It is forecasted that some 5 million hopefuls will take the university entrance examination in Nigeria in 2024, though the overall capacity of the country’s 160 accredited institutions of higher education hardly adds up to 2 million. As such, over half of all applicants will fail to secure themselves a seat in a Nigerian university. This is particularly important as education is a major force for social mobility in the country. Many with academic aspirations have no choice but to try their luck elsewhere—which they often do.
Many Nigerian students are enamored with the idea of studying abroad. Any admission officer at a British, Australian, or Canadian university can attest that a large part of their workload is sorting out applications from Nigeria. The UK’s largest international bursary scheme, the Chevening Scholarship, is a case in point. In the 2019-2020 academic year, Nigeria had the highest number of applicants by far, coming ahead of other populous nations such as Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and China. Nigerian students have a strong presence in countries as far away as Russia, the UAE, Hungary, South Africa, Malaysia, and the US. However, the UK has traditionally been the destination of choice for most Nigerians, with 30% of all outbound students ending up in a British university.
In addition to their limited capacity, Nigerian institutions of higher education are perceived to offer a lower quality than their Western counterparts. The quality challenges are often linked to funding. Education accounts for some 6% of the government’s spending, which is lower than many fellow African nations and not even comparable to what is customary in the West.
Unsustainable growth is also adding to quality challenges. Around the time of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, there were only two institutions of higher education in the country, namely the Yaba College of Technology and the University of Ibadan. Although the number has ballooned to over 160 in 60 years, there has not been a commensurate development in the academic infrastructure, the training of the staff and faculty members, and the style of educational leadership.
Before putting forward any prognosis, however, it is important to make one thing clear: the presence of Nigerian students abroad is not a problem per se. If anything, it can lead to the formation of a well-educated and cosmopolitan workforce in Nigeria who have not only honed their skills abroad, but also possess high intercultural competence. However, the trend is indicative of underlying shortcomings in the local higher education system such as those elaborated on earlier. And, the mass flocking of students can take its toll on the economy in a number of ways.
Acquiring an international education is not exactly cheap. British universities, for example, charge international students around GBP23,000 (USD30,000) per annum for a master’s program—which is twice the tuition fee they expect from British citizens. The emerging middle class in Nigeria is increasingly regarding a Western degree as a desirable luxury, and there are always those prepared to pay for a luxurious commodity. Given the large number of outbound Nigerian students, international tuition fees can translate into high foreign exchange losses for the country.
Admittedly, there are some gifted students who win scholarships to fund their studies abroad or head to countries where higher education is free by virtue of law—for example, Germany and certain Nordic nations. However, gifted students tend to receive job offers during their time abroad and settle down permanently in the host country, contributing to Nigeria’s brain drain problem.
Although there are no magical quick fixes for the restoration of confidence in local institutions, raising the government’s spending in the education sector is the next best thing. As such, Nigeria should increase its public spending on education to 26%, as recommended by UNESCO.
At the same time, colleges and universities need to develop quality assurance mechanisms to weed out those who are weighing down the system and motivate those who can contribute to the successful rebranding of Nigeria’s higher education system.