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Nigerians studying abroad: A resource drain or gain?

October 12, 2009

Nigeria’s export of cocoa may not be on the increase but her export of students sure is. According to a source, between 2004 and 2007, 245 Nigerians, among numerous others, gained admission into 47 higher education institutions in the UK.

Last year, two Nigerian friends, soon-to-be MBA graduates of London Business School, were blithely looking forward to working with Boston Consulting Group and Credit Suisse, an investment bank. With an internationally acclaimed MBA (number one on FT 2008 rankings) under their belt and thousands of pounds of debt, such tasty offers are undeniably irresistible. Then came recession, retrenchments and relocation (it isn’t confirmed if either of my friends was affected).

Nonetheless, Nigerians seeking a second degree abroad, are undeterred, especially by the cost. A former colleague is shelling out approximately £11,000 for a 16-month Masters degree in the UK. Almost quadruple the £3,145 (plus subsidised loans and bursary) paid by UK and EU nationals. According to a 2006 report by Australian Education International, total cost: tuition, living cost costs and other expenses, for a UK Masters degree rounds up to a hefty $53,257. A new found market for Nigerian banks; supplemented by personal savings or family.

Furthermore, limited options of comparable quality at home; instruction in English; friends or family living abroad (this helps offset some of the living cost) and possibilities of sealing a job with an international company; increased chances of emigrating, make for a happy convenience for all involved: students, placement organisations and the universities.

Though not all get admitted into champion league UK schools eg, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, they are content with making the premier league eg, Sheffield, Glamorgan, Cardiff, Robert Gordon, and Hertfordshire. For a moment one may think these were Nigerians trading tackles in football. Nigerian football and universities share some similarities. Both are underfunded, uncompetitive and nary near international standards. Thus our footballers and students develop itchy feet and travel abroad in pursuit of the Golden Fleece.

Consequently, Nigeria bears the brunt – up until now. The brain drain may become a gain. Anecdotal evidence from the previous two years has it that a host of Nigerians are being lured back home. Newly capitalised banks (and other financial services companies), international oil majors and telecommunications companies are dangling offers that match, sometimes surpass, those abroad – the recession looming in developed countries is certainly now a clincher.

Not to mention multinational companies (MNCs) in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry. A burgeoning Nigerian middle class, thanks to the upswing in the economy, has spurred the likes of Unilever and Procter & Gamble to expand.

Competition for talented employees ensues, hence raising salary expectations. For the MNCs in particular, there’s a huge demand for local talent attuned to doing business in emerging economies such as Nigeria. A 2008 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU): People for growth, captures the mood of MNC executives in emerging markets “Bridging the talent in emerging markets is only going to get tougher.”

So how will supply douse demand? A sneak preview of what these companies demand, at least for the next three years, should help. In summary, ability to deal with and manage change, thinking strategically, communication and interpersonal skills, and project management skills are the most wanted, and difficult to find.

Unfortunately, not all our graduates are churned out prepared. An in-house survey, by an international oil company, on the quality of new graduate hires hints that much. The survey revealed gaps in primary job skills (ie, currency of knowledge, knowledge depth and practical skills, exposure to, and sometimes awareness of, modern techniques and methods of practicing their profession) and communication skills ie, written and spoken English. Shocking, sobering and saddening.

What needs to be done? Keep lining the pockets of the UK, her universities and tax system, with hard to find foreign exchange? No. Wipe the tears to see the way. As Nigerians migrate from Wall Street and the City to Broad Street, the immediate benefit is a stopgap to talent shortage. Assuming the skills acquired in foreign schools are applicable here or at least those repatriating can quickly adjust to Nigeria’s business peculiarities. Ostensibly, in terms of courses studied, there’s ample to sample. A flurry of business related degrees abounds.

Of the 245 that gained admission between 2004 and 2007, 39 percent enrolled in management courses (Masters in human resource management and international management were the hottest), 25 percent signed up to study economics and finance, and 20 percent got admitted for an MBA.

Yet there are doubts about the quality of UK degrees. One such worry is that the courses are hurried. In the US, inventors of the MBA, it takes 18 months – 24 months to conclude a full time programme. UK degrees can be done in one year. A bargain for the university while shortchanging the student, potential employers and exporting country?

More tellingly is the recent The Times Higher Education global ranking of universities. Four UK universities: Cambridge (3rd), Oxford (4th), Imperial College (6th), and University College London (7th) made top ten of the top 200 universities in the world. Manchester, Bristol and Warwick – popular destinations for Nigerians, were 29th, 32nd and 89th respectively. High levels of investment have been attributed to the American dominance of the league. Little wonder America universities keep spewing Nobel laureates.

Growing concerns about why a Nigerian university cannot make the list is, yes, food for thought, but more in need of reform and adequate funding. We need to get our act together.

Not only are we losing out in the international talent market (nothing wrong with that, as value is always trailed by money), our advantage as an English speaking country is unexploited. While we swoon over Ghana’s exemplary elections conduct, throngs of Nigerian students are streaming into the country to study for their first degrees. Phooey!

The reality of the 21st century is that innovation, high technology and intellectual capital rule. Mineral wealth will fuel our economic growth to a certain degree; however we have to start developing the human capital that will tinker with other innumerable resources to stimulate the economy. This is critical for maintaining and enlarging the non-oil sector’s increasing share of the economic cake. Or we wait till we have guzzled all our resource endowments.

Fortunately there are several alternatives. Nigeria can either choose the China or Taiwan way. Chinese universities are being flooded with money, with the hope of attracting Chinese with PhDs back home, to reinforce the brain power of its ivory towers. Taiwan, on the other hand, encourages its students to study abroad, with grants and scholarships as well. This is geared at spicing the palates of its university professors with myriads of research interests.

Both options could also be combined. Also, the government could supplement national, state and private universities fees with research grants based on criteria such as grade point averages of students, research output etc – regularly raising the bar with international standards as a benchmark.

Consequently, a competitive market for government supplement will not only ensure universities charge appropriate fees, but also deliver value for money in terms of teaching, research and accommodation. Students who opt for a university education will thus require total or partial alternative funding. This is where the banks come into the picture. Nigerians are in the words of Obama: “fired up and ready to go”, when it comes to earning a degree. Loans with benign payment terms (no hidden charges please) are bound to redound, positively, on bank balance sheets and the economy.

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