Bid to end ‘discriminatory’ English test starts to pay off

A campaign aimed at persuading foreign universities to end their demand that Nigerian students and others from English-speaking African countries sit English proficiency tests as part of admission requirements has started to pay off.

“At the last count, more than 14 universities in Canada, the United States and Australia have removed the discriminatory English proficiency test barrier for Nigerians and English-speaking Africans,” Ebenezar Wikina, the founder of Policy Shapers, a Nigerian youth-led advocacy platform that started the campaign, told University World News.

The campaign, dubbed #ReformIELTS, was born out of the anger and frustration experienced by many Nigerian students whose admissions to foreign universities were forfeited after they were unable to afford the costs of English proficiency tests.

The campaign is tagged #ReformIELTS because the International English Language Testing System or IELTS is said to be the most widely applicable English test for students seeking admission to universities in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

However, the campaign also targets foreign universities that require other tests such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Pearson Test of English (PTE) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Discriminatory practice

Policy Shapers launched the #ReformIELTS campaign in October 2021 against what it labelled the “discriminatory practice” of foreign universities that demand English proficiency proof from Nigerians.

For Wikina, a 2021 Mandela Washington Fellow, and other Nigerians who have joined the campaign, the argument is that, as a former colony of England, Nigeria’s lingua franca is English. It is the language of instruction from primary to tertiary levels of education in Nigeria.

“I applied for a fellowship that promotes social and economic equity at the London School of Economics [LSE] in 2021 and, despite having an excellent resume and over 12 years of experience working locally and internationally, I was still asked to submit an IELTS or TOEFL result just because I am from Nigeria,” said Wikina.

“I took it up with the LSE and had to forfeit the application … They cannot claim to be fighting for social equity but ask me to pay about US$200 (then NGN83,000) to take an English proficiency exam, whereas, someone from Jamaica, Guyana, Malta or New Zealand applying for the same programme wouldn’t have to take the test, even if they had lesser experience or qualifications than I do. It just doesn’t make any sense!”

In the aftermath of that experience, Policy Shapers launched a petition titled ‘Stop asking Nigerians to take IELTS’ on, a global non-profit petition website headquartered in California, USA.

As of 12 November, about 80,000 people had signed the petition.

A money-spinner

Many Nigerians who signed the petition have one thought in common: the English test is “exploitative” and a money-spinning venture for the UK and not necessarily a test of English proficiency.

In a report in January 2022, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, a Nigerian investigative online news agency, estimated that, between 2016 and 2021, the UK government generated more than US$771 million from prospective Nigerian students and visa applicants who took the IELTS exam.

For context, the IELTS exam costs between NGN83,000 (just under US$200) and NGN89,000 and expires after two years, whereas the French language proficiency test, the DELF/DALF examination, which costs as little as NGN16,000 (about US$37) for Nigerians, is valid for life. Thus, the #ReformIELTS campaigners are asking why they need to prove they can speak and write in English every two years.

What’s more, Nigeria’s English proficiency band is ranked the third-highest in Africa, after South Africa and Kenya, and 29th in the world, according to the 2021 EF English Proficiency Index.

Based on the EF ranking, Nigeria’s level of English proficiency is higher than some of the countries exempted by the UK Home Office.

With all these arguments, Policy Shapers wrote a petition to the then UK home secretary Priti Patel, asking the UK government to include Nigeria in the Majority English Speaking Country, or MESC, list.

The UK government, however, rejected the application, saying it did not have enough evidence to claim that at least 51% of Nigeria’s population speaks English as a first language.

Wikina said Policy Shapers is still engaging the UK Home Office on the matter as well as Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for diplomatic support.

He added that Policy Shapers has been working behind the scenes engaging institutions like the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Nursing and Midwifery Council in the UK, to waive English tests for Nigerians.

Furthermore, Wikina said Policy Shapers and other campaigners are now writing to individual foreign universities, urging them to end their requirement of proof of English proficiency from Nigerian students.

Progress on some fronts

One of the frontline campaigners, Dr Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi, has single-handedly written protest letters to over 100 universities so far in Canada, the US and other countries.

Igbalajobi, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia, Canada, said he sees the request for the English test from applicants from English-speaking countries as “unnecessary and exploitative”.

Interestingly, the efforts have started paying off, with some universities in Canada and the US waiving the English test for applicants from English-speaking African countries.

“It all started with the prestigious University of Alberta waiving the test for Nigerians and, afterwards, six other universities [including Cornell University, US] changed their policies and waived the test for applicants from English-speaking African countries,” Igbalajobi told University World News.

According to Igbalajobi, “insincerity on the part of the UK Home Office led to the continuous non-recognition of Nigeria as an English-speaking country. More so, I see it from the angle of revenue generation rather than English proficiency, itself. You do not deny your former colony.”

Igbalajobi said he and other campaigners will not relent in engaging the UK government and others while imploring the Nigerian government and its representatives in the UK and other countries to keep the dialogue open.

The universities that have removed English proficiency requirements are the universities of Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Lethbridge and Athabasca University in Canada; Clemson, George Mason, DePaul, Nexford and Cornell universities as well as the universities of Oregon, Texas at Austin, Minnesota, New Orleans, Alabama and Wisconsin-Madison in the US.