NIGERIA: UK seeks partnerships with local universities

The National Universities Commission recently ordered the immediate closure of the offshore campuses of foreign universities on Nigerian soil, as they are prohibited under law. The move left hundreds of students stranded, and unable to move to 'legal' institutions that are full - and indeed only able to accommodate 30% of qualified school-leavers. Now the British Council is seeking partnerships between UK and Nigerian universities, with a view to creating wider opportunities for youngsters desperately seeking higher education.

The promotion of higher education in Nigeria and its potential economic and technological advantages have been a subject of discussion between officials of the British Council, the National Universities Commission (NUC) and Nigerian vice-chancellors. Talks have taken Nigeria's capital Abuja and in London, the UK capital.

Participants in the discussions are unanimous that Nigeria - sometimes described as "Africa's India" - needs to review its higher education policies to accommodate the skills needs of the a growing economy and the unmet demand of growing numbers of Nigerians for higher education in this knowledge-driven 21st century.

One of the reforms advocated by the British Council is the removal of a clause in Nigerian law that forbids institutional linkages between foreign and Nigerian universities and colleges, to enable collaboration, partnerships and student and academic exchanges between British and Nigerian universities.

In the words of Peter Upton, Director of the British Council in Nigeria: "If this investment in student mobility is matched by a commitment from British institutions to long-term partnerships with Nigerian universities, then this could unlock huge potential for educational and economic growth in this region."

Upton also stresses other benefits of collaboration: "Nigeria is the powerhouse of West Africa and one of the leading economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is already one of the top 10 sources of international students for British universities and colleges, sending over 12,000 students a year to join further and higher education courses in the UK." Britain would like to see more Nigerian students in UK universities, and visa versa.

This is the second time in Nigeria's post independence era that there has been a conscious attempt by British to influence Nigerian higher education policy. The content of the two interventions are linked.

During the 1970s, after the traumatic Nigerian Civil war, the Nigerian government sought the assistance of the University of Cardiff in Wales in establishing a sound universal basic education - an initiative that opened up access to free primary education for a generation of Nigerian children. Consequently, the Nigerian government accelerated expansion of the secondary and tertiary education sectors to accommodate primary school leavers.

Forty years after this successful British intervention, London is seeking a further intervention with a different focus. Different times, different demands.

The Nigerian government is demanding that collaboration and partnership be the cornerstone of links forged between British and Nigerian universities and colleges. According to the NUC's executive secretary, Professor Julius Okojie: "We welcome long term partnerships with the UK that help to strengthen Nigerian universities."

British and Nigerian representatives involved in discussing collaboration are unanimous that new policies and partnerships should respond to the enormous demand of Nigerians for higher education aimed at improving their living and working conditions.

Potential beneficiaries of collaboration believe that British universities and colleges could help build skills in fields that the Nigeria desperately needs, such as information and communication technologies (ICT).

While there is growing demand for management science, engineering and media graduates, NUC officials and Nigerian vice-chancellors have stressed that collaboration must, first and foremost, be in the area of ICT which they see as crucial to all economic operations.

A second priority is the establishment of vocational colleges that will produce graduates to complement those with university degrees. "Vocational skills as a complementary tool to university degrees will encourage graduates to gradually become employers of labour and not seekers of white collar jobs," declared Mahmod Shehu, an expert on small and medium scale enterprises .

According to reliable sources, proprietors of off-shore campuses in Nigeria that were recently declared illegal, have intensified their lobbying of both the executive and legislatives arms of government for repeal of the law forbidding the presences of off-shore campuses.

They are following with keen interest the discussions between British Council and the NUC on the possibility of institutional linkages between Nigerian and British universities - which, if successful, could enable their campuses to resume operations.