it didn’t make any sense to me.”

The University of Alberta changed its policy in May (Mr Samuel is now again considering applying), in response to student complaints and advocacy on the part of Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, a researcher at the University of British Columbia. Advocates have also stretched beyond the institutional level and convinced the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in Canada’s House of Commons to recommend that the Canadian government to stop requiring Nigerian students to take English tests as part of their applications.

As the Globe points out, tests such as the IELTS cost between CDN$250 and CDN$300, where the monthly minimum wage in Nigeria is just over CDN$90.

Cost a concern

In the UK, Nigerians are also protesting English-proficiency requirements. Some are demanding that the IELTS be scrapped entirely for Nigerians, while others want a reduction in the cost of the test and an increase in the validity period of the test, which currently is only two years.

Nigerian students point out that peers in other countries – including Barbados, Guyana, the Bahamas, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, and Jamaica – are exempt from English-proficiency testing in the UK. Nigerian youth-advocacy platform Policy Shapers has initiated an online petition on Change.org pointing out how odd and unfair it is that none of over 20 anglophone African countries are on the UK’s Majority English Speaking Country List (MESC). Students from countries on the MESC list are exempted from having to take the test. Policy Shapers has asked the Home Office to consider expanding the list 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.”

So far, the UK government has resisted the recommendation, saying that it has no proof that a majority of Nigerians are proficient in English.

Education First’s (EF) English Proficiency Index, meanwhile, lists Nigeria 29th – putting Nigeria in the “high proficiency category.”

EF notes in its executive summary, however, that gauging English proficiency in Africa is in some ways difficult: “The picture that emerges is of a highly diverse range of English skills, the most diverse of any region, in fact, when measuring the gap between high and low scorers.”

More decisions will be made at the institutional level

Though governments in Canada, the US, and UK are apparently not yet ready to consider a broader exemption of Nigerian students from English-language testing, we can anticipate more flexibility from individual institutions. Nigeria is a crucial recruitment market, and Nigerian students are known for their strong motivation and desire to succeed.

In the US, research shows that Nigerians are the most successful of any migratory group. In 2017, 61% of Nigerians in the US held at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 31% of the overall foreign-born sample and 32% of the US-born population.

Nigerians are also disproportionately accomplished in the UK. Speaking with the Financial Times in 2020, Emeka Okaro, daughter of Nigerian parents and an obstetrician and lead clinician at St Bartholomew’s and Royal London Hospital said,

“Education is an essential part of our culture. [When] I went to school, we were encouraged to excel. Parents expected it of us.”

The Financial Times notes that Nigerians are motivated by lack of opportunity at home and highly intent on success in their new country. This corresponds closely with foreign educators’ desire to enrol talented students.

In tandem with growing awareness in Nigeria that some institutions are responding to pressure to drop English-language testing, there is significant online search activity by students aimed at identifying institutions that won’t make them take a test. If you Google “Which institutions don’t require Nigerians to take IELTS” – you’ll see that the topic is most certainly on the radar of prospective Nigerian students.

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