‘Traumatising’ forex policy blamed for students’ woes

Some Nigerian students who had been accepted at universities in the United Kingdom have had their enrolments cancelled and had to return home because they were unable to pay their tuition fees on time due to a lingering foreign exchange (forex) crisis in the Nigerian banking system.

The affected students had reportedly requested forex from their banks in Nigeria and asked the banks to remit the money to their universities’ accounts, yet the funds were not processed in time.

Students at the University of Hull have had their enrolment cancelled, according to Pépèr-Hadé Shóyemí, the convener of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), UK chapter.

Micheal Obakhavbaye, the NANS UK president, said there have been similar reports of cancelled enrolments from Nigerian students at other universities and some of them have been contacted by the UK Visas and Immigration and told to return to Nigeria, adding that some have since left the UK.

“We have advised all our students to not live in the UK illegally and obey the authorities. Those who have managed to pay the enrolment fee but were late were also asked to go home. The students are literally stuck after spending so much to come to the UK,” he said.

The University of Hull did not provide an exact figure, although University World News requested these details. According to a statement to University World News, a “small number” of Nigerian students have been affected.

Spokesperson Stella Harkness said the school is aware of the complexities of making payments, including delays at banks, and that it has been working with student representatives to resolve the issue.

The university was able to permit late enrolment for some students, but for others this was not possible and these students have been offered deferral to 2023.

The statement reads: “We greatly value our Nigerian student population. Along with other UK universities, we have found some students from various countries were late for enrolment deadlines this year.

“For a large number of students, who had evidence of extenuating circumstances, we were able to permit late enrolment. Unfortunately, for a small number this was not possible.”

Nigerian banks blamed

Form A is an application form designed by the Central Bank of Nigeria to pay for service transactions (invisible trade) like foreign tuition, foreign training courses and foreign medical bills. The service allows students to pay for foreign tuition via the central bank at an official forex rate rather than using the black market with a wide margin.

The fact that the students were unable to have their Form A processed necessitated NANS UK to write a letter to Ambassador Sarafa Ishola, the Nigerian high commissioner to the UK, urging him to use his good offices to resolve the crisis.

In a NANS UK letter dated 16 November, co-signees Shóyemí and Obakhavbaye pleaded for an “urgent intervention” to avert the impending deportation of the affected students.

“The late enrolment is not the fault of the affected students, but [that of] Nigerian banks [that] refused to process their money and remit it to the school,” the letter read. “We seek your timely intervention in making our dreams of studying in the UK become realities.”

In solidarity, the NANS Nigeria chapter has appealed to the federal government to intervene in the crisis faced by the Nigerian students in the UK.

“We call on the CBN [Central Bank of Nigeria] to make available foreign exchange … to the Nigerian students in the diaspora for their comfort and well-being,” Akinteye Babatunde, the national vice president (external affairs) said in a statement.

However, said Obakhavbaye, there has not been any official response from the Nigerian authorities or the central bank, despite the public outcry and a visit to the Nigerian High Commission in London.

“Banks are just keeping students in the dark and are being nonchalant. I am aware that some schools are advising Nigerian students to pay their fees through other means and not Nigerian banks. This is literally encouraging them to patronise the black market,” he said.

Shortages of university places

With inadequate slots in Nigerian universities to keep pace with the number of admission seekers, coupled with incessant labour disruptions and rising security concerns, the demand for foreign education by Nigerians remains strong.

In an earlier article, University World News reported that Nigeria is one of the biggest markets for outbound students globally, based on the Nigeria Market Sentiments and Study Motivations Report 2022.

Every year, thousands of Nigerian students flock to countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Turkey, Finland, Cyprus, Ghana, Ireland and Ukraine, until the Russian invasion of the latter.

In the first eight months of this year alone, Nigerians were said to have spent over US$609 million on foreign education, local newspaper Punch reported, quoting data from the CBN.

However, the unending demand for foreign exchange by Nigerian students, as well as other persons such as importers and those seeking medical care abroad, has always been met with scarcity, sometimes prompting the apex bank to cut the forex supply.

According to African Liberty, a Nigerian think tank and advocacy platform, the central bank’s heavy hand with respect to the forex supply is informed in part by the government's interest in propping up the value of the naira, the local currency – towards controlling inflation, interest rates and exchange rates.

Unfortunately, students studying abroad face the consequences of the scarcity or intentional cut in forex supply by the CBN, the controller of the country’s forex policy.

In many cases, if international students do not pay their fees on time, they are at risk of having their student status frozen or withdrawn. Should this happen, their visas might be revoked because they will no longer be considered a student in a foreign university.

Obakhavbaye said it was high time Nigeria's central bank stopped “traumatising” students with its forex policy.

“We won’t be in this mess if Nigerians, like many other students from various countries, are able to truly be global citizens and enjoy seamless access to foreign currencies to pay their fees from their naira bank accounts,” he said.

Call to review forex policy

Obianuju Akpo-Edewor, the general manager of Michael and Ralph Consult, an overseas education service firm based in Lagos, said the solution to the students’ crisis is for the Nigerian government to review its forex policy immediately.

“Before now, if you submitted an application for Form A, your request could be approved within a month. But since September 2021, it started taking at least three months.

“Now, parents who can afford it make direct payments to their children’s UK schools, and that is outrageous because it means they would buy forex at the black market rate,” Akpo-Edewor told University World News.

“This means if you were buying, let’s say, dollars, using Form A at the bank, the official rate is about NGN420, but if you were buying at the black market, the rate is around NGN800, which is double the official rate. Of course, a lot of students can’t afford it.”

Akpo-Edewor said although there are a number of international payment platforms that students can use to pay their tuition, the platforms also offer forex at the black market rate.

She said: “The solution to these problems is that the government should review its forex policy and lift all the restrictions on international payments, including the ones on naira debit cards.

“Did you know that many Nigerians were travelling to Ghana to open bank accounts, from where they were paying their tuition fees? But the Ghanaian government found out and put a stop to it in October.

“Then they came up with the policy that you need to hold a Ghanaian passport to open a bank account there. It’s really unfortunate for Nigerians because those who succeeded could fund their accounts and within two to three days the Ghanaian banks would send the money to the school.”

Akpo-Edewor noted that Nigerian students in the US, Canada and other countries are facing similar issues. “But I think these countries are a bit flexible. In UK schools, you don't default,” she said.