NIGERIA: UK to set up cross-border campuses

After months of negotiations, the Nigerian government has agreed to allow British universities to establish campuses within selected local higher education institutions. The aim is to enable students to obtain British degrees without leaving the country and to open higher education opportunities for young people who qualify for university but are unable to access the limited places in Nigeria's 93 public and private universities.

Parents welcomed the initiative.

The inability of Nigerian universities to meet student demand is the main reason why the government - which has clamped down on cross-border higher education in recent years - has accepted the entry of British universities. Recent statistics released by the National University Commission, the regulatory body in charge of tertiary institutions, indicate the total carrying capacity of Nigerian universities is 170,000 new students a year.

But for the past five years more than a million candidates have sat the university entrance examination run by the statutory Joint Admission Matriculation Board. So fewer than one in five have gained admission while the higher education hopes of the rest have been frustrated.

Many qualified students unable to attend Nigerian or foreign universities have ended up in the unrecognised and unaccredited offshore campuses of British and American universities but these were recently closed by the university commission.

The clampdown did not solve the problem. Rather, it complicated matters because higher education is both a culture and a lucrative industry. Every Nigerian family dreams of producing at least one graduate and it became imperative for the government to open access to more students - even if it meant entering a partnership with British universities.

Finance is another compelling reason for such a partnership. Statistics published by the Nigerian weekly tabloid, Business World show that almost 11,000 Nigerian students were admitted to British universities last year - out of 27,500 who applied for student visas, according to Jason Ivory, head of the visa section at the British Embassy in Nigeria.

More than 30,000 Nigerians are studying in the UK, making Nigeria the fourth largest source country for international students in the UK outside the European Union. Nigerian students spend millions of pounds a year on British higher education.

These realities provided a powerful incentive for the British and Nigerian authorities to seek ways of providing more opportunities for students at home. A pilot scheme agreed between the two countries has several facets: it allows, for the first time, British universities to establish branch campuses within selected Nigerian universities so the British can use open and distance learning to teach students who cannot go to the UK.

The partnership will save families money and is likely to reduce the huge amount of foreign exchange that leaves Nigeria each year to cover the fees and living costs of students in Britain. It will also help lessen the rush on UK student visas.

Another aspect involves British universities offering technical and managerial assistance to Nigerian universities to help transform them into 21st century institutions able to produce graduates useful to the Nigerian economy. This includes equipping students with computer skills which graduates currently sorely lack.

University lecturers have reacted to the cross-border scheme, arguing that an acute shortage of academic staff is one of the major problems confronting their institutions. Postgraduate programmes to train future academic staff are not adequately equipped and, as more universities are established, there are not enough teachers.

Chuwkuma Ijeh, a postgraduate student at the University of Ibadan, said the cross-border higher education project should focus on providing infrastructure to train students needed to staff universities. "In fact, the project should create what I call 'teachers without borders' whose role is to lecture postgraduate students in various Nigerian universities," said Ijeh.

This is a good news for young Nigerians but will our universities have open arms and mind to this initiative?

Ismail Balogun