Students abroad who bolt face repatriation or repayment

More than 100 postgraduate students who failed to return to Nigeria after completing their studies could be repatriated or forced to pay back government scholarships. Moreover, the future of the scholarship programme hangs in the balance due to alleged abuse.

The Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), a federal agency tasked with improving the global competitiveness of Nigeria’s public tertiary institutions, gulps billions of Nigerian naira annually. Sonny Echono, the executive secretary, said it might be suspended after it seems it is being abused by some beneficiaries. At least 137 scholars failed to return to Nigeria, denying their home institutions the benefit of their newly acquired knowledge.

At least 137 scholars at 40 institutions sponsored by the Nigerian government to pursue higher education abroad refuse to return home after their studies, Sonny Echono, the executive secretary of the TETFund, confirmed.

“We may have to take that hard stance because the numbers are alarming,” Echono said in a Channels Television report on 19 July 2023.

The TETFund official sought lawmakers’ support to either repatriate the absconded scholars or force them to pay back whatever amount the Nigerian government spent on their studies.

Economic reform hit students hard

University World News reported on 8 August 2023 that Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu’s rush to implement economic reforms is impacting negatively on Nigerians studying abroad. According to the report, “Some students say they may not be able to continue their international education and the government’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund, or TETFUND, is considering local alternatives to foreign scholarships.”

The president’s changes to the foreign exchange markets resulted in the devaluation of the naira, which means Nigerian students abroad pay more to access forex to pay for their tuition.

The scholarships are offered to academic staff of public higher institutions to enable them to undergo academic training in Nigeria or overseas. Beneficiaries can either study towards a masters or a PhD, the TETFund states on its website. While sponsorship for PhD programmes cannot exceed four years, all masters programmes should not exceed two years if in Nigeria, and one year if in Europe.

However, students who pursue masters programmes in North America, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates could spend up to two years to obtain the qualification. TETFund says the scholarship aims to expose academic staff at public higher institutions to other intellectual standards and cultures within and outside the Nigerian system.

Measures to curb abuse needed

About 35,000 scholars have benefited from the scholarship since the introduction of the TETFund Scholarship for Academic Staff Intervention was introduced in 2008, Punch reported on 17 July 2022. According to the latest (2021) TETFund annual report that was released in March 2023, 664 masters students and 1,183 PhD students benefited. The report does not provide a breakdown of local and foreign placements. The 2020 report indicated that the TETFund sponsored 539 scholars abroad and 2,027 locally.

Meanwhile, experts say if certain measures are not taken, the situation may repeat itself in the future.

Gbenga Adewale, a professor of mathematics at the University of Ibadan, told University World News that, while he does not justify the absconding scholars’ actions, he has observed over time that many Nigerian scholars lose the zeal to work again after their return from foreign institutions.

“First, the TETFund did not do its proper homework before giving some scholars the opportunity to study abroad. However, there are many reasons pushing some of these scholars not to return to Nigeria, and this is what I have noticed: Many times, when our colleagues travel abroad, they are exposed to world-class facilities and, when they return, the zeal to work here is no longer there because the facilities are not available. They become redundant and their new knowledge is wasted,” Adewale said.

“If we had world-class facilities here and the teaching environment is appealing, I think they would be eager to return home,” he said.

Another factor Adewale thinks could contribute is that, often in Nigeria, researchers’ work does not get any recognition from the government, even when the research is timely and important.

Research not appreciated

“Many times, when our researchers do work here and present their findings, the government seems not to be interested, and this discourages many scholars. But overseas, scholars’ work often gets recognition because they value research over there. Hence, the motivation to return to Nigeria after a scholar has travelled overseas may not be there. A scholar may ask themselves: ‘If I return to Nigeria, of what use will it be?’ ” he said.

Additionally, Adewale stressed that the poor standard of living and remuneration in Nigeria could have led to scholars bolting after completing their studies. He said the government should investigate these issues. “Let the TETFund suspend the programme and review it, or else, our younger colleagues will continue to get the scholarship and not return if the working conditions do not improve.”

Echono recognises that some scholars might have exploited the scholarship to seek greener pastures abroad. However, he said, they should have done so on their own terms. He said the agency may have to connect with Nigerian embassies in the countries where the absconders are to have them declared fugitives, especially if they refuse to refund the money.

“We are not against people looking for greener pastures, but they should do so on their own, not through our scholarship,” he said.

Usually, each scholar provides a guarantor living in Nigeria in case a situation like this occurs, but the TETFund said that, in most instances, the guarantors have suffered hardship, hence it is difficult to recoup the money.

Suspension not advised

Despite the situation, Ademola Adeleke, a mathematics professor at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, is against suspending the scholarship programme because it may derail the purpose of the initiative.

“There are people who took advantage of the opportunity and are now using the knowledge to make an impact in many of our institutions,” he said.

Adeleke advised the TETFund to install more stringent measures before scholars are granted foreign study opportunities to prevent future abuse.

“Ordinarily, the qualification process should be seamless, but seeing how some students have abused the opportunity, the process should get tougher so that only people who really need the opportunities receive scholarships. The background of guarantors of future beneficiaries should be properly checked – they should be people who have the wherewithal to refund TETFund’s investment if a scholar absconds,” he said.

Omolade Akinsanya, a professor of educational management at the Tai Solarin University of Education located in Ogun State, said the government must invest heavily in Nigerian public tertiary education infrastructure to prevent scholars from seeking greener pastures abroad.