Nigerians flock to the UK to benefit from student visa policy

The United Kingdom’s new policy on post-study work visas is proving to be popular among Nigerian students eager to permanently immigrate to that country. The UK now allows international students with a study visa to remain for at least two years after their graduation.

A UK student visa also allows family members to apply for immigration as dependants. Holders of a student visa, including full-time postgraduate scholars and some other special cases, are allowed to list a spouse, a partner or a child under 18 as dependants.

Between 2012 and 2017, the UK saw a 27% drop in international students from Nigeria. But, in 2019, the UK launched a new international education strategy.

In terms of this strategy, Nigeria was listed as one of five high-priority countries which were to be the focus of recruitment efforts, funding and new immigration routes. This strategy was revised in 2021.

In October 2020, the UK introduced a student visa with the aim of opening up its borders to more international students.

This new arrangement was seen as an improvement on the previous process (called Tier 4) as it represented a more streamlined way of sponsoring institutions and their students. It also created clearer pathways for students, the British Home Office believed.

Easier to immigrate

However, the new policy also created a golden opportunity for Nigerian students to immigrate to the UK with their families. For many, it offered an escape from Nigeria’s economic woes, including record high inflation, and a crippled education system.

Immigration reveals that Nigerians of all ages and employment status took advantage of this opportunity. One of them was 50-year-old Theresa Abraham, a senior civil servant who worked in a ministry in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.

Abraham left for the UK with her family in July 2022 to pursue a masters degree more than 20 years after earning her first degree. She told University World News she was primarily motivated by the prospect of relocating her family to the UK.

Bola Popoaje, a banker, tells a similar story. She relocated with her husband and two children to the UK in March 2022. To her, the free education at both primary and secondary school level means that she would be relieved of the burden of having to pay for her children’s education in private schools in Nigeria.

Exodus of Nigerians

There has been an exodus of Nigerians on student visas to the UK in the past two years.

In the 2020-21 academic year, 21,305 Nigerian students were enrolled at UK universities. This represents an almost 64% increase from the 2019-20 figure.

The figure for the 2022-23 academic year might be even higher, anecdotal evidence suggests. This is supported by British Home Office figures, which reveal that, as of June 2022, a total of 486,868 sponsored study visas were granted to international students for the year, a 71% increase compared to 2019 and the highest to date.

As of September 2021, only two other countries, China and India, were sending more students to the UK than Nigeria. Enrolments from Nigeria spiked from 12,820 in 2016-17 to 21,305 in 2020-21.

Among all nationalities, Nigerians represented the largest relative increase in sponsored study visa grants, which reached a record high of 65,929, a nearly 700% increase from 2019 and a 222.8% increase compared to the same period in 2021.

Nigeria is also said to be bringing the highest number of dependants to the UK.

According to Home Office figures, Nigerians accounted for 40% of all dependants who accompanied foreign students in the 12 months to June this year, despite Nigerian students making up just 7% of all foreign students in that period.

By comparison, the 114,837 Chinese students who came to the UK in 2021 brought only a total of 401 dependants with them.

Where are Nigerians getting the money?

Education in the UK is not cheap. According to the UK government, the financial requirement for applicants seeking a student visa can be up to US$14,000, excluding tuition. For a family of three, the costs of a complete relocation can be as high as US$40,000.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria currently has an unemployment rate of 33.3%, one of the highest in the world. The country’s youth unemployment currently stands at 42.5%.

Yet the Central Bank of Nigeria has reported that Nigerians spent US$609.5 million on foreign education between January and August 2022.

Some Nigerians told University World News they have resorted to selling their property, including real estate, businesses and personal belongings, to fund the tuition and eventual relocation of themselves and their families.

Tunde Thomas, a businessman, said that, since he was not planning to return to Nigeria, he had sold practically everything he had: “Our cars, our house, the furniture and all our assets, to raise the money needed to settle in the UK.”

Younger Nigerians often resort to loans from financial institutions to buy their tickets to greener pastures. One of them, Susan Peters, told University World News: “I took loans from friends and financial institutions. I intend to work to repay the loans.”

These students typically believe that the strength of the British pound against Nigeria’s naira will make it easier for them to repay their loans. “You know, 2,000 pounds sterling is almost NGN2million. I intend to work and convert my pounds to plenty of naira to pay off my debt,” said Peters.

Fleeing Nigerians consider foreign education a high-stake investment that will be worth their while. For them, countries like the UK provide stability, hope and job security.

Commenting on the development, the Programme Director of Reform Education Nigeria, Ayodamola Oluwatoyin, told University World News that most people see fleeing the country as a way of surviving.

“The truth is that most people see japa [a colloquial term meaning ‘to flee’ which has been synonymous with the current wave of emigration from Nigeria] as a means of survival. People just want to leave the country, and that is fine,” Oluwatoyin said.

“Most of the policies of the government itself are anti-youth; the government has made the economy difficult for youths to thrive. Most people are still going to leave, and to be honest, it is very sad.”

UK mulls clampdown on immigrants

In October, it was reported that migrants from Nigeria might face a clampdown under Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s plans to cut net migration.

It is also reported that Braverman and Nadhim Zahawi, at the time the minister for intergovernmental relations and equalities, are considering imposing a cap on the number of children that foreign students can bring with them, in a bid to cut unskilled migration.

Braverman resigned on 19 October for breaching ministerial rules, but on 26 October the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak controversially reappointed Braverman. Zahawi was shifted out of his role to become Conservative Party chairman and minister without portfolio.